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Recetox helps Ukraine clean up dangerous substances

Muni researchers take stock of industrial areas so that toxic substances can be disposed of.

Ivan Holoubek, a Professor at MU, acts as an advisor to local experts in Ukraine.

One of the topics that made headlines in the post-Communist Czech Republic was how to remedy environmental damage inflicted under the previous, nature-unfriendly era. A number of issues have been successfully put right, but others remain. However, the situation is far worse in other regions, and Ukraine is one of them.

And this is where the Research Centre for Toxic Compounds in the Environment at Masaryk University (Recetox) is making ready, in cooperation with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), for a project to dispose of pollutants that persist in the environment for a long time.

The Stockholm Convention, which sets out rules for dealing with these persistent organic pollutants, came into effect in 2004. The Convention has regional centres that participate in this cleanup, and Recetox is one of them. The activities of Recetox employees reach beyond the Czech borders, as they share their know-how with other countries in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere. This is what brought them to Ukraine.

Like most other countries, Ukraine deployed polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) for the better part of the 20th century, primarily as fluids in transformers and other devices. Their use was outlawed when it was discovered that long-term exposure to these substances is very dangerous. Unfortunately, this does not mean that they now cannot be found in any industrial plant; rather the opposite is true.

With PCB still widespread in many places in the world, one of the important activities of the Stockholm Convention is taking stock of their current use. “You can track PCB in the air. We obtained our first data about PCB in Ukraine back in 2008,” explains Ivan Holoubek, who acts as an advisor to local experts. “But now we need to examine select industrial areas of Ukraine in greater detail and take stock of what they contain.” Holoubek has experience with similar projects not only in the Czech Republic, but also in Turkey, Egypt, and over twenty other countries.

The stocktaking that he talks about will take a long time – several years according to current plans. There are no shortcuts around it. The trouble is that records about the individual plants are almost non-existent. They have been lost over the years, partially also due to the changing political situation. Communication with plant operators, who might not understand why this stocktaking is important, can also be difficult.

Even arranging the individual steps of the project is not easy, as Holoubek points out, explaining why the disposal of dangerous substances can take a really long time: “While there is still fighting in the eastern part of the country, the rest of the region is stable. However, Ukraine is still a politically fragmented country plagued by corruption. So, you agree on something in July with one official, and when you come to the next meeting in the autumn, the person is no longer there.” The same holds true for Ukrainian plans to establish a centre similar to the Czech Recetox.

An incineration plant would help
Further questions revolve around how to dispose of the toxic material. Ukraine currently does not have a suitable facility, such as the Czech hazardous waste incineration plant in Ostrava. While the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, as the entity that ensures that the agreements of the Stockholm Convention are fulfilled, can provide some financial help to transport the material to Germany for disposal, it may not be enough.

As Holoubek says, it would make sense to build an incineration plant or a similar facility in Ukraine, that would be paid for and used by two or more countries; but he does not believe that this will happen. “We tried this in the Caucasus region, in Armenia, and in Central Asia. We always ran into an absolute unwillingness to jointly collaborate. It is a real tragedy for these countries plagued by conflicts and historical problems.”

This is not the only current project that the Centre has in Ukraine. Another Recetox employee, Kateřina Šebková, is currently working on new courses and summer schools for master’s degree students at the National University of Food Technology in Kyiv. These will focus on tools, policies, and best practices in EU environmental protection and they will first run next year.