Ukraine: Documenting Environmental Contamination in a War Zone

ELAW partners at Environment People Law (EPL) continue their challenging work to hold Russia accountable for environmental damage in Ukraine. In early August, Dr. Kateryna Polianska, EPL scientist and 2022 ELAW Fellow, was heard on The World speaking about her daring work collecting evidence of contaminated soil and rubble in a bombed home improvement center. 

The World’s Carolyn Beeler reports:

“Nearly a year and a half into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, its impact has been felt most acutely in lost lives, flattened cities and destroyed infrastructure. But the environmental damage from combat has also contaminated Ukraine’s soil, water and air at a cost the government estimates to be $56 billion. This impact is likely to be one of the longest-lasting legacies of the war, persisting for decades after the fighting stops…

Polianska wore gloves as she dug with a gardening spade into the rubble at the home improvement center, putting samples of burned insulation into plastic baggies for laboratory testing. She’s still waiting for those results, but previous testing has shown high concentrations of heavy metals in the soil underneath burned Russian tanks…”

Since the war began, Dr. Polianska and her EPL colleagues have conducted more than 30 expeditions to collect evidence of environmental contamination and educate citizens, the media, and others around the world about the environmental cost of war.

Their latest trip took them to the Kherson region in southern Ukraine which is on the front line and reeling from the June 6 destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. EPL Executive Director Olena Kravchenko told The Guardian that if Russia breached the dam, it would be sufficient for a charge of “ecocide” (which is a crime under the Criminal Code of Ukraine).

Last month, the EPL team joined scientists from Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences and Kherson State University to tour Kamianska Sich National Park which includes the site of the former Kakhovka Reservoir and Mylivska Bay, destroyed by the dam breach.

Dr. Polianska describes what she saw at Mylivska Bay:

“I calmly walked along the bottom for 300 meters, jumped over a stream, then approached a fresh shell crater. It had exploded recently, after the disaster at Kakhovka Dam. The earth was scattered around and the walls of the crater had a black coating from burning. We saw six more craters.”

Dr. Polianska took soil samples and sent them to laboratories in Ukraine and Switzerland. Preliminary results from the lab in Bern showed heavy metals exceeding permissible levels by 25 times (copper), 48 times (zinc), 6 times (nickel), and 2 times (lead). EPL will work with experts to analyze the results. 

In related work, EPL has called on ELAW for guidance on how to access data from satellite-based sensors to document the degradation of forest and other ecosystems caused by Russia’s assault. ELAW has arranged for remote sensing analyst Dr. Paulo Murillo-Sandoval to provide guidance to EPL.

We are humbled by EPL’s work to protect Ukraine’s natural resources. We will keep you informed of EPL’s progress.


Bern Johnson
Executive Director
Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide