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The salinisation of the river Inguletz

from an ecological point of view


Salinisation of river water, as a consequence of mining activities, is a common problem. Cleaning of salted waste water is theoretical possible but would not make sense from an ecological point of view. The amount of energy needed would be by far too high. So the question is how this problem is managed in Ukraine and in other countries, what can be done and what should be done.

Unfortunately, only little information is available in Ukraine on technical solutions and ecological improvements that have been reached in other countries. This is not a scientific website, it is only a collection of facts and hints which should be helpful in further discussions.
Iron ore mining activities in Ukraine are concentrated in the Inguletz
river basin. The situation in this catchment area, ecological problems and the encountered conflict potential between economy and ecology are described here as an example. The occasion was a seminar organised from the OSCE (Kiev office), ABA-Ceeli (American association of advocates, Kiev office) and the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine (further UA) in Nikolajev - following the recommendations of the Aarhus convention that has been ratified in Ukraine ~7 years ago. The organisers brought together authorities from various state administrations, including the Ministry of Ecology, the Cabinet of Ministers, Ecological Inspectorates, local administrations, farmer association, NGOs, industry, lawyer and an expert for ecology.
This page also aims to discuss the expertise ("Regalement ..." from November 2000) which was the basis of the latest discharge permission of the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers. It should evaluate some aspects of its ecological point of view and make it available to the public.


Geological background information

The iron deposit in the Krivbass region is considered as one of the biggest world-wide. The whole crude steel capacity is 52 million tons making it the fourth largest producer in the world after Japan, Russia and the US!
Ukraine's total reserves of iron ore are estimated at 27.4 billion tones (A+B+C1 category) and composed of rich (1.9 billion tones), as well as of poor ferriferous quartzes (24.1) and brown iron ores (1.4). 60 of the 83 iron ore deposits included in the estimate, are in the Krivoj Rog basin, whose reserves equal 18.7 billion tons. The basin stretches from north to south along the Inguletz, Saksagan and Zhovta rivers as a narrow 100 km long strip. This strip is 2-7 km wide. Iron ores lie at depths of 1 - 2.5 km. Of the greatest commercial importance are high-grade ores (containing 44-48% of iron) and high quality ores (50-60% of iron). High-grade ores practically have no harmful impurities. Also medium-grade ores (35-40% of iron) are dug out. Since the time the Krivoj Rog basin started operating, some 6 billion tons of ore have been extracted there. In the early 90`s, 17 mines, 5 larger concentrators servicing 10 quarries, operated there.

Ukraine's second largest iron ore deposit is the Kremenchug basin explored in 1924-1928. It stretches for 45 km. After being concentrated, ore containing about 70% of iron is used by iron and steel plants. Ore reserves are estimated at 4.5 billion tons. Large deposits are located in the northern part of the basin, but they lie rather deep.

Unfortunately, the best iron ore reserves are mostly depleted already and its SiO2 content is rather high.
These figures should help to realise that they nevertheless have an enormous importance for Ukrainian economy. Steel, especially low quality products, are known to be one of the major export articles.


Environmental pollution and identification of missing facts

Unfortunately, the mines and some other pits and quarries are deeper than the ground water level. To keep the mines dry, about 20 million m3/a water is pumped off into big lagoons for storage and sedimentation of iron hydroxide and other suspended matter during summer. The collected ground water was in contact with salty layers and became more or less salty depending from the local situation and the depth where it came from.

Another source of water pollution is the iron processing industry (ore enriching mills and metallurgical plants) that needs water for various purposes. Following assessments of the World Bank in this matter, the metallurgical industry, mainly related to the steel sector, is the most polluting waste water producer in UA. The age of most technical installations is quite high and dates back to the 1930s with some reconstructions after the 2nd world war. The iron ore quality is already rather low: about 52 % in UA compared to 65 % in more profitable places of the world. The low quality affects operating costs, energy consumption, productivity and last not least causes pollution. That means, the major pollution problems are related to poor energy efficiency and heavily contaminated waste waters. To be competitive on the world market, UA would have to invest in modern more effective technology to produce a higher product quality, to minimise iron residues in the waste and to produce less and less polluted waste water. Questions of environmental protection are obviously closely connected to the necessary reconstruction process. Many other countries have already experiences in such reconstruction processes, including France, Turkey and Poland. Those processes can be accompanied by privatisation including financial and also environmental aspects. In a shorter term view, improvements should be possible to reach through operational and process changes (following the assessment of the World Bank). The quantity of water consumption e.g., seems too big compared to EC countries: UA needs 19 m3/tons raw steel, the EC countries 5-10 m3/ton. Beside waste water production, the treatment of waste water can be improved. This would also concern the coke plants in the Krivoj Rog region that discharges phenols, aromatics and cyanides. All waste water streams together (more than 300 000 m3) flow into the storage basins, about 100 000 m3 is recycled and the rest flows into the Inguletz river.
As the water from this area contains high amounts of iron and salts, both matter are regularly monitored in waste water and river water. Also some other compounds have already been included in the investigation like phosphorous, oil products, phenols, inorganic nitrogen compounds and radioactivity. In the available documents it is however not specified when, where exactly and how the samples have been taken. It is therefore difficult to evaluate those data.

There are lots of other parameters that could perhaps play a role in such cases and which should be controlled if this was not done before. Especially heavy metals and arsenic, which is often associated with iron, should be considered. Very important are also the highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) which are used as hydraulic liquid and as transformer oils.

