Oleksii, could you please tell us more about the sources for your report?
We can draw lots of conclusions based on the open sources on the Internet.
First, those are satellite pictures. They can show enough. One just needs to have enough qualifications to find things that could be interpreted. Those are cuttings [of forests – ed.], construction sites, new open pits, consequences of military training, fires. There are available services by NASA that can create an exact map of fires. We incorporated those NASA services into our report. In addition, services such as Google Earth and Google Maps also allow us to look through the satellite pictures taken on different dates.
Our second source is social media and [conventional – ed.] media. Those are not reliable sources because we do not always know if that information is correct. This is why, when we prepared the report, we spend had to check a lot of information that came from this source [social media – ed.]. For example, if a message in social media or media did not come with documents or pictures, we did not include them.
Russian and Crimean scholarly publications are an important source as well. Many of those scientists are not afraid to write about the ecological problems of Crimea.
Another very important source is the Crimean [Russia-controlled – ed.] “Rosprirodnadzor." This is something similar to our environmental inspectorate. This institution does not respond to the local authorities. We use their official documents. We believe that is worthy material. For example, suppose they say that in some places the sea is polluted and not suitable for swimming. In that case, this is for sure trustworthy information.
In addition, among our sources, we have the decisions of the Crimean occupying authorities and Russian state institutions.
What did Crimea look like before the occupation from an ecology perspective?
Crimea is an extremely rich territory in terms of natural treasures. It is the most special region on the map of Ukraine. It has subtropics [subtropical climate – ed.] in the South and dry steppes in the North. No other place has this. Neither in Ukraine nor Europe.
Everybody knows this [about the value of Crimea – ed.], but there was no special monitoring of the ecology of Crimea. We would not find any state report titled "Environmental situation in Crimea." Therefore, we would not be able to compare it with what we have today because this kind of report does not exist. But we can sit down and study satellite pictures taken before 2014, and we can analyze the damage of some territories.
There were beautiful steppes. But now we see tank tracks and burnt ground that has no plants on the surface.
We can evaluate an increase in the area of military training camps. For example, the training camp "Opuk" includes the Opuk natural preserve. The Russian Ministry of Defense says that the training camp area is either 22 hectares or 44 hectares. But satellite pictures show damage on the surface of 50 thousand hectares! Officially there are two training camps there – "Chauda” and “Opuk," but they create a single territory. Here satellite pictures show that before 2014, this area was covered with grass. There is a natural preserve there, beautiful steppes. Now we see only tank tracks and burnt ground that has no plants on the surface.
Local bureaucrats try to scoop up as much money as they have time for. They live for today.
When I proofread our report for the last final time, I had an impression that the local Crimean authorities, those same bureaucrats that headed Crimea under Ukraine's control, behave as foreign invaders. All the negative factors that began ruining Crimea in 2014 (except for the construction of the Kerch bridge and "Tavrida” highway) were approved by the local, not the federal government. That includes the increase of the number of waste deposits, changing the route of rivers to fill the water reservoirs, mass construction, chopping of forests, blocking, and pollution of beaches. Those are all decisions by the local authorities. It is the local authority that behaves as if it is going to stay until tomorrow. It seems that they are trying to scoop up as much money as they have time for. They live for today. They never behave like this under Ukraine's control. This is what surprises me. On the other hand, Russian central authorities invest enormous amounts of money into Crimea. They demonstrate that they are here for a long time and not planning to give the peninsula away.
What are the most painful environmental consequences of the Russian occupation?
I think the worst thing that happened was the construction of the Kerch bridge and the "Tavrida" highway. To build them [the constructors – ed.] had to chop down many forests and destroy small mountains to mine stone. Baqqal spit was destroyed due to the sand extraction. Huge losses happened simply to get building materials for this territory.
