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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Albania's deadly factories tamed
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in Albania

Elbasan smoking chimneys in distance   Paul Brown
Elbasan is one of Europe's most polluted sites
One of eastern Europe's most polluted places can look forward to some relief, as Albania tackles its filthy industry.

A complex of factories in the town of Elbasan producing cement, steel and chrome faces new emission curbs in an attempt to safeguard people's health.

One Albanian in three is out of work, but the government says it is set on reducing pollution levels all the same.

The new environment minister says he thinks environmental crime is as bad as robbing a bank, and will stamp it out.

The health ministry says the cement and steel factories contribute most of the pollution. But as they have the technology to solve the problem, and work has already begun, it thinks the pollution will have been drastically reduced within a few months.

Barren land

The filters being fitted to the cement factory's chimneys are expected to cut pollutants by 99%, from seven grammes per cubic metre to 15 milligrammes.

The Turkish-owned steel plant, which recycles scrap metal, is proving harder to tame, but it is also being obliged to fit filters which should reduce emissions to European Union standards.

The region around Elbasan used to be known as Albania's market garden, but the chemicals that billowed for 30 years from the factory chimneys up to 220m (675ft) high have poisoned the land.

Elbasan derelict factory   Paul Brown
Emissions are set to plummet
Tests show the soil is contaminated to a depth of 32cm (12 inches) with heavy metals, including nickel and cobalt.

The cultivation of vegetables near the plants themselves is forbidden, because of their uptake of dangerous contamination. But the ban is often academic, as some plants will not grow there anyway.

Dr Ylli Cabiri, who wrote a report on Elbasan for the United Nations Development Programme, said he thought the soil contamination was the worst in Europe.

He said: "In the centre of Elbasan nothing should be grown. Maybe in other areas it could be grassed over for grazing, but we need to know what is happening first.

"There are reports of deformities in farm animals, but no-one has yet said the sheep eat the grass in the contaminated area."

Worrying statistics

Unemployment in Albania stands at 37%, and 7,000 of the factories' 10,000 workforce have already lost their jobs. But Et'hem Ruka, Albania's new Environment Minister, says he is determined to ease Elbasan's burden.

He said: "I regard environmental crime as being as serious as breaking into the bank."

Elbasan children   Paul Brown
Children pay a heavy price
Reliable health statistics are hard to find in Albania as it emerges from the chaos of dictatorship and isolation, but what there are are disturbing.

In 2002, 87 of Elbasan's 160,000 people died of respiratory diseases, 21 of them infants less than a year old.

The comparable figure for Tirana, the country's polluted capital, was 157 deaths - yet Tirana is five times Elbasan's size. That same year 200 people died of tumours in Elbasan, more than twice Tirana's total.




SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Albania
29 Feb 04  |  Country profiles
Albania tackles killer exhausts
28 Mar 04  |  Science/Nature


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