Ukrainian ecologists call on EU not to fund new coal plants

Ukrainian coal miner_Reuters photo_600x400.jpg

This article is part of our special report Air Quality 2013.

SPECIAL REPORT / A Ukrainian application for European funding of two new coal plants would cause massive health and environmental damage to local people from nitrogen oxide emissions and other related pollution effects, local environmental campaigners have told EURACTIV. 

Ukraine is asking the Energy Community – an EU-led partnership with Balkan and Eastern European states – to select a new 800MW coal plant at Burshtyn and three 220MW units at Dobrovtir as ‘Projects of Energy Community Interest’.

This would prioritise the projects, and enable a fast-tracking process that typically ends with funding from European development banks and private investors.

Oleg Savitsky, a spokesman for the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine (NECU), said the health effects for the local population of new plant builds in the coal-rich region would be disastrous. 

“Burshtyn is already the most polluted city in Ukraine,” he said in a telephone interview from Kyiv. “We have very poor [regulatory] standards for emissions of hazardous pollutants.”

If the new plants were built, “local people would be really exposed to impacts from these coal plants, such as respiratory diseases, heart diseases and cancers,” he added, because old coal units would not necessarily be closed when new ones were opened.

The 65 million tonnes or so of coal mined every year in Ukraine is of notoriously low quality; high in sulphur and ash. It also contains lead, mercury, cadmium, and radioactive substances such as thallium in hazardous quantities.

Uranium and thorium also exist in Ukrainian coal – below hazardous levels – but Russian scientists such as Leonid Kizilstein contend that they can produce significant localised radioactive pollution. 

Olena Pavlenko, director of DiXi Group, a Ukrainian think tank specialising in energy issues, told EURACTIV that “the eastern part of Ukraine is characterised by ecological danger or even catastrophe” because of heavy industrial production.

Following protests in the region, politicians had begun campaigning on the issue, she said.

Energy independence

Ukraine is following a strategy to become a regional energy hub, and plans to increase its coal production which currently makes up about a third of its electricity supply.  

Pavlenko said this would give Ukraine greater energy independence from its gas-rich Russian neighbour, but would need to be carefully implemented with modern technologies.

“If these coal plants can reduce the air pollution maybe it will be good but the question is really whether these monies will be used properly and whether they will be enough to really reduce air pollution,” she said.

Figures in the Energy Community application request indicate that the Dobrovtir plant would cost €1 billion and the Burshtyn plant €1.35 billion. If successful, both would be commissioned in 2019.

18,200 premature deaths a year

According to a recent Health and Environmental Alliance report, coal-fired emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) are annually responsible for 18,200 premature deaths in Europe, and 8,500 new cases of chronic bronchitis.

NOx contributes to the formation of ozone and, along with fine particulate matter, is considered one of the greatest threats to public health.

But other hazardous substances – heavy metals such as mercury and persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins and polycylic aromatic chemicals – also pose grave health risks. 

One study conducted in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk found cadmium levels of 500 grams per tonne, which is 125 times the recommended exposure limit for soils.

The same paper reported an average content of 76-90 grams of lead per tonne in coal samples taken from the eastern Donbas region.

Effect on neighbouring

Emissions can travel widely and the new plants could pollute neighbouring EU countries. The energy they generate is also destined for abroad.

DTEK, the Ukrainian private energy monopoly which made the Energy Community application, has also requested prioritisation of transmission line projects from the proposed coal plants into EU states, such as Poland and Hungary.  

Even though EU businesses and households would benefit from this coal-based energy, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions would be considered Ukrainian, under current carbon accounting rules

As such, environmentalists say they could make it much more difficult for Ukraine to ever gain accession to the EU, which is committed to decarbonsing its economy by 2050.

“Because Ukraine’s energy strategy now presumes an increase in coal consumption in the energy sector from 86 million tonnes now to 105 million tonnes in 2030, it has a very poor chance of being accepted as an accession candidate for the EU,” Savitsky said.

Under the terms of the Energy Community deal, Kyiv has an obligation to implement measures contained in the EU’s 2001 Industrial Emissions Directive, but is not expected to do so for many years. 

The European Environment Agency (EEA) says the following are leading pollutants that affect the health of humans and ecosystems:

  • Nitrogen oxides (NOX): Emitted from fuel combustion, including power plants and vehicles. Of the chemical groups that comprise NOX, NO2 has the most adverse effects on health.
  • Sulphur dioxide (SO2): Emitted when fuels containing sulphur. Like NOX, SO2 contributes to acid rain and the formation of particulate matter.
  • Ammonia (NH3): Like NOX and SO2, ammonia pollutes ecosystems. Some 94% of NH3 emissions in Europe come from agriculture.
  • Non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs): Emitted from industry, road transport and dry-cleaning.
  • Particulate matter (PM): Smoke, dirt and dust form coarse particles known as PM10, and metals and toxic exhaust from smelting, vehicle exhaust, power plants and refuse burning forming fine particles are called PM2.5.
  • Organic micro-pollutants: Benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and dioxins and furans. Emitted by the combustion of fuels and wastes, and from industrial processes.
  • Carbon dioxide (CO2): Caused by the combustion of fuels such as coal, oil, natural gas and biomass used in industrial, domestic and transport purposes. It is the most significant greenhouse gas influencing climate change.
  • 4-7 June: EU Green Week
  • 4-7 June: EU Cleaner Air for All conference in Brussels
  • 2013: 'Year of Air' as declared by Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik.

European Union

  • European Energy Community: Ukraine

Think tanks and academia

Business and industry

International Organisations

Subscribe to our newsletters