First ever study of Albania’s environment shocks United Nations experts

A new study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has revealed five extremely contaminated ‘hot spots’ and has reportedly shocked some of the experts involved in the study.

While attention has been focused on the problems of neighbouring former and present-day Yugoslavia, the environmental devastation in tiny Albania, sealed off for 50 years and for a long time by far the poorest country in Europe, has just been brought to light by the UNEP in the first ever study of the nation’s environment. The report, released on 26 April, shows that five sites nationwide are in need of ‘immediate remedial action’, while a further four have been identified as “serious environmental threats requiring urgent attention”. The situation is so serious that some UN staff were said to be “shocked” by what they discovered.

One of the most hazardous sites encountered is in Albania’s biggest port, Durres, where a several-square-kilometre area is severely contaminated by hazardous chemical and residues from a former chemical plant, a waste dump, and an abandoned chemical storage site. Here thousands of citizens who have recently arrived from other areas of Albania are living amidst and around toxic contamination and “grave risks are being posed to human health, ground water, and marine habitat”, with 20,000 tonnes of chemicals under a thin layer of soil.

Residents even live in a former lindane store, saying that on hot days they have to leave their home because vapour threatens to overwhelm them. Vegetable plots on the site were found to have concentrations of lindane at up to 500 times the EU safety limit while milk from local cows is 100 times maximum recommended levels of the pesticide which causes liver and kidney failure and cancer. Pesticides from the area, together with city’s raw sewage are pumped straight into the sea, but local seafood continues to be sold.

In another ‘hot spot’ at Vlore, a holiday resort, there is 1,000 times the permitted level of mercury in the soil and on the beach, because of a former chlorine alkali and PVC factory. As in Durres, refugee families have moved on to the site and take advantage of free electricity and water from the factory. The UNEP says they are “living in extremely hazardous” conditions and that steps were not taken to prevent contamination of the environment by mercury sludge dumped nearby. The UNEP’s visit has prompted the city’s mayor to stop local builders stealing sand from the site to build local homes and hotels.

In the capital, Tirana, dioxins are deposited in the rain and toxic smoke from fires at the city’s main rubbish dump in Sharra. UNEP says that there is a lack of hazardous waste facilities in the country, leading it to be dumped in Sharra and dumpsite effluent is “probably leaching into the groundwater and contaminating nearby waters”.

The Patos-Marize oilfield, where there are lakes of oil from leaks, groundwater is being severely contaminated by oil from wells, pumps, pipelines and pre-treatment facilities and sulphurous gas and hydrocarbon emissions are polluting the surrounding atmosphere, poses “serious health risks” to residents. The other principal concern is the oil refinery at nearby Ballsh where large quantities of the refinery’s oil are emitted into the surrounding environment and contaminated wastewater is being discharged into a river and affecting local water supplies.

The UNEP will eventually move to clean-up operations as it did in Yugoslavia after NATO’s bombing campaign (see this month’s feature).

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