Despite promises made over the course of several decades, citizens still suffer consequences of the extreme pollution of the air, the land, and the river.
Manushaqe Sejati has been living in the Bradashesh neighborhood of Elbasan for over 36 years. At the dawn of every new day her work regime is dictated by the challenges she must face each day for living that close to the steel plant.
“Every morning we need to clean our windows, handrails, and every other thing outside of our house, because everything is covered with dust,” Sejati complains. “At night the Metallurgic plant produces more steel.”
“They don’t put to use filters to reduce the amount of smoke belching out. The land produces nothing because of the pollution,” she says with a worried look on her face.
Similarly, Albert Çela, another inhabitant who lives not far from the steel plant, considers life near this industrial park a calamity. He goes even further, in reminiscing about some cases of genetic mutations of living things in this town, which locals believe are caused by the serious environmental pollution of the surrounding area.
“There have been countless cases of people and animals born with missing limbs or extra limbs” says the local man. “The industrial waste is all around us, both in our fields and in the Shkumbini River.”
Locals report to of the countless problems they face because of the pollution, and their stories clearly reveal the frustration and anger stemming from this situation which has been going on for decades; yet no one has even attempted to find a conclusive and satisfactory solution.
These troubles started with the construction of the Metallurgical Plant in the 70s, and since then this industrial park has created more and more problems for the locals. Foreign and domestic companies have privatized several workshops and factories, and their operations are carried out without any serious supervision from authorities.
Pollution, Elbasan is the city most affected by respiratory illnesses
Inhabitants of the Bradashesh neighborhood in Elbasan, and other areas surrounding the Metallurgical Plant, tell us that the air they breathe every day is slowly choking them, while doctors and other health care officials consider Elbasan as the most problematic city regarding respiratory illnesses.
The data obtained from the university hospital Mother Teresa (QSUT) show that during these last years Elbasan has consistently ranked first in the country on chronic illnesses of the respiratory apparatus, and has also occupied the top spot in the list of districts on deaths caused by chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema, and asthma.
Furthermore, the findings of QSUT show that this city is ranked second with regards to gastro-intestinal illnesses, while it is the city with the largest number of premature births and birth defects.
Investigative Journalism Lab watched closely the situation of the air pollution in the area, and monitored the operations of the companies around the clock.
It was clearly visible, without any need for special equipment, that factories released much more smoke around midnight and the early hours of the morning than they did during daytime.
At dawn the sky would darken by billows of black smoke belching from factory smokestacks in the steel plant industrial park.
The air pollution in Elbasan has been reported periodically by the National Environmental Agency. In its latest yearly report the agency said that during 2015 Elbasan rivaled the capital city, Tirana, as one of the most polluted cities in Albania with regards to the quality of air in the urban area, and the presence of heavy metals in air particulates. To date, there is no well-defined strategy to reduce pollution and improve the situation.
Mountains of waste, still there, despite promises
To Manushaqe, Albert, and other inhabitants of the neighborhoods around the Metallurgical Plant industrial park, the huge stockpiles of slag left over decades of smelting are another source of concern.
At the moment there are mountains of slag near the factories and along the banks of the Shkumbini river and they have been there for decades. Trucks full of slag and other waste from factories continue to dump their load along the banks of Shkumbini River. It is estimated that these heaps of waste contain thousands of tons of slag and other debris, while these mounds stretch for more than 250 meters (800 feet) and rise to more than 15 meters (50 feet) in height.
Disposing of waste in the surrounding environment has started well before 1990, when all the companies were state owned, and it continues to date by private companies that have resumed industrial activity in this area.
The State Inspectorate of Environment and Forests was supposed to monitor the situation and take measures to fix this problem, following a 2015 government decision.
However, the situation in the ground tells quite a different story.
The Lab monitored the affected area for any signs of government activity, but the only people who are trying to make a dent in reducing the amount of slag and other waste are poor collectors of scrap metal who dig into these mounds to find and sell any piece of metal that has not been digested by the steel plant factories.
Environmental expert Ahmet Mehmeti, also a member of the Elbasan municipal council, confirms to Lab that at the moment the dumping of waste along the banks of the Shkumbini River continues unabated and out of control or supervision.
