Gjanica, the most polluted river in the country, gas and olive oil companies receive minimal penalties

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  • Various reports of state agencies, as well as of NGOs, prove that Gjanica continues to hold the record as one of the most polluted rivers in the country. Hydrocarbon and olive processing companies have received minimal penalties, although they have been caught several times dumping their waste into the river. According to the National Environment Agency, 20 thousand tons of oil end up in the surrounding environment and in the waters of the Gjanicë River.

    Authors: Endri Arizi, Ervis Kuqi and Ilmi Saliaj

    In November 2022, the waters of the Gjanica River were polluted by the sludge from the waste of hydrocarbon companies and olive factories. This situation lasted for almost 10 days in a row.

    3 months after this environmental incident, it is not clear if the Regional Environment Agency (REA) has identified the company that dumped the waste in November, although a task force has since been set up. In its response to Investigative Network Albania, REA says that it has not imposed fines, as this was not the purpose of the field investigation.

    “The inspection group has verified the olive processing entities along the Gjanica river, to see and closely verify the discharge of polluted water into the river. The inspection group did not impose fines on the subjects, as the purpose of the field investigation was to verify the discharges and determine the tasks for the problems they would encounter”, – explains REA, listing the tasks left to them.

    Pollution of the river Gjanica in the month of November 2022

    Considered one of the most polluted rivers in Albania, Gjanica underwent a rehabilitation process worth 630 million ALL during 2021.

    The river that passes through the city of Fier underwent a rehabilitation project earlier, as part of the Urban Renaissance projects, but various reports on the water quality of Gjanica confirm that the rehabilitation of the facade has not been able to save the river from alarming pollution.

    As a result, the 100,000 inhabitants of Fier are at risk, while these waters also go to irrigate agricultural lands.

    “All the waste is in the Gjanica river. There is only infection here. When it’s good weather, you get dizzy from the terrible smell”, – says Bashkim Kasaj, a resident of the village of Ofiçinë in Mallakastra, who confesses that the river used to have crystal clear waters.

    “When I was little, I bathed in Gjanicë, it was very clean”, – another resident remembers.

    Divided into two parts, from the upper area of Mallakastra, from where it originates to the village of Panahor, the water is clean. The pollution problem starts from the former Ballsh plant to the estuary. Along this segment for decades, hydrocarbon waste, olive processing waste, but also urban waste has been poured into the river raw, so much so that environmentalists consider that in entire segments of this river all living things have disappeared, turning it into a dead river, but also dangerous for the health of the inhabitants.

    “The Gjanica River today is an abnormal river, it is a practically a dead river, where no living thing lives”, – argues Adriatik Golemi, activist in environmental issues.


    The “curse” that comes from crude oil

    Gjanica meanders through an area known for large sources of crude oil, but this great wealth has turned into a “curse” for the waters of this river, as these companies dump their waste into the river. Residents blame the negligence of the state authorities, which do not exercise control over the oil companies

    “They dump the waste in Gjanica, while the oil companies have special places where they have to deposit it. Why is the municipality not held accountable? We need control from the mayor, he is the father of the city”, – says another resident.

    From field research, it turns out that Gjanica is polluted in several places. The pollution starts in the area known as Qafa e Kashi, where the decantation of Usoja flows. Several oil companies operate in this county, starting with Albpetrol, Anio Oil, Terra Swiss, as well as Bankers. Two of these companies were fined earlier, as polluting entities.

    The Ofiçinë area is another problematic zone. Likewise, there is continuous pollution in the area of the Fier refinery, as well as near the Zharrëza stream, which is an artificial water line for irrigation, where almost all of Marinza’s oil is discharged. Near the former Ballsh plant, pollution has been reduced after the latter’s closure.

    “We have identified Albpetrol in Usojë, while in the old Ofiçinë we had a very difficult time, since we did not have access to get inside the fenced perimeter of the facility, where several companies, such as Terra Oil, Albpetrol, Superstar, operate. There are many companies operating, so we cannot put our finger on the real polluter”, – says Qani Rredhi, who heads the Zharrëza Organization, which has been monitoring the flow of the Gjanica river for six years.

