Almost 200 people have been hospitalized following a poisonous chemical spill in Western Ukraine. A cargo train en route from Kazakhstan to Poland derailed in Lviv Region late last Monday, July 16, and six tanker cars loaded with toxic yellow phosphorus cracked, generating a fierce fire. Fire brigades arrived within a matter of hours, but the government’s actions in the aftermath can be described as awkward at best. Deputy Prime Minister for Security Oleksandr Kuzmuk appeared on TV screens across Ukraine comparing the spill to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Later, however, he backtracked on his words. It took several days for President Viktor Yushchenko to react, and then he and the opposition parties accused the government of a lack of professionalism and of attempting to diminish the scale of the disaster.
The government ruled out terrorism from the start. It is not clear whether the phosphorus spilled as a result of the derailment or whether a fire caused the derailment. Ukrainian Transportation Minister Mykola Rudkovsky hurried to shift the blame on Kazakhstan, saying that the railroad was in perfect condition. He banned yellow phosphorus transportation across Ukraine for the period of an investigation.
Yellow phosphorus catches fire if exposed to air, so it must be kept pressurized at all times, toxicology expert Isaak Trahtenberg told Channel 5. In the human body, it partially transforms into phosphoric acid, affecting heart, liver, kidneys, and the nervous system. If treated properly, however, phosphorus poisoning is rarely fatal.
Near 800 people have been evacuated from nearby villages, and the number of people hospitalized because of exposure to toxic fumes grew from 16 on July 16 to almost 200 by July 21. On its way to Lviv Region, the train had reportedly passed through densely populated areas including Kyiv, so the scale of the disaster could have been larger. A deputy chief from Yushchenko’s secretariat, Viktor Bondar, himself a former transport minister, said the ministry had violated regulations requiring such cargoes be transported at night only. First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, however, said the government had coped with the disaster professionally. He said mistakes were made only in work with the mass media, which, he claimed, hyped up the incident.
There are signs, however, that the government is trying to downplay the disaster. This may undermine popular trust, as the mass media, free from government control since the 2004 Orange Revolution, has been covering the disaster and its aftermath in detail, showing its true scale. It did not escape media attention that Kuzmuk radically changed the tone of his statements after initially comparing the phosphorus spill to Chernobyl early on July 17. In the afternoon, he announced, “People can breathe safely and confidently in the area, drink water from their wells, and harvest their crops,” as “the environment in the area is no longer polluted.” Newspapers carried a photo of a stern-faced Kuzmuk eating a cucumber from a local garden.
The Environment Ministry, however, said on July 18 that the phosphorus concentration in the air of at least two nearby villages was 22 times higher than normal. Meteorologists from neighboring Belarus told Segodnya on July 19 that a cloud of toxic fumes was moving toward Central Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities, however, said that no toxic cloud existed and warned against spreading panic.
As more people turned to the hospitals for help, the Health Ministry’s press service said that many of these patients actually were suffering from psychological problems, not poisoning. This is not surprising. Ukrainians remember how the Soviet authorities tried to minimize the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and the need for psychological assistance in the wake of disasters is often ignored in the post-Soviet space.
The investigation into the accident is far from complete, but the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc fingered the culprit as early as July 17. Members said Transportation Minister Rudkovsky was responsible for the derailment and urged his dismissal. Another opposition group, the Ukrainian People’s Party, demanded the immediate dismissal of Rudkovsky and Emergencies Minister Nestor Shufrych.
President Yushchenko also urged Rudkovsky’s dismissal, and he accused the government of trying to conceal the consequences of the disaster. Yushchenko waited until July 20 to cut short his summer vacation in the Crimea and paid a brief visit to Lviv Region. By then, 184 people had been hospitalized, including several TV journalists who had covered the disaster, firemen, and more than 50 children. Speaking in Lviv, Yushchenko said that he would ask Polish experts for help.
In the meantime, more accidents have been reported on Ukrainian roads. On July 19, a bus crashed in Crimea killing six people and wounding 46. The bus reportedly was too old to carry passengers safely. On July 21, a rail tank with chlorine derailed in eastern Kharkiv Region, but there were fortunately no casualties. It seems as if dark clouds are gathering over the unlucky Minister Rudkovsky.
(Interfax-Ukraine, July 17, 18; UNIAN, July 17-20; Itar-Tass, July 19; Segodnya, July 20; Channel 5, ICTV, July 17-21; Ukrayinska pravda, July 21)