Polluters get richer, residents become victims of the wealthy underground

  • Shqip
  • English
  • Heavy industry companies avoid the “Polluter Pays” and “User Pays” obligations, two of the main principles for environmental protection and management, turning entire areas into “victims” of the rich underground. In Bulqiza, out of 108 entities engaged in chromite extraction, only one invested 2,000,000 lek for the construction of a sports field in 2018. In the same year, 437 thousand tons of chromite were extracted from the depths of Bulqiza, with a value of approximately 88 million dollars.

    Authors: Rashela Shehu and Xhevahir Zhabina

    The wind blowing out of Fier makes the opposition to the oil, coming from the village of Marinëz, increasingly present. This area holds one of the country’s largest treasures underground. Approximately 540,000 tons of oil were extracted from there in 2022 alone, which, in market value, with an average price of $100 per barrel, amounts to about $230 million.

    Millions could have completely changed the lives of the residents of Marinëz, but despair is easily seen on their faces.

    “This is a polluted area because gas is released into the air,” says 61-year-old Viktor Ngjeliu, pointing to the oil pumps, which are no more than 70 meters from the door of his house.

    Viktor Ngjeliu, a resident of the village of Marinëz, photographed near his house. January 2023.

    “When it rains, especially during the winter, it becomes foggy because the gas makes the smoke even denser, which is released from the depots, and we can’t leave the house,” he continues, adding that together with his 5 family members, he is forced to live there.

    In their small business, a bar-cafe they have set up near their house, the main job is to clean the tables from dust. The land they have a little further cannot be used because it is located within the oil zone, and pollution is high, as are the security measures of the company, which does not allow anyone to approach the area.

    “I request that the company takes that piece of land, buys it according to the laws, and separates us from this place,” says Viktor, without showing any regret about leaving behind the house where he has invested a lifetime.

    The 61-year-old says that in 2015, he reached an agreement with Bankers Petroleum, which paid his family rent for a year in the city of Fier, but the contract was not renewed, marking the start of a legal battle between him and the most powerful oil extraction company in the country.

    “I got experts for the land, we even did family analyses, and we came out with carbon in our blood. From this situation, I was forced to take the case to court,” he says.

    On the other hand, the First Instance Court in Fier and later the Court of Appeals in Vlorë dismissed the case. Meanwhile, for the 61-year-old, the fate of the trial in the Supreme Court will show whether justice is truly working in the country.

    “If there is justice in this country, I win the case; otherwise, I lose,” he says, determined to pursue every legal avenue on this issue.

    Viktor is alone in the battle against Bankers Petroleum, but other residents of the village with around 400 families also want to leave.

    “A collective lawsuit,” is proposed by lawyer Irena Dule for the case of the residents of Marinëz, considering it a way through which they would succeed in their cause, “but they lack awareness for this step,” she adds.

    According to the lawyer, any person who has suffered damage to all environmental elements such as water, air, and land or one of these elements has the right to go to court to receive compensation against Bankers Petroleum.

    “The company has direct financial obligations to individuals because the polluter is identified in this case,” says Dule, emphasizing the principle of “the polluter pays,” one of the main principles for environmental protection and at the same time one of the least applied in Albania.

    Without accountability

    In addition to the measures that businesses must take to prevent, control, and remedy environmental damage, experts consider an important component of protection to be the principle of “the polluter pays,” linked to social cohesion.

    “As long as a company exploits the resources of a community, which are the basis of its development and well-being, it has an obligation to give something back in the form of investments,” says environmental expert Olsi Nika, listing potential investments in infrastructure, culture, and the arts. “This is a kind of compensation for what the community could have gained if it had exploited them itself.”

    Although ranked as the third-largest company in the country by revenue, the iron and steel processing plant, Kürüm International, has not made any public investments in the community in the period from 2018 to 2022. According to the Municipality of Elbasan, this company has not entered into any contracts for public investments in the past 5 years.

    “The company can help with medicines for some categories suffering from chronic diseases due to lowered immunity from pollution,” says environmental expert Ahmet Mehmeti, adding that this is part of the moral responsibility of responsible businesses, as well as a social duty.