    “We have sent a request to Albpetrol, but there is no final answer. They play that game, passing the blame to private companies, and private companies pass the blame to Albpetrol”, – he says.

    Qani Rredhi, environmentalist, Zharrëza Organization

    The alarming pollution from hydrocarbons is also accepted by state institutions themselves. The National Environment Agency in its annual report for 2021 admits that about 20 thousand tons of oil end up in the surrounding environment and in the Gjanicë River.

    “In the area of Patos-Marinza, surface and underground waters are seriously polluted by oil wells during pump extraction from pipelines and pre-treatment plants, and various hydrocarbons and sulfuric gas are discharged into the air. The waters used by these plants are discharged into the waters of the Gjanica river, where, in addition to oil components, there are also toxic substances”, – says the NEA report on the state of the environment for 2021.

    Activists think that the black list of polluters is headed by Albpetroli, as the parent company, which owns all the oil fields in Albania.

    Created in 1999, and fully owned by the Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy, it is Albpetrol that concludes contracts with third parties for the use of oil resources, as well as monitors state oil agreements in Albania. As such, it has the right to control the companies, with which it has signed a contract, where environmental protection is one of the main obligations.

    Pollution of the Gjanica river during the month of July 2022

    “Albpetrol is the owner of all the oil wells in Albania and must control all the other smaller companies, whether they apply the conditions of the license-agreements or the conditions of the environmental permits”, – explains the activist Adriatik Golemi.

    According to him, although the companies that pour waste into the waters of Gjanica are known by everyone and are very few in number, in fact the institutions that have the duty to monitor them are a dozen. However, for decades, the balance has been tilted in favor of the companies that “forced” the institutions to remain silent and not see the pollution.

    “Anio Oil, Terra, Albpetrol and Bankers are the oil companies that operate in the course of the river, while the state institutions that must deal with the monitoring of Gjanica are: Albpetrol, the National Environment Agency, the Regional Environment Agency, AKBN, IKMT, the Municipality of Fier, the Municipality of Patos, the Municipality of Roskovec”, – Golemi lists the institutions that should see the situation.

    “All these institutions are responsible for monitoring the river and there are only 4-5 companies; it’s not like there are 100 or 200 companies and you don’t know who is causing this pollution”, – he concludes.

    Adriatik Golemi, civil society activist

    According to him, taking advantage of the weak control links, all hydrocarbon waste is dumped in the Gjanica, since the companies do not spend for their treatment.

    “They want to increase their profit rate and what do they do? It is more profitable for them to dump waste in the Gjanicë and justify these spills as industrial accidents. But these are not accidents, they are intentional”, – insists the environmentalist, Adriatik Golemi.

    The Gjanica river, which passes through the city of Fier

    He further argues that these are programmed and deliberate spills.

    “These are programmed and intentional spills and Albpetrol is the key, it is the one that allows these spills. If Albpetrol or one of these institutions would do their job, then these spills would stop and Fier would be a city with a normal river flowing through it”.

    State institutions are fully aware of this situation. Referring to the 2016 management plan of the Municipality of Fier, “the water basins of Seman, Vjosa and Gjanica are deeply polluted with heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, nickel, iron, copper and chromium”.

    Cadmium is considered quite toxic, as it does not participate in cell formation. This substance, which should be at zero level in the human body, is found in the area in even higher content than lead. (page 163)

    Likewise, the waters of Gjanica have high electricity, as a result of the acidity of the waters resulting from continuous pollution.


    The pollution does not stop

    In January 2018, the mayor of Fier, Armando Subashi, appeared by the river with several test tubes in hand, where he confirmed that Gjanica was the most polluted river in Albania and that 21 points of pollution had been identified.

    “The river of Gjanica is the river with the most serious pollution in Albania, with residues of oil origin and its by-products. Along 42 km of this river, hydrocarbon spills pollute the water, causing a suffocating smell even in the air”, – declared Subashi at the time, who launched a pilot project with the company Recovered Earth Albania. The goal was to filter the river water with a special device, turning it almost into potable water and thus finally saving it from pollution.

