Female Don Quixote from Kharkiv fights Koksokhim

My neighbours die out of cancer, says Reshetko
PHOTO: Stanislav Krupař / Arnika

Residents of the city of Kharkiv have suffered from extreme air pollution for many years. The most affected are the inhabitants of the Novobavarskyi district in the western part of the city. The two largest polluters are located in the valley at the confluence of the Udy and Lopan rivers: The Kharkiv Coke Plant, built in the 1930s with technology that is now extremely obsolete, and the Termolife Mineral Wool Plant put into operation in 2006.


The irritating odor, however, can be smelled far beyond the boundaries of the district. A poisonous cocktail, every day. The situation is worst at night when the smell finds its way into apartments even though their windows are closed. According to data published by the Kharkov journal (Civic Position) in May 2017, the plants emit more than 800 tons of poisonous substances per year: 240 tons of sulfur dioxide, 50 tons of hydrocyanic acid, 200 tons of formaldehyde and other carcinogenic substances. In this city with a population of 1,439,036, every year 6,000 people die of cancer.

"In my house, twelve of my neighbours have died of cancer in the last 5 years," says Elena Reshetko, a pensioner and resident of the Novobavarskyi district in Kharkiv. She can see the Kharkiv Coke Plant from the balcony of the panel house whenever she walks for water to a plastic tank in the middle of a cheerles panel housing estate where she has lived for 32 years. She suffers from asthma, like her daughter. Her grandson was diagnosed with a blood disorder. On a table in her small apartment, she preserves all the necessary medications on which she has been dependent for many years. A considerable part of her pension falls on medical care. Like the vast majority of her neighbors, Elena can't afford to move away. So she remains in the most polluted part of Kharkiv and spends all her free time and energy on the struggle with two obsolete enterprises. 

"As an accountant I'm used to work with numbers
but there are almost no relevant data on pollution in Ukraine.”

Shocking diseases statistics

“People here cannot rely on authorities, ministry, or environmental inspection. But I wanted to understand what's going on in my neighbourhood and what exactly is killing us. So I decided to use my accounting skills,” explains Reshetko and shows us many notes from her longtime research.

Together with other activists, Reshetko requested official statistics from the Kharkiv clinics for different types of illnesses of adults and children in the years 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, and then examined the situation in different parts of the city. When comparing Kharkiv Clinic No. 22 in the Chervonozavodskiy district (which is adjacent to the Zhovteniy district, where the Kharkiv Coke Plant and Termolife are situated), with Kharkov Clinic No. 9 located 10 km from the plants, it turned out that occurrences of pulmonary and bronchial disease in adults is almost 3078 times higher than those in the area distant from the city. For other diseases, the difference is 15-20 times higher. Diseases of the blood, skin diseases, the circulatory system and abnormalities in children in the affected area are 4 times higher than in the remote area. Children born with birth defects ranging from cerebral palsy, bronchial asthma, diseases of the circulatory system and deaf-muteness are 4.5 times higher per year in the area affected by the plants. Statistics for adult mortality demonstrated that death from cancer in the emission zone for the period from 2003 is 40 times higher, in contrast to the indicators of the remote area of the city.

Death threats came soon

Since 2012 Reshetko has been trying to sue for damage to her health and violation of the right to live in a safe environment. However, the court hasn't reached a verdict yet because of the lack of evidence of the link between the diseases and the pollution emitted by the plants into the air. She encouraged many neighbours from the district to come together when she founded the Ekocid NGO in 2013. They turned to the authorities, organized demonstrations, wrote petitions and open letters to the governor. They even blocked the track used for bringing the coal to the plant. And even though this long struggle yielded no results, Reshetko was soon being intimidated: someone has cut off electricity in her flat several times, the door of her apartment was glued shut, and one day she found the death threats - graffiti written on the wall of the corridor. Her neighbours supported her, however, as the plant employs about 700 people, not all the Novobavarskyi district residents who are exposed to extreme pollution obviously stand with the activists. 

 "The plants are situated in the lowlands, so dangerous
substances accumulate in the valley and the inhabitants have to breathe them.
We observe here all the symptoms of environmental disaster: pollution of the atmosphere, water and soil."

 Despite of the threats and long court proceedings, the pensioner continued her research. Soon she came up with another interesting discovery: untreated wastewater from the Kharkiv Coke Plant issues from the back of the plant, which is guarded with armed security, polluting the soil of the territory of the mineral deposit and the Udy River. Thus we have a paradoxical situation where rare water is used for coke production, while ordinary Kharkiv people pay for drinking water at the price of approximately 9.00 UAH per cubic meter. To understand how is this possible, we have to look back in history.

Rare mineral water used for coke quenching

The experimental laboratory of Giprokoks (Гипрококс), a state-owned firm, was built in Kharkov in 1932 as a coke research centre. Its ovens ceased operation in 1952, but in 2003 new owners began coke production once more. They illegally gained access to a rare Novozhanov mineral water deposit. Now, potable publicly-owned mineral water is used in large volumes for coke quenching. Located 8 kilometres from the Kharkiv Coke Plant, the Berminvody, Rosha and Ray-Elenovka sanatoriums have mineral water with a similar composition. The source of the drinking water falls under the State Geological and Mineral Resources Survey (Derzhgeonadra) of Ukraine, where Reshetko sent an official request for the release of contracts allowing access to the area of the rare water deposit, along with the necessary authorization. Derzhgeonadra replied that no rental permit or permit for the construction of facilities was ever been issued to either plant, and this was later confirmed by Oktjabr's court in Kharkiv.

Traces lead to Donetsk

In 2017, the Ukrainian TV channel Kanal 24 broadcasted a report detailing the ownership structure of the Kharkiv coke plant and the Termolife plant. Traces lead to an offshore destination in Cyprus and to the occupied Donetsk. Although Ukraine imposed a full economic blockade of the occupied territories in February 2017, Kanal 24 has brought evidence of the import of coal from Donetsk into the Kharkiv coke plant in summer 2017.

 Status as of February 2018

UKR 22/07/2017 How a coke plant in Kharkiv poisons the lives of local people (24Kanal)
UKR 17/02/2012 Why it is impossible to prevent toxic emissions of Kharkiv "Koksokhim" (Deutsche Welle)