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Polluted By A War of Words

When a Crimean town was engulfed by toxic gas, public safety concerns were lost in a cloud of disinformation

Dispatch

Armyansk, Crimea

This summer, something polluted the air around Armyansk, a town of 22,000 people in northern Crimea. A greasy residue coated everything. Metal objects appeared to go rusty overnight. On social media, Armyansk residents complained of inflamed eyes and throats and of feeling nauseous.

It started on August 23 with “a strong chemical smell,” Lena, a young lab assistant from Armyansk, remembered when we spoke. She thought it must have come from the Titan plant on the edge of town, which makes titanium dioxide, a whitening agent for paints and cosmetics. “At first I didn’t take much notice, because we often have chemical emissions here,” she said. But by the time she got home from work her eyes and throat were swollen and burning. “Next morning I fainted in the bath. I had an allergic reaction all over.”

Armyansk lies a short drive from the so-called Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) that has divided Crimea from Ukraine ever since Russia occupied and annexed the peninsula in 2014.

But as reports spread of what appeared to be a major health and environmental incident, authorities on both sides of the divide, in Russia and Ukraine, seemed more concerned with using the leak as a propaganda tool than addressing the needs of those affected or investigating the cause.

“No one said what was happening,” Lena recalled, as she sat smoking with a friend outside an empty Armyansk kindergarten. “The Ministry of Emergencies should have said to close the windows and stay inside. But lots of people went out and opened windows, and there was mass poisoning.”

Since Crimea’s annexation, the new Russian-backed authorities have imposed strict controls on the media, which now generally paints a positive, uncritical picture of events in the peninsula. What is reported is weighed not for factual accuracy, but to exclude dissident content and maximize propaganda value.

Fines and arrests for public dissent are a further disincentive to voicing alternative views. Lena and her friend, like everyone I met in Armyansk, would not tell me their surnames. After Yekaterina Pivovar, another local resident, spoke out about her concerns to the media using her full name, she was cautioned by the police and publicly pilloried on Crimea’s main television station.

There are no independent bodies left on the peninsula that can investigate. Neither can international agencies, with Crimea cut off from the outside world by sanctions and its disputed status.

When some local and Russian outlets picked up the Armyansk story on August 27, they reported only that there had been an emission of an “unknown substance.” The next day, Sergei Aksyonov, the man appointed by Russia to run Crimea, finally mentioned the leak. All he could say was that it was harmless, and “according to preliminary data” was emitted from the Titan factory.

The factory is owned by Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, currently in Austria fighting an extradition request from the U.S., where he faces charges of attempted bribery.

Bloggers in Crimea joined in the information battle. Those with pro-Ukrainian views posted emotional interviews with alarmed, angry locals. Others took Russia’s side and blamed the “Ukrainian terrorist government” — recycling what the Crimean authorities now said was the cause of the incident: Ukraine cutting the water supply to the factory’s waste reservoir.

Most of Crimea’s water needs used to be supplied from mainland Ukraine via a canal. After the 2014 annexation, Ukraine stopped the flow. Four years of falling water levels, coupled with a very hot, dry summer, were allegedly causing accumulated sulfur dioxide in the factory reservoir to evaporate into the atmosphere.

On September 4, some two weeks later, Aksyonov finally visited Armyansk. Distressed residents had gathered in the town’s square — a rare occurrence since under Russian laws now in force any gathering can be considered an “unsanctioned meeting” and participants detained or fined.

Aksyonov admitted that pollution levels were above normal, but insisted there was no serious health threat. The Titan factory was ordered to shut down for two weeks, and 4,000 children and their mothers were evacuated – although Aksyonov, and the government-controlled media, called it an “extended holiday.”

With the mass evacuation, Ukrainian media picked up the story. If Crimea-based outlets now report only good news, Ukraine’s media — with no accredited journalists in Crimea — now prefers only bad news casting Russia in a negative light. Ukrainian media claimed that Russian military exercises had caused the leak. Reports dubbed the incident a “second Chernobyl,” in reference to the devastating Soviet-era nuclear accident in 1986.

For the state-controlled Crimean media, this was a gift, allowing them to ridicule Ukrainian coverage instead of investigating what had happened. With many Ukrainian internet sites blocked, it is hard for people in Crimea to get any alternative news.

About the only thing the two sides agreed on was to blame Firtash, the factory owner. For Russian and Crimean outlets, his nationality made him an easy target, ignoring his ties to Moscow that allow him to continue operating the plant. Pro-Ukraine outlets on the other side of the divide portrayed Firtash as selling out his nation and breaking international sanctions.

Hoping to get past the disinformation, I visited Armyansk in early September. After heavy rain, the heatwave had broken. Adults were on the streets. There was one sign of an official response: roads and buildings had been hosed down. But the air had a distinctly acidic flavor. Vegetation, especially on the northern side of town close to the factory, had turned brown or lost its leaves altogether, while a few miles south it was still green.

Nonetheless, some locals accepted the official line. “What happened? Autumn happened,” said Denis, a young man drinking coffee on a bench.

“The apples and pears are still there [on the trees], I just wash them before eating them. Just all the leaves fell off,” said Valya, a woman in her fifties selling soft drinks on the main street. She had no doubt the cause was the Titan plant, but she was apparently unconcerned.

“I was born here and I knew what it was right away,” she said. “For us, this is just normal.” Most of what she had read in the news, Valya said, was “exaggeration.” She was grateful to “our leadership for reacting in a timely manner.”

“It’s horrible, and why should we lie about it?” countered an elderly woman next to her, selling peppers from her allotment. But, she added, “Who can we complain to? We’re nothing; we’re just pawns.”

The Crimean health authorities had reportedly said there had been no increase in patients in Armyansk, and no cases of chemical poisoning. There were no patients to be seen in the hospital, nor anyone willing to talk. A group of nurses fell silent when I approached. An administrator told me only Crimea’s health ministry could comment.

I left Armyansk with a sore throat and the distinct impression — common in Russia-controlled Crimea — that people were afraid to tell the truth. The signs of pollution were obvious, although not as bad as some social media and Ukrainian reports had suggested. Locals said the evacuated children were due to return in three days.

Instead, three days later the authorities declared a state of emergency in Armyansk. Apparently another toxic gas — hydrogen chloride — had been detected.

At a news conference, Igor Mikhailichenko from the Crimean Cabinet of Ministers said that top of the list of the six likely causes was now “an emission of unknown chemical substances from the territory of the neighboring state”.

Ukrainian officials pointed the finger back. Among three possible causes they were considering was a “deliberate release of chemicals by Russia,” which they portrayed as a tactic to pressure Ukraine into resuming water supplies to Crimea. Monitors from Kherson administration bordering Crimea on the Ukrainian side said the pollution had most likely come from a one-off discharge.

There is no way to independently verify what had happened or its effect on health. A Crimea-based environmental NGO, the “Centre for Environmental Well-being”, told me it didn’t have the right expertise. Greenpeace International said there was not enough reliable information for it to be able to comment.

The state of emergency was lifted a week later, on September 23. Armyansk’s children returned to school. But earlier this month, Armyansk residents again complained of bad smells and allergies. The authorities in Crimea cracked down, and Yekaterina Pivovar was one of those who felt the effect.

She spoke to French television and the independent Russian outlet “Novaya Gazeta” about her children’s health problems, and her plan to visit the town mayor with other concerned mothers. Soon afterward, police came to her home to warn her against organizing an “unsanctioned meeting.”

That evening Crimean state TV named her as a provocateur and self-publicist spreading disinformation on behalf of Ukraine.

Illustrations by Nika Kobaidze.