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Hazardous Dredging Begun In The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

In Ukraine, dredging of the Pripyat River has been launched at eight sites planned for this year. This work is being carried out as part of the restoration of a bilateral waterway between Ukraine and Belarus, and is being seen as the first steps of the much larger E40 project. Four of the eight sites lie only a few kilometres from the remains of Chernobyl’s infamous Reactor 4 where the remnants of the world’s largest nuclear catastrophe lie hidden in the muddy riverbed. This work is proceeding on the basis of incomplete analysis of radiation levels and without any detailed studies having taken place as required by Ukrainian law.

According to an independent scientific study by the French organisation ACRO, 28 million people downstream who depend on the Dnieper River for water and food could be at increased radiation risk if dredging in the Chernobyl exclusion zone continues. Furthermore, the Pripyat River and the Kyiv artificial lake will become ongoing sources of radioactive contaminants because annual dredging will be needed to ensure the successful operation of the E40 waterway. This would contaminate the water supply of 8 million people, including the population of Kyiv, while irrigation and the use of dredged soil for agriculture could contaminate crops that 20 million Ukrainians depend upon.

Ariel Brunner, Birdlife International’s Senior Head of Policy for Europe and Central Asia warns that, “Digging up radioactive material and sending it down the river into heavily populated areas is irresponsible. Indeed the entire E40 is an ill-conceived and potentially devastating project that is being pushed forward in complete disregard of SEA and EIA legislation.”

The planned E40 waterway would be a 2,000 km-long navigable connection to link the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. A transnational initiative of the Polish, Belarusian and Ukrainian Governments, E40 has been peddled by its proponents as a new commercial highway between the ports of Gdansk, Poland and Kherson, Ukraine which will attract investments and create new jobs. However, the project’s 2015 feasibility study was incomplete in various respects, including consideration of environmental issues. Public participation has not been enabled, and alternatives to meet the strategic objective of better freight connections between the Black and Baltic Seas have not been adequately explored.

“Ukraine is a contracting party to the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR), which signed the Joint Statement on Guiding Principles on the Development of Inland Navigation and Environmental Protection in the Danube River Basin” in 2007. This document requires that navigation infrastructure development to respect environmental legislation and policies and involve wide stakeholder participation. There is no reason why the same principles should not be valid for other rivers in Ukraine,” says Irene Lucius, Regional Conservation Director of WWF Central and Eastern Europe. 

“Ukraine should also be true to its commitment to the European Green Deal, which enshrines the ‘do no harm’ principle. Much harm could be done if further Pripyat activities and future E40 measures will be implemented.”

Polesia is Europe’s largest wetland wilderness, encompassing massive carbon sequestering peatlands and crucial habitat for endangered European wildlife. The E40 proposals involve straightening, deepening, damming, and dredging rivers in some of the most sensitive parts of Polesia. These alterations would dramatically change the area’s flood regime. Beyond the threat of radioactive sediments being disturbed and redistributed, the impacts of the E40 waterway will dry up rivers, damage landscapes, negatively impact wildlife, and destroy the livelihoods of local people. The area has huge ecotourism potential, a green development opportunity that would also be undermined should E40 go ahead. Changes to the area’s hydrology could also dry out Polesia’s peatlands, turning an important carbon sink into a serious carbon source.

There is no question that Ukraine needs improved transportation links with its neighbours and countries further afield, including the European Union. However, the E40 waterway is not the only option. E40 construction will be extremely expensive, particularly the Polish and Belarus sections. Current estimates put the initial investment at over 12 billion Euros. Given the high environmental, social, technical and legal risks, there is a good chance that finance will not be secured for these sections, and without them the Ukrainian element of the project will have little purpose.

Transport of goods using the E40 inland waterway would be slower, more expensive, more polluting, and less reliable than electric rail; therefore construction of E40 makes no sense. Instead the priority should be investing in the existing railway network connecting the Baltic and Black Sea. Governments should modernise border crossings, increase train capacities and speed, and improve logistics infrastructure to handle cross-border trade.

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