Europe's Post-Soviet Greening: Gains and Failures

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Not far away, Evgen Kolishevsky of the Voice of Nature, a local environmental group, takes a reporter to the foot a mountainous slag heap, below which runs the Konoplyanka river that feeds into the Dnieper. "This is the waste from chemical enterprises and of processing and enrichment of uranium," he said.

"Dniprodzerzhynsk is one of the most contaminated cities in Europe," he said, shaking his head.

As world attention increasingly focuses on climate change, a visit to Ukraine is a jolting reminder that the old environmental problems of air pollution, dirty water and untreated waste still exact a devastating toll.

The Ukrainian steppe, once the industrial engine for the Soviet empire, reveals a skyline of artificial landmarks: a picket fence of smokestacks and huge slag heaps looking like flat-topped volcanic hills in the distance.

At the end of its journey, the Dnieper enters the only part of the Black Sea that suffers from "anthropogenic hypoxia," a chronic lack of oxygen caused by man-made pollution afflicting 50,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles) of water — strangling fish and plant life.

Irina Schevchenko, a journalist and director of the local voluntary organization Vita, stands at the foot of one mountain of chemical ash, taller than any building in the eastern town of Gorlovka. In the 1970s, the state-owned chemical plant began dumping its waste at the edge of a nature reserve. Now, burned out tree stumps and a layer of steel-gray mud separate the dump from the woods.

In summer, smoke from chemical evaporation rises from the mound, said Schevchenko. "The wind takes it to the fields, to the houses of the people. When it rains ... it goes into these streams and gets into the underground currents. As a result, the concentration of chemicals in the soil and in the air of Gorlovka is twice as high as normal."

Victor Lyapin, a local health official, acknowledges the damaging effects.

"The first mistake of the Soviet Union," he said, "was to put factories and people shoulder to shoulder."

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