23.08.2012 | Halya Coynash

A Detective Story with a Difference


At his last press conference on 27 July 2012, environmentalist Volodymyr Honcharenko called the drawn-out saga over chemically contaminated heat exchangers which he was exposing a “detective story”.  It is now for the investigators to determine whether the fatal attack on Mr Honcharenko just four days later was an episode in this crime story.

There are unfortunately already worrying trends, , both with respect to the investigation into the murder of the civic activist, and regarding the serious allegations he made just days before he was killed.  Of particular concern are the obviously premature statements from the local authorities regarding checks which supposedly proved that the allegations were unfounded.  There seems a suspicious reluctance to consider Mr Honcharenko’s civic activities as a highly probable motive for his murder, as well as overt, albeit unconvincing, attempts to blacken the murdered man’s name.

There can obviously be other explanations for the attack on Volodymyr Honcharenko, however discrepancies are disturbing. The investigators have spoken of possible conflict following two cars “colliding”. However Mr Honcharenko managed to inform his son-in-law that he had noticed a white car acting strangely and had tried to steer clear of it.  The car however cut in front of his, forcing him to stop. Two men got out and began brutally beating him with a blunt instrument, then drove out without even attempting to steal anything.

Any environmentalist, journalist or civic activist investigating violations, corruption etc runs the risk of irritating certain people. If, that is, they really have researched something, and not just invented some easily refutable story.

On 27 July 2012 Volodymyr Honcharenko, a scientist and the Head of the NGO “For People’s Right to a Safe Environment” disclosed information about 183 tonnes of chemically contaminated scrap metal in the city of Kryvy Rih. Now we may understand next to nothing about the subject, but Mr Honcharenko was entirely specific that the chemical in question was hexachlorbenzol, a particularly toxic substance. And that we were talking about a huge amount of metal contaminated with a poison which the Stockholm Conference has stipulated needs special measures of caution.  In short, about the kind of load that you wouldn’t like to be careering around the city with in the middle of a Ukrainian heat wave.  Volodymyr Honcharenko and his colleagues recorded both the entirely illegal movements around the city and the lack of all those officials who had been warned. Even the traffic police were conspicuous by their absence despite the fact that the sheer weight of the three heat exchangers made their presence more than desirable.

The glaring absence of officialdom makes the statement on the City Council’s official site claiming that “the city authorities react immediately to reports of danger to Kryvy Rih citizens” at very least startling. The assertion that the “specially created commission checked everything and found no harmful substances” is particularly disturbing given the method used for this “test”. We are told that the air in the place where the heat exchangers are held was checked in the toxicology laboratory of the Kryvy Rih City Sanitation and Epidemiology Station and that no harmful substances were found.

We are no longer able to ask Volodymyr Honcharenko, however his colleagues could have immediately explained that a test of the air quality would find nothing.  In their words, “air samples could not on principle give reliable results, it is not so easy to emit hexachlorbenzol into the air and it’s unlikely the Sanitation Station would be able to. Fumes from this chemical compound begin being emitted at a temperature of 330 degrees and higher”.

If you want to look for criminals only under the lamppost where there’s more light, you can except your figures for crimes solved to reflect this approach. Toxic chemicals must be looked for in a way that makes it possible to find them instead of efforts being made to con the public with tests that don’t prove anything.

The Honcharenko Team formed after Volodymyr Honcharenko’s murder from colleagues and volunteers have information from their contact that the press conference given by Ihor Bohush, representative of Ukr-Euro, the firm owning the heat exchangers was organized by the local authorities.

A civic activist who exposed information of enormous public significance has been murdered. Or, if you believe the line presented by Ihor Bohush from the firm that Honcharenko so criticized, he “was defending his business by starting up an information campaign”.

The local authorities supposedly took the information provided by Mr Honcharenko seriously and extremely efficiently created a commission which has already managed to reject the allegations. Or almost, since they haven’t yet ended the formal investigation and say only that the material is with the Environmental Prosecutor.

Nobody knows what is being checked and how.

All of this is in howling violation of the Aarhus Convention which is intended to defend our right of access to information about the environment. This is not information about ladybirds and butterflies, but about what has immediate significance for our safety and health.

We are talking in this case not only about one of the world’s most toxic chemicals. It is manifestly clear that any attempts to conceal information about the contaminated scrap metal could adversely affect the investigation into the murder of a civic and environmental activist.

The Ukrainian authorities have for the last two weeks almost entirely ignored this situation. They cannot fail to understand the grave consequences which extend both beyond the Dnipropetrovsk oblast, and conceivable beyond Ukraine’s borders. Volodymyr Honcharenko believed that there might be attempts to mix the contaminated scrap metal with other metal in order to hide its toxic content, and then sell it at home or send it for export.  Mr Honcharenko was murdered and this information urgently needs to be checked.

In the situation that has arisen, it is vital to organize a collection of samples in the presence of NGOs and the media, as well as of representatives of the authorities. These samples must be tested in an accredited laboratory and the results made known.

The media and public must defend their right of access to information of public importance, including on the investigation into the murder of Volodymyr Honcharenko.

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