Concern over alleged toxic waste deal with Kiev

Illustrative photo: Keith Beard, stock.XCHNG

As the Czech government debates a controversial eco-tender on the clean-up of environmental pollution caused under the communist regime, the daily Právo has published a surprising story. Over 100 barrels of the toxic substance beryllium are reportedly being loaded on trucks in Kiev, Ukraine to be transported to a secret destination in the Czech Republic.

Beryllium, photo: Tomihahndorf, CC 2.0 licence
Under the communist regime factories often stored toxic waste as circumstances allowed, until it could be transported to a toxic storage site. For years a factory producing equipment for Russian nuclear submarines in Kiev, Ukraine, did what many other large suppliers in Russia’s satellite states did –they sent the toxic waste to Russia to be buried at one of the toxic storage facilities set up without question. In this case it was a storage facility near the city of Leningrad. However after 1978 Russia stopped taking the toxic waste and the factory started storing it in its own backyard –out in the open –in sealed containers. The factory is long closed but for the past twenty years the Kiev administration has been looking for a way to get rid of the pile of beryllium which local media describe as a ticking time bomb.

Now the Kiev town hall says it has found a solution. It reportedly commissioned the Israeli firm SIGroup Consort Ltd to find a means of getting rid of the waste and claims that a contract was signed with an entity in the Czech Republic which had agreed to take over the waste for the equivalent of 29 million crowns. According to the local media the waste is ready for transport to an unknown destination in the Czech Republic and should set off in a number of days. The route and destination are being kept under wraps for security reasons.

Kevin Brigden, a scientist with Greenpeace, explains what beryllium is.

Kevin Brigden, photo: Greenpeace
“Beryllium is a metal and it is often used in alloys with other metals. The biggest concern about beryllium is where it is processed or where materials containing beryllium are processed –particularly where this generates fumes or dust –so grinding-type processes or high temperature processes. Where people are exposed to such dust or fumes –even at very low levels and short periods of time – this can lead to what is known as beryllium sensitization and some people then develop a disease known as chronic beryllium disease. This particularly affects the lungs and at present there is no known cure or treatment for this disease. “

What if is it is stored in sealed containers and buried – how big is the danger then?

“If the material is kept contained then there is going to be very little chance of exposure of people to this compound. However, if one does not know how well it is contained and where it is going to be stored then obviously that needs to be clarified. And in addition to that also what other materials may be present within the waste –unless it is pure beryllium – presumably there are other compounds potentially present as well with their own potential for health risks or risks to the environment.”

Illustrative photo: Keith Beard, stock.XCHNG
The story has evoked serious concern in the Czech Republic where the Environment Ministry says it knows nothing about the planned transport. Efforts to contact the respective Israeli firm have also proved unsuccessful, with the only source of information regarding the planned transfer being the Kiev authorities and the Ukrainian media which have not released any further details. Martin Bursík, a former environment minister, says it is now up to the Czech authorities to act.

“Based on the facts published by the media today this is a 100 percent illegal activity and it is now up to the Environment Ministry, the Inspection Office and also the police to follow this import and when they reach and cross the border to check the contents and send them back with it –because it is illegal.”

You yourself served as environment minister for a time – were there any attempts to smuggle toxic substances past the authorities, to this country for storage or other purposes?

Martin Bursík
“Yes, I have to say that unfortunately - yes. Some companies in Germany and Austria discovered it was advantageous to export their waste to a country where the price for getting rid of it was lower for them than to process it according to the rules of their own country. Those were illegal imports where it was very hard to find the Czech company responsible for processing the waste.”

The Czech Environment Ministry on Tuesday confirmed that it was looking into the matter. The only thing which appears certain at this point is that Ukraine, like many other post-communists states, is looking for ways to unload dangerous toxic waste and has reportedly earmarked 176 million hryvnias – the equivalent of 396 million crowns - to deal with 22 toxic waste storage sites in the country.