The Kerch bridge is basically a dam that has a space in the middle to let ships through. This bridge prevents the normal circulation of water between the seas. This can lead to bogging of the Azov Sea. This bridge prevents the migration of fish. It brings serious harm to cetaceans. The noise from transport that moves on the bridge prevents them from orienting in space. There are lots of examples of dolphins stranding themselves on land near the bridge.
1 million cubic meters of toxic sand was extracted and used to build the highway and the bridge
The “Tavrida" highway was built over many naturally important territories, forests, steppes, and archeological sites. In order to build the highway, around 261 stone pits appeared in the mountains (this is the highest estimate that I've seen). Before that [the creation of stone pits - ed.], those mountains were blown up. Those explosions blocked the mineral springs, including those that had positive health effects. The underground water horizons were damaged, there are no springs anymore. There are lots of similar examples. In addition, sand was extracted not just from the Baqqal spit but from other places as well, including the sludge depository [of the Kamysh-Burunski iron-ore industrial plant – ed.] to the South from Kerch. A sludge depository is a place where the toxic waste is being stored. They [constructors – ed.] started extracting sand that was soaked in toxic waste! They extracted around 1 million cubic meters of this toxic sand and built the highway and the bridge.
You see how the fighter jet sends a missile and hits the mountain, and you realize that this mountain is a part of the Opuk natural preserve.
Military drills harmed the Crimean environment as well. There is no difference for nature whether there is a drill or an actual war. It is the same movement of military equipment and explosion of ammunition. Russia has increased its military presence in Crimea. These troops constantly need to do something to demonstrate power. Russian Ministry of Defense constantly publishes videos that show training in Crimea from different angles. They show how they shoot, blow up shells on the ground, mountains, and the sea. If you have a certain qualification, or if you are a person from Crimea, then when you see a fighter jet launching a missile, when you see how it hits the mountain, you understand that this mountain is a part of the Opuk natural preserve. For the Russian Ministry of Defense, those videos are the demonstration of force. For an ecologist, this is evidence of the destruction of the environment.
For the nature of Crimea, a low level of weather elements and freshwater is a norm.
Regarding the deficit of fresh water in Crimea, this is mostly a problem for people, not the environment. For the nature of Crimea, a low level of weather elements and freshwater is a norm. Crimea had been a dry region for thousands of years.
The same is with the soil. Crimea is surrounded by seas, which is why its underground water horizons are salty. After the North Crimean Channel was constructed, freshwater went into the ground and pushed the salty water away. Now, without the freshwater from Dnipro, the underground waters return to their natural state.
What are the irreversible losses that happened with the Crimean environment due to the Russian occupation? What cannot be fixed?
It is almost impossible to fix the outcomes of the construction of the Kerch bridge. The bridge is a time bomb. Only its destruction can be worse than the influence from its existence.
The harm to the environment resulting from the construction of the bridge can only be neutralized in theory.
The Kerch peninsula is the most seismologically active region of Ukraine. They [the Russian authorities – ed.] pushed a huge super-heavy object there. The bottom of the Kerch Strait is an unstable place. The bridge is already caving in. Let’s assume it will cave in more in a few years and fall. Then its ruins will appear in a shallow seismologically active strait. This huge object will block the movement of ships and can provoke some geological processes.
We do not know what is at the bottom of the Kerch Strait. It has large layers of mud. And there are unknown geological processes under that mud. If tomorrow this heavy object [the bridge – ed.] falls into the strait, nobody knows what will happen.
We can avoid the catastrophe if we dismantle the bridge carefully. Another problem is how to fulfill this in practice. This means that the damage to the environment that comes from the construction of the bridge can be neutralized only in theory.
It is also impossible to restore that area in the mountains where the new open pits appeared. Explosions destroyed the whole mountains. As I already said, those explosions blocked some mineral springs. Those are lost forever.
Baqqal spit. This was a very important place for the nesting of birds. There were no predators there. In general, this was a very interesting geological object. There was a spit. Now it eroded; it does not exist.
The rest can be fixed.