The Contaminated City
Text by Alessandra Briganti
Pictures by Ivo Saglietti
Elbasan: The Contaminated City
In Elbasan, there are no smells or sounds. It is an aseptic hybrid, half-city half-countryside. Goats graze in the contaminated fields. They also make no noise. By its mere presence, the Metalurgjiku silences everything that gravitates around it. The monumental communist metallurgical plant no longer erupts toxic fumes. Or at least not as it used to.
What once used to be the pride of Albania’s industry today is largely in disuse. Tonnes of iron and nickel dust clouds continue to be released into the air, yet this is nothing compared to the past. The past, when Enver Hoxha’s communist regime decided to transform Albania from a country of peasants to a country of proletarians. The industrialization process was backed by the great communist powers, China and the Soviet Union. The heart of the operation was Elbasan, 50 km south of the capital, Tirana. Surrounded by mountains, the river Shkumbin cuts through it. Work at the Metalurgjiku began in the sixties and it was here that the heavy metals which served the country’s entire industry were processed. Subsequently, a cement factory was built as well as plants for nickel and ferrochromium processing.
Back then the environment was not a hot topic. It would be decades before the issue would be addressed. And yet the damage caused this imposing monument to an industry that had already corrupted the skies and dug deep into the earth. Elbasan was shrouded in a blanket of ferrous fog. The ground is still saturated with tonnes of heavy metal waste, two million of which was detected along the banks of the river Shkumbin. To this day the area has never been remediated. The soil remains contaminated as do the fruits it bears. As well as contamination there is also mutation, the genetic mutation of animals and human beings. In the early nineties with the downfall of communism revelations of two-headed calves and malformations in babies hit the news. What is certain is that the incidence of cancer in Elbasan continues to be very high. The result of a brutal past spilling into a just as ruthless present.
Elbasan’s new scourge has come in the form of privatisation. With communism a closed chapter, Metalurgjiku was also dismissed, or at least initially. Then the plant was preyed upon. By ECM, Darfo Albania, Terwingo and above all by Turkish company Kurum, the leader in Albania’s metal recycling industry. If Communism was the corpse, private companies were the worms now feeding off the decaying cadaver. Today the mood in Elbasan is festive. It is the celebration of Spring in Albania and people flock here in search of ballokume which are sold everywhere, in the shade of old beach umbrellas. Heaps of biscuits made from cornflower lie covered by a thin veil of plastic film. They are the local speciality. A cookie to celebrate the season of awakenings in a place that screams death and destruction. Yet another paradox in the land of paradoxes.
Deep in the bowels of Metalurgjiku, emptiness transforms into a sense of suffocation taking your breath away. Even more than an industrial site, the rusty iron scrap pieces represent an ideology. Buried under wild plants, just like Communism has been buried. Amongst the skeletons of the decommissioned plants are piles of metal scrap. They are waiting to be disposed of in the new Kurum factory. For years the Turkish company processed aluminium, iron and other metals without using filters to counter the collateral effects of metal recycling. As the years passed the clouds once again became shrouded in black. The inhabitants started to protest, exhausted and caught between a battle for their health rights and the wild privatization in which the State is all too often an accomplice of profit. Finally, Kurum was forced to comply with the mandatory requirements. However, these were not always applied. And so, the clouds once again turned black, the heavy air pressing down on your chest.
Waste. It is the latest scourge in Elbasan, after the poisons released into the air by Metalurgjiku and the metal waste which seeped into the ground. On a hill not far from the village looms the sole incinerator built in Albania. A bitter story mixing corruption, arrogance and a disregard of the rules which begins in the land of eagles and ends in Italy. Or at least that is what is suspected. Built by Albtek following a tender worth 22 million Euros with no participants, the incinerator processes garbage collected solely in the Elbasan district. Too little for it to function, declares Lavdosh Ferruni, head of an environmental movement monitoring the import of waste from abroad. For it to be operational, all the garbage collected in Albania would have to converge onto Elbasan. «There are two scenarios,“ comments Ferruni, “either the incinerator has never been operational, in which case the tenure was staged solely to satisfy the appetites of the company that built it; or the plant is used to burn waste illegally brought in from Italy.”
Illegally because the first move of Rama’s government was to make it illegal to import waste material from abroad. Although it did subsequently try to back out on the measure, the change, of course, was not successful and the ban remained in force. The incinerator is hidden behind a long concrete wall. Beyond the wall, blackbirds glide over an enormous expanse of garbage. Piled there it awaits to be regurgitated in the form of energy. However, the garbage-burning monster is not operational. «Maintenance work,” the engineer showing us around quickly says. Rumours are rife. The incinerator is a money-making machine, for Klodian Zoto, the entrepreneur also alleged to be behind present-day construction of incinerators in Fier and Tirana. And the story probably does not end here. According to reliable sources the disposal site is also a cover-up. Waste brought over from Italy is buried there. A “Land of Fires” in the heart of Albania.
There is a corner of paradise in the infernal landscape of Elbasan. A few kilometres from the ghost city, the land is torn in two by the crystalline waters of the Holta running through it. It is one of Albania’s most spectacular canyons. One of Nature’s monuments made of caves and streams, a tourist destination cherished by many. Although the Canyon was declared a conservation area, it was not enough to protect it from the schemes of private interests and politics which are disfiguring the face of Albania. There are plans to build one of the hundreds of hydroelectric plants scattered over the Country there, plants which have given rise to criticism and triggered protests by citizens and environmentalists. The controversial issue of hydroelectric power is one that concerns all Balkan countries, yet Albania boasts a sad record. According to the Agency for Natural Resources some 183 contracts have been signed for the construction of 524 hydroelectric power plants, of which 117 are already operational, 43 are under construction and the rest are still in the planning phase.