“The dumping of industrial waste continues with the same rhythm,” says Mehmeti. “That waste contains heavy metals such as chromium, mercury, lead, etc. To date there have been no interventions to fix this situation. The pollution of the (banks of the) Shkumbini river has consequences not only for Elbasan.
“The river’s water washes away some of the debris from the mounds of slag,” he adds. “This way (the hazardous material) is transferred from the banks of the river to underwater living things, plants, and ends up inside people.”
In the meantime, environmentalist Lavdosh Ferruni is critical of the way industrial waste is disposed at the moment, and provides suggestions on how to fix this problem.
“Open waste dumping has grave consequences for the environment,” Ferruni said. “Rainwater contaminates the river, the ground and then the agricultural produce. This waste should be dumped in a special landfill.”
When asked by Lab on a plan to resolve this situation, the Ministry of Environment says that the responsibility for removing the waste lies with the local government and not with them.
“The integrated management of waste is a legal obligation of the local government,” says the Ministry of Environment. “Since this waste has been deposited there by different operators, the main responsibility lies with the industrial operators that have generated this waste, according to the ‘Polluter pays’ principle.”
Upon receiving this answer by the ministry Lab contacted the Municipality of Elbasan, which shifted responsibility to yet another institution.
“Foreign and domestic private companies who operate in the industrial park of the former Metallurgical Plant, do so under the supervision of the Ministry of Economy,” says the town hall. “This includes their territory and any buildings on it. Similarly, any responsibility related to their output, including technological waste, lies with this ministry and not the Municipality of Elbasan.”
Next Lab contacted the Ministry of Economy which replied that they have no competencies and responsibilities related to the operations of these companies.
It said that the responsible party for the present situation is the Ministry of Energy and Industry. Even in this case responsibility was shifted to yet another institution.
Lab contacted the Ministry of Energy and Industry, which said that it has no competencies and responsibilities on disposing of waste produced by private companies.
“Regarding the disposal of industrial waste, generated by private companies which operate on the territory of the Metallurgical Plant, we inform you that the issue of waste disposal is monitored by institutions under the supervision of the Ministry of Environment, which impose limits and restrictions upon issuing of environment permits and licenses to companies to carry out their activity,” says the ministry. “These institutions should continuously monitor (these companies), to ensure the enforcement of the legislation on waste disposal, according to which ‘Polluter Pays’.”
Regardless of the institutional ping pong, the Elbasan Regional Environmental Agency tells that there is still no plan in place to manage and dispose of the industrial waste.
“There is no plan yet or any other concrete undertaking to dispose of the mounds of slag,” says the head of the agency Lutfi Gjinishi. “It is possible that all the waste may be washed away by the Shkumbini River, even today its waters may be polluted. The area around the Metallurgical Plant is dangerous, and it has always been like that.”
Lab also talked to the Inspectorate of Environment and Forests in Elbasan. Chief-inspector Gazmend Sadiku says the problem with the waste goes back a long time.
“I can’t tell. I haven’t been in the field to tell you whether inhabitants are in peril or not,” Sadiku says. “The problem of waste disposal did not arise today; it has been going on for years. So far we haven’t had any complaints from inhabitants. Regarding the extent of pollution, I don’t have any data; I don’t know what to tell you.”
Lab also contacted the steel production and smelting company, Kurum, which is considered by locals as one of the most active companies in the Metallurgical Plant industrial park.
The name of this company was mentioned several times as the main source of pollution in the area by most of the people interviewed.
However, representatives of the Kurum company say they do not dump slag and other waste along the banks of Shkumbini river, but have created a special dump site for this purpose.
“It must be said that the waste generated by our industrial activity are non-hazardous waste, such as slag and calx,” says the Turkish company. “This waste is shipped to Germany. We generate some 45.000 – 48.000 tons of slag each year.”
However, regardless of excuses and blame-shifting by government institutions and private companies operating in the area, the mountains of industrial waste are still there, immovable and getting bigger by the day, testifying to the failure of all parties involved to secure normal living conditions to the inhabitants of the area.