    INA MEDIA sought data from municipalities where AlbChrome and Bankers Petroleum also operate about the investments they have made in the community. Out of 108 entities engaged in chromite mining in Bulqiza, only one of them has invested in the community in the last 5 years. This is funding of 2,000,000 lekë that AlbChrome made in 2018 for the construction of a sports field in Bulqiza.

    A similar situation arises in the Municipality of Patos and in that of Roskovec, where Bankers Petroleum’s activity extends. According to data from the Municipality of Patos, the company made an investment in 2019 with a value of 10,793,526 lekë with VAT, for the “Koli Dimo” school.

    Meanwhile, in the Municipality of Roskovec, Bankers Petroleum has invested a total of 51,491,062 lekë between 2018-2022 for the reconstruction of the road, the roundabout “Vajza Myzeqare,” as well as the cleaning, arranging, and covering with manholes of the main canal that passes through the village of Marinëz.

    Expert Mehmeti states that in the contracts of major polluters, social responsibility must be sanctioned by law.

    “There is a need to reform the laws, to humanize the laws,” adds the expert.

    While lawyer Irena Dule goes further, proposing the drafting of an Environmental Code that clearly defines all obligations and responsibilities of environmental actors.

    “The Code provides principles, competent authorities, well-defined duties, sanctions, thus exhausting every link in the legal chain and making it enforceable,” says Dule.

    The polluter does not pay, law enforcement is at the discretion of companies.

    Albania has a law on environmental protection adopted in 2011, which includes the “Polluter Pays” principle. This principle holds the polluter, whether an individual or a legal entity, financially responsible for covering the costs caused by pollution to the environment or communities.

    “Such costs include the costs of assessing environmental damage, the costs of assessing necessary measures, as well as the costs of preventing environmental damage, including the costs of rehabilitation and compensation for injured persons, whether physical or legal,” is specified in Article 12 of the Environmental Law.

    However, although an important principle for environmental protection, experts in the field raise concerns that legal mechanisms need to be in place to accurately calculate the impact of pollution on the environment and the lives and health of the residents in the areas affected.

    “This methodology should be determined for each polluter,” says environmental expert Olsi Nika.

    Two explosions that occurred in the oil-bearing area of Patos-Marinez on April 1, 2015, led to the evacuation of around 60 families, as reported by the media at the time. Natural gas, possibly ignited by lightning, erupted everywhere, destroying surface areas of land around the blast radius. Still, the greatest damage was caused by the release of chemicals into the air, endangering the health of the residents.

    The oil wells are located near the residences of the village of Marinëz, Fier.

    7 years later, in January 2022, the Territorial Defense Inspectorate once again requested the suspension of Bankers Petroleum after finding that the company had not complied with the environmental permit conditions for the removal of hazardous waste and had consequently contaminated the area. In addition to the suspension, a fine of 2,000,000 lekë was imposed.1

    The agreement between the Albanian state and Bankers Petroleum, signed on July 17, 2004, when the country was led by Prime Minister Fatos Nano, clearly states in Article 20 that “the Contractor shall conduct hydrocarbon operations in a safe manner and shall cause as little damage as is reasonably practicable to the general environment.”

    A portion from the contract signed between Bankers Petroleum and the Albanian state on July 17, 2004, outlining the obligations for taking measures in cases of environmental pollution.

    In cases where damage occurs due to a spill, an accident, or another emergency, the contract obligates the company to bring the emergency situation under control and protect against loss of life or damage to property.

    “Either prevent the consequences or rectify the consequences,” says lawyer Dule, specifying the obligations arising from environmental protection principles. The whole idea is that the polluter creates a fund of money that is used to remediate environmental damages,” Dule further explains.

    Wealthy Companies, Impoverished Communities

    You can see the sparkle of chromium in Bulqiza from the Bualli Pass. In the city of miners, known as Bulqiza, the traces of unregulated exploitation are clearly visible on the city’s surface, where the black color of the chromium masses contrasts sharply with the surrounding forests.

