Svitlana Kolomiets / Photo from UNIAN

Deputy Ecology Minister: Japan wanted to withdraw the "Kyoto money" from Ukraine, outraged that 'one of our hands does not know what the other is doing'

10:12, 06 August 2015
7 min. 614 Interview

UNIAN sits with Deputy Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources Svitlana Kolomiets to talk about the ways of attracting investors to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, environmental crises in war-torn Donbas and Russian-annexed Crimea, and on prospects of fighting the "amber mafia".

Almost every year, Ukraine’s environmental NGOs name the most urgent problems requiring immediate resolution. We are talking about the pollution of soil and water, soil degradation, deforestation and air pollution. Does the government address these issues at all, given that it’s common nowadays to put blame on the generally difficult situation in the country?

This is not the easiest question. We are aware that the Donbas conflict affects just about everything. At the last Cabinet meeting, budget cuts in favor of strengthening the country's defenses were on top agenda. This year, part of the money from the Environment Fund, are allocated for the defense sector, even though our funding is not so substantive compared with previous years – UAH 630 million as of the year’s start. Some of this money has already been taken for defense purposes. At the same time, there is also UAH 4 billion worth of applications for the use of environmental funds from local authorities.

Besides, last year amendments have been adopted to the Budget and Tax Codes - now the environmental tax money goes to the local authorities, and it could be spent on virtually anything. Now we are working on granting environmental taxes at least a special status at the local level that would allow its use only for environmental purposes.

Some of environmental activities could be funded by investors ...

Investors come with a variety of projects, but public-private partnership in Ukraine today is, unfortunately, developed very poorly. For example, investors are interested in the Chernobyl zone, because it’s a large area and there are power lines laid there. In these areas it would be possible to put solar panels for the development of alternative energy. But the problem is that the status of the land of the Chernobyl zone is not regulated properly in terms of operations with land. Accordingly, if we want to attract investors, we need to think how to create proper conditions.

"For various reasons, Russia may stop taking the spent nuclear fuel from Ukraine"

How do you feel about the idea of ​​creating a landscape park in the Chernobyl exclusion zone? Would this help resolve its status?

It is necessary to pass amendments to the Land Code of Ukraine regarding operations with the land in the exclusion zone. It is about creating a Chernobyl Radio-Ecological Biosphere Reserve, which should be serving the science rather than being an amusement park.

There is a proposal to establish a so called ‘industrial site’ in the exclusion zone, which would host industrial plants and infrastructural facilities. In the rest of the exclusion zone, the possibility of establishing radio-ecological biosphere reserve is considered. But it should be done in a clever way: we should assess and examine everything and see the real state of contamination at the moment. To conduct such studies, not that much money is needed. We need to find this money, and then talk about setting up a reserve only after the audit.

Of course, we would like the activities in the Chernobyl zone be focused on dealing with radioactive waste, spent nuclear fuel and also alternative energy projects.

Many of the issues the society is building of a CSSNF in the exclusion zone. Without a doubt, Ukraine needs its own platform for disposal of spent nuclear fuel, as Russia will not take it from us ...

Yes, for various reasons,  Russia may stop taking the spent fuel from Ukraine, so the spent nuclear fuel from Ukrainian nuclear power plants (NPPs) need to be stored somewhere ...

... But is it worth storing it near Chernobyl, especially considering that this is a temporary storage?

Area of the CSSNF construction for storing spent nuclear fuel from Rivne, Khmelnitsky and South-Ukrainian NPP is 12 km from the Chernobyl zone. To date, the spent nuclear fuel is stored at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Chernobyl site ISF-1 - the repository for "wet" storage. A second site - ISF-2 for “dry” storage, being built by the Americans, should be put into operation in late 2016, and the spent nuclear fuel will be moved there from the ISF-1.

And are there any projects on building a long-term storage?

When I was in Chernobyl, and asked the experts, "What will happen in 100 years?" They told me, "We hope that in 100 years the science will develop so that the next generation will come up with something." Therefore, I hope that future generations will not forget that they need to do something about the storage.

Is there any assessment of the impact on the environment in our country ahead of making decisions on further operation of nuclear reactors after the exhaustion of the licensed design life?

This problem can be viewed from different angles. On the one hand, Ukraine should carry out such a procedure, acting decently and in good faith. However, the procedure requires considerable funding, which Ukraine does not have. In addition, there is a problem with the energy shortage, and we're dependent on the aggressor state on this issue. Therefore, any action that would delay or prevent the emergence of alternative energy sources to provide for less dependency on Russia, is certainly deemed harmful.

Are the Europeans ready to make such an assessment with the help from the donors?