    However, 5 years later, not only did it turn out that it was just a demonstration of a company’s equipment, but it was not even possible to stop the dangerous spills into the water.

    “All that was done was a request from the company Recovered Earth Albania to present the devices and their results in cleaning the river water and there was no investment or joint project in relation to it”, – says the Municipality of Fier in a written response to INA MEDIA, which clarifies that after the end of this demonstration, the company removed the devices again.

    A report on the quality of the waters of Gjanica, carried out last December by the environmental organization Zharrëza, shows strong elements of pollution beyond the limits and dominance of oil-based hydrocarbon elements along the entire river course.

    “The rates of this pollution are beyond the limits. It is the oil-based hydrocarbon elements, benzenes are high, there are phenols, but the biggest problem is conductivity, which is 10-15 times higher”, – explains Qani Rredhi.

    Water analyses were performed at four different points: the first sample was taken before the entrance to the city of Ballsh, the second, near the Kash decantation stream, the third, in Ofiçina, near the TOG discharge and the fourth, at the entrance to the city of Fier.

    Laboratory data of measurements in these hotspots also show high content of heavy metals, such as zinc, nickel, copper, chromium, as well as petroleum products, exceeding national and EU standards several times, as and violating DCM no. 246, dated 30.4.2014 “On determining environmental quality standards for surface waters”.

    Facsimile of water analysis at the point “Stream in the Kash decantation”

    For this reason, the environmentalists are preparing to address the court, while warning that they will also file a complaint with SPAK.

    “With the facts we have gathered, we will also address the court. It is likely that we will turn to SPAK as well”, – asserts Qani Rredhi.


    Minimal penalties

    In addition to hydrocarbons, olive processing companies have been added to the list of polluters in recent years. Despite the fact that there is no lack of evidence, the state authorities find it difficult to identify these companies by name.

    For the period 2018-2022, the Environmental and Water Inspection sector at the IKMT of the Regional Directorate, Fier has imposed a total of 6 administrative measures.

    Al Global Oil, a hydrocarbon company, has received two fines worth 100,000 ALL for discharging polluted, industrial water into the Gjanica river. Another hydrocarbon company, Anio Oil, was fined the same amount.

    Bankers Petroleum has been fined by the National Inspectorate of Territory Protection, head office, with 2,000,000 ALL.

    Furthermore, two olive oil processing factories were fined 100,000 ALL each. These entities mainly exercise seasonal activity during the olive harvest.

    The Territory Protection Inspectorate in Fier and the Regional Environment Agency did not respond to a request for information from INA MEDIA on the identification of the polluters of the Gjanica River. These two institutions did not even provide information, whether the fines were paid or were rejected by the companies.

    In an evasive response, the Regional Environment Agency, Fier claims that the inspection group has left these entities some tasks to complete, thus admitting that it knows which companies do not have conditions for waste processing and as a result they pour them raw.

    “To make decantation pits and avoid spilling technological waters into the Gjanica river; to conclude contracts with third parties for the withdrawal of technological waters and the place of deposit of the olive oil, which comes out of olive processing, should be paved and surrounded with concrete about 15-20 centimeters, to avoid the drainage of technological waters”, – says the REA in a written response to Investigative Network Albania.

    Although tasks were appointed to these companies and a further follow up to the first investigation is necessary, REA refuses to say who these polluting entities are, evading INA MEDIA’s question on this matter.

    In 2018, Albpetrol was fined 100,000 ALL by the State Inspectorate of Forests, Water and Environment for discharging waste in Usojë. The fine was challenged in the Administrative Court, Vlorë, but this request was dismissed, leaving the fine in effect. Surprisingly, this disciplinary measure against Albpetrol is not mentioned, neither in the responses of IKMT, nor in those of other agencies.

    The responsible institutions refused to answer whether the fines imposed on Albpetrol and three other oil companies have been enforced or not.