About 20 years ago, this group of highly toxic substances was spread into the environment in western Germany. In the mining areas, river sediments and fish showed the highest concentrations. Later PCB was found in breast milk together with dioxins and DDT making the use of this milk for babies questionable. Finally, PCB was detected in the fat tissues of mostly all adults. This is explained in detail to make understandable that it is not sufficient to control just a few chemical parameters and the consequences for fishery and agriculture.

An ecological assessment of the pollution effects must therefore be worked out carefully and put beside the economic benefits of the iron processing industry.

Pollution assessment

In a first approach, we can asses the effects of the main pollutant, chloride, using a classification scheme that is used by governmental Inspectorates in Germany. Strong salinisation is already stated when chloride and/or sulphate concentration is over 200 to 400 mg/L, very strong if up to 800 mg/L and extremely strong if more than 800 mg/L have been found. The basis for such a classification are observations at lots of places over many years. It's obvious that only those organisms can tolerate high and changing salt concentrations which usually migrate between the sea and freshwater rivers like the eel and the sea trout. It turned out that the biocoenosis, that means the natural community of organisms, is already influenced if chloride concentration reaches 200 – 400 mg/L. Fishes are not concerned but sensitive species of the macrozoobenthos disappear already.

Between 400 and 1000 mg/L the composition and number of species is distinctly reduced. Even parts of the fish population are concerned because the development of spawn is affected.

Between 1000 and 2500 mg/L mainly salt tolerant forms of macrozoobenthos (these are organisms living on the river bottom) survive with a tendency to mass developments. The occurrence of fish species is restricted to less sensitive adult individuals which do not reproduce anymore. They often show symptoms of illness. This water can also not be used for irrigation.

If the chloride concentration is higher than 3500 mg/L only a few forms typical for brackish water can be found.

Loads of sulphate produce similar results but are usually less effective than those of chlorides.

Another pollution source that was not mentioned before must be included here. This concerns sewage water discharged from poorly working treatment plants into the river. In case of high salt concentrations, the biological self purification process in the river is disturbed. This concerns the degradation of organic matter, the nitrification, especially the bacteriological oxidation of nitrites to nitrate is inhibited. The resulting accumulation of ammonium and nitrites must be considered as to be dangerous not only for fish but for the whole ecosystem.

Tasks according to EC directives and other exigencies

The European Water Framework Directive (4) prescribes, that all member states maintain and improve the ecological state of surface waters until the year 2015. For this aim, the ecological quality of rivers (within basin areas > 2500 km2) has to be determined and monitored using methods described in detail. For rivers with bad or low water quality as the river Inguletz (basin area 14900 km2) attainable aims have to be fixed and progresses have to be reported. Results of physico-chemical and biological investigations can be represented in thematical maps, which usually are published every four years. What else should be included into an ecological evaluation?

In order to minimise environmental damages, plans should have been made for the restoration or revitalisation of the whole landscape. Normally, corresponding measures should be started not only after the end but already during or better before the exploitation phase.

For further details search the literature.!

The mining industry should inform the public

  • what measures have been taken to reduce pollution
  • to what extend, the water that has been used by the iron processing industry, could be recycled
  • if it is possible to separate less salty water for discharge and to press strongly salty water from deeper layers into gaps of the deeper underground ("deep well injection" as practised in Germany)
  • Beside the pollution from known discharge points, contaminants can be spread through non point source pollution e.g. through the ground water. The extend of ground water pollution should be investigated including several depths or layers. There is some evidence that such diffuse pollution sources load the river water even in summer.
  • The river ecosystem should be investigated including flora and fauna. It should also be clarified which species are missing and why. It is also questionable if the strong concentration changes between summer and winter are less harmful than a somewhat higher more constant concentration. This decision must be based on reliable chemical and biological analyses not only including fish. Beside chlorides, iron could have an adverse effect because it forms hydroxide flocks that cover the river bed. Other important aspects are a) that the water is not to warm, b) sufficient oxygen content, c) a good structure of the river bed and d) no fish-toxic matter like ammonia and nitrite should be present
  • It is necessary to check for contaminants, including PCB, not only in water but also in sediments and biota.
  • Water for irrigation purposes and the soils have to be controlled following the Ukrainian state standard (DSTU 2730-94). If a drainage system exists under the irrigated field salts can be washed out from time to time on the costs of the polluter.


After the clarification of more technical and scientific details it should be possible to decide

  • what quality and quantity of contaminants is unavoidable to discharge in a short term, middle term and long term view
  • what is the most reasonable and most cost effective solution for this problem including considerations of economic losses because of limited water uses and costs of a tube for waste water discharge into the Dnepr (about 40 km away)
  • if it is better to discharge a higher amount of salts in winter (as practised today) or a more stable concentration all over the year
  • which regulation covers the needs of the Ukrainian laws
  • what measures should be requested for compensation of ecological and economical impacts

To answer those questions, various different scenarios should be worked out and presented to the responsible authorities including the Cabinet of Ministers. NGOs and the public should be informed and asked to participate in finding solutions and to support future decisions. For the river Inguletz, the final aim is to reduce pollution and its impacts as far as possible and to find solutions or compromises that are socially acceptable for the whole population and on an international level.

Information sources

  1. World Bank report No 12238-UA (1993)
  2. F.Zastavny.Geography of Ukraine..-Lviv: Svit, (1994);
  3. Landesumweltamt Nordrhein-Westfalen : Gewaesserguetebericht 2000 - Sonderbericht -, Essen (FRG) (2000)
  4. Water Framework Directive 2000/60/EC

Heavy river salinisation can also be the consequence of the use of road salts. The problem is described here.

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last update Jan. 2017
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