They don’t comment on this matter. Actually, there is no discussion on this issue. We have outlined the problem to them. They said, yes, we know that you can always refer to this problem. But it is dishonorable, we will complain to the Secretariat of the Convention.

Do you plan to phase out nuclear energy in favor of the alternative sources?

I think this a policy should be shaped by other ministries. But as far as I know, no global solutions  have been reached in the government yet.

Our ministry supports any initiatives related to alternative energy and, in fact, we believe these are the right trends. But the question is not only in developing these projects, but also in providing for general energy efficiency. We could save a lot just by the proper use of existing resources.

"We will try to make an evaluation in Crimea and Donbas"

The need to switch to alternative energy sources is also dictated by the fact that Ukraine’s state coal mines are in a deplorable condition. Who monitors the correct preservation of mines in an environmentally responsible manner in a combat zone and who controls it?

We try to monitor the situation, but, because of the limited physical access to these objects, it is difficult to do, almost impossible. There were different ideas, to get help on this issue from the OSCE special monitoring mission, but these ideas have never been implemented. This week, we will gather a working group to discuss, how it would be possible to establish monitoring.

Now there is no reliable data on the environmental situation in Donbas –pollution of air, soil and groundwater, buried solid waste of the fighting – mines, shells, unexploded ordnance?

We are not physically able to carry out measurements. We can check out some of the enterprises - the major polluters, but not those who are located in the area of ​​the Anti-Terrorist Operation.

We have talked about the idea of ​​creating an industrial park in the Chernobyl zone. Maybe it makes sense to open an industrial park in Donbas?

I like the idea of ​​having an industrial park instead of [a so-called] Donetsk People’s Republic. Unfortunately, it is too early to talk about developing a specific program in this area.

In addition to Ukraine’s east, Russian-annexed Crimea is also full of environmental problems. Mainly, it’s the lack of water which leads to the drying of soils, and the lands lose any attractiveness whatsoever for cultivation ...

We understand this, but unfortunately, today we cannot work on resolving these problems. We look forward to when Ukraine regains its authority over this territory. By and large, we could deliver the water on the contractual basis, had the self-proclaimed local authorities wished to take care of these lands.

There is another problem in Crimea: the peninsula’s coastline is gradually retreating under the pressure of the sea. Can this be a threat from an environmental perspective?

Once again, I should repeat that we can’t assess the damage. But we do have technologies and opportunities for restoring the coastline. However, in seven or eight months of my work in the ministry, we have not received a single letter from Crimea, no single request for assistance.

That is, the situation is even worse with communication than that with Donbas?

We have no communication whatsoever. But we will be trying to assess the situation both in Crimea and Donbas, but this may take some time.

"Today, the Environmental Inspection is being gradually eliminated”

Consumer forest management leads to soil erosion, landslide processes, and increases the intensity of floods. Is Ukraine able to stop the destruction of forests?

The situation with deforestation is the worst in the west of Ukraine. And the problem there is the uncontrolled felling of forests. The figures we get from the official statistics are at odds with the real tragic situation.

From our point of view, we must not exploit the forests, but protect them. Therefore, the functions of control over the activities of the forestry must be carried out by the Environmental Inspection [and not by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food].

On what stage is the implementation of the idea of introducing Eco-Police?

Today, the Environmental Inspection is being gradually eliminated. There are towns that are ready to take part in this pilot project.

In general, if we talk about the monetization of such a project, given the effective operation of the future Eco-Police, with modern operating laboratories and proper equipment, fines for environmental violators will pay off the cost of introduction of a new agency.

I would like to see how such Eco-patrols tackle the “amber business", which has recently got into the popular spotlight. Has the ministry completed the assessment of damage caused by the illegal production of amber?

Geologists say that the current artisanal production allows extracting only 10-15% of amber. A large part of the deposit – worth a lot of money – remains in the ground. In this context, it may be worth, regardless of the form of ownership of the companies willing to work there, giving them land plots mutilated by illegal miners. They should be allowed further production, at the same time showing how effective can be an alternative, industrial method of amber extraction, as well as showing an example of a civilized reclamation. Now we need to understand the volumes to calculate how much funds we may need.

In December, 2015, the UN Conference on Climate Change is to be held in Paris. In this regard, what is the situation in Ukraine with the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. Last year, there were rumors that Japan could claim Ukraine’s non-compliance with this Protocol...

Indeed, the Japanese wanted to withdraw the “Kyoto money” from Ukraine. They were outraged that, as the saying goes, ‘our one hand does not know what the other is doing’. But we have persuaded them [Japan side]not to do so [withdraw the money]. But we still do need to take care of the problems associated with the use funds under the Kyoto Protocol. Today we passed all the information to law enforcement agencies. And all that we can do is help the investigation. That’s what we are doing.

Tatiana Urbanska

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