    The environmentalists have also sent the case of Albpetrol to the prosecutor’s office, but, according to them, the prosecution body of Fier has turned a blind eye to the facts that they have filed.

    “In 2020, we filed a report against Albpetrol, which is one of the polluters caught with flagrant violations, and to this day the prosecution has not opened the case,” – says environmentalist Rredhi.

    What is known for sure is the heavy pollution that the river suffered during April and July 2022, which is suspected to have come from oil companies, but it is still not known which of them released the waste.

    The Territory Protection Inspectorate, Fier, says that it has its hands tied to carry out a specialized inspection on entities that exercise activity in the field of hydrocarbon extraction, as they are equipped with type A environmental permits.

    “Due to the importance of this permit for these companies, specialized controls can only be carried out by the Central Directorate of Tirana”, – says the Territory Protection Inspectorate, Fier.

    On the other hand, the National Inspectorate of Territory Protection removed any responsibility from itself, billing the powers and responsibilities to the Regional Directorate, Fier.

    “The Gjanica river is being monitored in all hot spots where discharges can be carried out or other environmental problems can be found in violation of the legislation of the Albanian state”, – said IKMT, referring to the work of the Fier Regional Agency.


    The solution, simple

    Entities that exercise powers in the field of hydrocarbons are provided with type A environmental permit. According to the law “On environmental protection”, the National Environment Agency has the duty to monitor on the ground all operators who have this permit, in order to evidenced environmental pollution or not. The cases of polluting companies are then referred to the appropriate ministry, which suspends their licenses.

    However, even though the law clearly defines the duties, the institutions often turn a blind eye and play the blame game with each – other. Regional environmental protection institutions justify non-intervention with the argument that they do not have the necessary capacities to find the real polluters.

    The Albanian Helsinki Committee (KSHH) has won a trial against the National Environment Agency precisely for the non-punishment of the polluters of the Gjanica river.

    Ardita Kolmarku, a lawyer at KSHH, says that water pollution constitutes a criminal offense and is punishable with imprisonment. It refers to Article 203 of the Criminal Code, which provides for a sentence of 1-5 years in prison for the polluting person or company, but the sentence is doubled, if it is carried out in specific circumstances.

    “In specific cases or, if we were in the conditions that have brought consequences, we would have a…, let’s say, confirmation of the fact from the prosecution’s side, that all the pollution caused by one or more operators has brought disturbing consequences to the health or the loss of life of one or more citizens, we would be dealing with specific circumstances and the punishment would be from 5 to 10 years in prison”, – underlines Kolmarku.

    If the regional authorities do not act, according to the lawyer, Ardita Kolmarku, the interested parties can turn to the judicial power.

    Ardita Kolmarku, lawyer, Albanian Helsinki Committee

    “In this case, failure to act constitutes a legal violation and illegality. And this right can be requested by each of the citizens, first to the superior bodies, to request the taking of measures and then turn to the judiciary, if all the legal deadlines, provided for in the Code of Administrative Procedure, have passed”, – she explains.

    Despite the many efforts of environmentalists and some civil society organizations, the situation on the ground continues to be alarming. Not only have the polluters not been banned, but the fines imposed are quite small compared to the damage caused.

    Saimir Dine, environmentalist, Zharrëza Association

    “The solution to the problem is to stop the polluters. We just need these pollutants not to be discharged into the river. We just need to improve the infrastructure and increase investments in terms of pollution. The river heals itself”, – concludes the environmentalist, Saimir Dine.

    Ky shkrim është pjesë e projektit që mbështetet financiarisht nga Zyra e Mardhënieve me Publikun e Ambasadës së SH.B.A. në Tiranë. Opinionet, gjetjet, konkluzionet dhe rekomandimet e shprehura janë te autor-it/ve dhe nuk përfaqesojnë domosdoshmërisht ato të Departamentit të Shtetit. / This article is part of a project that is financially supported by the Public Relations Office of the US Embassy in Tirana. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of State.