Pollution ‘off the scale’ at Russian rocket crash site

A rocket which crashed shortly after lift-off from a Soviet-era launch site in Kazakhstan has spread highly toxic fuel over miles of the surrounding countryside.

The unmanned Russian-built Depna rocket was supposed to be carrying 18 satellites into orbit, but the planned flight went disastrously wrong just over a minute after it launched when the engine shut off and it took a nose dive, plunged into an uninhabited area, leaving a crater 60m across.

While the crash site was 35km from the nearest settlement and there was no damage to life or property, apart from loss of the multi-million dollar rockets and its precious cargo, the environmental impact is likely to be significant.

The fuel used by the rocket, dimethylhydrazine – better known as heptyl, is extremely toxic and poses a particular risk to livestock and wildlife that graze on plants in the effect area, which can absorb the chemical as the grow.

It is also a carcinogenic and can explode on contact with oxidants and local papers have described the level of contamination as ‘off the scale’.

40 tonnes of heptyl and a further 107 tonnes of less hazardous amyl-based fuel were carried by the rocket at lift-off and samples taken at the crash site show concentrations of heptyl to be over 1,000 times legally permissible safety levels.

Moscow has agreed to compensate Kazakhstan for the clean up operation and the payout is expected to be in the region of US$1.5 million.

The remote Baikonur launch site is no stranger to accidents and was ironically already employing scientists to investigate the best option for the remediation land contaminated by Heptyl spills, with work underway on both bacterial and plant-based solutions.

Sam Bond

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