May 13, 2022 - World

Exclusive: 21 federal agencies monitoring Ukraine war's environmental toll

Satellite image of damage to Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 9, 2022.

Satellite imagery of buildings on fire in western Mariupol, Ukraine, on April 9, 2022. Satellite image: ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Senior U.S. officials are huddling weekly to assess and share information on the environmental threats Ukraine faces due to Russia's invasion, Axios has learned.

  • The goal of the interagency group, which is comprised of 21 federal agencies, is to assist the Ukrainian government with tracking and mitigating environmental hazards, some of which could last for years after fighting ends.

Why it matters: The destruction of civilian infrastructure, such as water treatment plants, fuel depots and hazardous waste sites, is creating complex threats to the ecosystems people depend upon for food, water and other uses.

Zoom in: The State Department stood up the working group about a month ago in response to a request for assistance from the Ukrainian government, State Department officials told Axios.

  • Participants include representatives from NASA, the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Forest Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Defense.
  • The Forest Service and its partners in Ukraine, for example, are working to monitor wildfires and run fire risk models for the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, where fires could spread radioactive material.
  • Known as the "Interagency Working Group on Environmental Damage in Ukraine," the group covers a wide range of issues, from pollution resulting from the war to changes in wildfire risk as battles rage in and around forested lands. In addition, war-related waste and debris management is part of its remit, as is biodiversity loss.
  • The group is spearheaded by a unit within the State Department known as the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. Other bureaus are assisting with the effort, a State Department official said.

The intrigue: Ukraine requested help in documenting environmental damage in part to try to hold Russia accountable for it after the conflict, the official said.

  • Ukraine is seeking access to data that can reveal a before-and-after view of the country's environmental resources, including biodiversity and protected sites, as well as the damage to sites that are now causing significant amounts of pollution, the official stated.

Between the lines: The work the U.S. is doing includes everything from satellite monitoring of pollution and possible wildfires via NASA satellites and Forest Service programs to monitoring agricultural resources and supply chain disruptions to Ukraine's prized wheat crop.

  • NASA is preparing wheat yield reports and tracking the progress of the harvest, as well as monitoring global crop conditions.
  • According to Lara Peterson, assistant director for Russia, Europe and Eurasia at the Forest Service and a participant in the interagency group, her agency is also working to try to scale up wilderness-based therapy programs for those traumatized by the conflict, when it is safe to do so.
  • The Forest Service already runs such programs in the U.S., she said.

Our thought bubble: In war, the environment typically suffers, and Ukraine and the U.S. are essentially engaged in an environmental intelligence-sharing relationship, much as the military is with the Ukrainian armed forces.

Go deeper