Hazardous impunity

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Aug. 6, 2012, 12:21 p.m. | Op-ed — by Halya Coynash

Environmentalist Volodymyr Honcharenko died on Aug. 3 of injuries suffered in a beating on Aug. 1. The attack came four days after he warned of environmental hazardous surrounding the transport of 180 tons of chemically contaminated and radioactive scrap metal.
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Halya Coynash

Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.

 A well-known environmentalist, Volodymyr Honcharenko, has died following a brutal and clearly targeted attack on Aug. 1. Honcharenko was driving to his dacha when another car blocked its path and he was dragged out by several men and beaten. He died in hospital of his injuries Aug 3.

The attack came four days after a press conference at which Mr Honcharenko warned of a “chemical time bomb” from 180 tons of chemically contaminated and radioactive scrap metal being transported around Kryvy Rih in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. The danger from the toxic load could extend beyond Ukraine since there are grounds for fearing that the highly toxic material could end up in scrap metal exported abroad.

Whether this particular issue is linked with Honcharenko’s murder should be the subject of scrupulous investigation. Honcharenko, a member of the Academy of Engineering Sciences and head of the nongovernmental organization For Citizens’ Rights to a Safe Environment, is likely to have made other enemies through this hard-hitting and substantiated reports on radioactive, lead and chemical contamination, the quality of drinking water and more. He was critical of those willing to risk public health and safety for personal gain, as well as  criminal negligence by officials who looked the other way. 

On the other hand there has been silence over the scandal reported by Honcharenko on July 27 and now his voice has been silenced forever. It is for the authorities to now demonstrate willingness to put an end to the silence and the impunity this generates. 

There needs to be a real willingness to uncover and punish those responsible, not an imitation -- as seen in the “news” recently that the two-year-old murder of journalist Vasyl Klymentyev had been “solved.”

The name of the key suspect and the fact that he had been placed on the wanted list had been revealed early in 2011, making the whole exercise seem disturbingly aimed at misleading the public and fabricating non-existent achievements. At the press conference on July 27, Volodymyr Honcharenko warned of highly toxic heat exchangers which environmentalists fear could be mixed with other scrap metal and sold, possibly abroad.

The heat exchangers come originally from Kalusz in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, and contain huge levels of the chemical hexachlorbenzol. They were sold illicitly in 2005 to Ukr-Euro Ltd., which in 2008 tried to palm them off to a public stock company. This and later efforts have foundered because of the hazardous nature of the metal. 

Officials and those with a vested interest can be as silent as they like but every time workers have been given the material for cutting, they have ended up in hospital. This has then led to the frighteningly dangerous material being transported by truck through Kryvy Rih by a company with no transportation permit and in heat-wave conditions.

Honcharenko believed that the plan was to cut up the heat exchangers and mix small amounts with scrap metal, while probably burying the remains of the hexachlorbenzol in one of the quarries of the Saksahansk district. He warned that the likely site for cutting the heat exchangers was next to a reservoir which provides Kryvy Rih with drinking water. 

Dnipropetrovsk is of interest to metal traders because there is a freight port where metal is exported abroad. Turkey has already complained once, in 2011, that metal received from Ukraine was radioactive. 

We can assume that other countries will not wish to turn a blind eye to such hazardous and criminal behaviour.  Public attention is needed to ensure that neither Honcharenko’s murder nor the danger he exposed are quietly ignored.

Halya Coynash is a member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group.


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