    A drone shot above the city of Bulqiza, where the activities of the companies extracting chromium are also visible

    In 2018, approximately 1.1 million tons of chrome were produced in Albania, with Bulqiza being the largest contributor with around 437,000 tons extracted from its underground deposits. If one ton is sold at an average price of $200 from this important industrial and mining region, around $88 million is generated annually.

    However, despite its rich underground resources, Bulqiza remains one of the poorest cities in Albania, with some of the lowest per capita income levels in the country. The Social Care Plan developed by the municipality for the 2019-2023 period identifies that around 43% of the population in Martanesh lives in poverty, and in Fushë Bulqiza, more than 43%.

    Aerial drone shot reveals the mining activities in the city of Bulqiza.

    The companies operating in Bulqiza and its surrounding areas in chromium mining paid approximately 212 million Albanian lekë (2 million dollars) as mining royalties in 2018. In the same year, only 120,000 dollars (140,098 lekë) from this tax, which is collected by the central government, went to the budget of the Municipality of Bulqiza.

    “The mining royalty is collected by the Ministry of Finance, but the damages are in the community,” says lawyer Irena Dule, who sees the main problem in the drafting of the Environmental Law, which does not clearly define the responsibilities of the institutions.

    “This tax does not go to the community to be used for their well-being; instead, it goes to the state budget as a whole,” Dule adds further. According to her, the law also has issues where competencies are given to one body, in this case, the central government, while environmental responsibilities are left to the municipality, i.e., the local authority.

    “These two should go hand in hand; whoever has the competency should also have the responsibilities and the means to implement them,” the lawyer says.

    As for environmental expert Olsi Nika, in addition to the principles of “The Polluter Pays” and “The User Pays,” the principle of proportionality should also be decided jointly.

    “A user who exploits a small amount of natural resources should not pay the same mining royalty as a large company, but in proportion to the amount they use,” Nika expresses, adding that this principle should also be respected by polluters in terms of the measures they need to take to improve the environment.

    Self-monitoring as salvation for polluters

    Smoke, which comes out of the Kürüm plant in Elbasan every day, has accompanied the lives of the people in the surrounding areas for decades.

    A 42-year-old resident from the village of Bradashesh says that his breathing has worsened in recent years due to the polluted air.

    “This becomes even more difficult on windy days,” he says, trying to shake the dust from the lemon leaves in his yard, which have turned dark.

    Residents talk among themselves about the consequences of pollution from the metallurgy plant, but the situation is reported quite differently in institutions.

    Article 44 of the Environmental Law charges operators to carry out self-monitoring of their impact on the environment and then submit this information to the National Environmental Agency.

    Self-monitoring is one of the most important processes in controlling the level of pollution and, consequently, the measures that companies need to take to regenerate the damage caused. However, this process is left for the companies to carry out.

    Reports submitted by Kürüm International to the National Environmental Agency for the years 2019-2022 show pollution levels within the standards. However the reality revealed by studies conducted by independent entities is quite different.

    A monitoring study conducted by CoPlan and the Environmental Club Elbasan between 2019-2021 revealed high levels of harmful gasses and particulates that exceeded European Union standards several times. Specifically, the data ranged from 50μg/m3 to 100μg/m3 for NO2, exceeding the EU standard of 40μg/m3.

    “Self-monitoring is deception,” says Ahmet Mehmeti, head of the Environmental Club Elbasan, who monitored the monitoring process in the city for 4 years.

    “The measurements for pollution levels should be carried out 24 hours a day throughout the year. Here, private entities are paid every three months to take measurements according to the conditions and periods required by the polluter,” Mehmeti adds.

    Expert Nika acknowledges that self-monitoring is the model followed in most European Union countries.

    “This process is left to the companies, and the only filter is the institution, that is, as in our country, the National Environmental Agency,” adds the expert.

    However, the Environmental Agency, which is responsible for inspecting these entities in the field, only does so based on the indicators. Therefore, according to Nika, the best example is that followed in the United States.

    “They have a Federal Environmental Agency that monitors and produces monitoring reports, developers are not given a hand,” says the expert, emphasizing that this form has financial costs, as the structure requires field experts.

    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.