Oil darkens landscapes and lungs in Albania
The noxious air is toxic, but residents of Zharrëz, located in Albania’s main oil region, have no choice but to live among rusting tanks, dilapidated pits, and contaminated soil and water from the communist era.
“We all have health problems,” sums up Milita Vrapi, 49, who lives in a town of 2,000 in Patos-Marinza, the Balkan country’s largest oil zone. “The weather is very heavy, there is frequent dizziness, nausea, headaches and constant fatigue.” According to him, the water is not drunk and the vegetables in the garden are not growing.
Abandoned oil tanks are subject to corrosion from rust, as are pipes used to transport hydrocarbons. Many of these facilities have not been maintained for almost three decades, and the landscape looks apocalyptic, darkened by oil spills polluting the land and water.
The Patos-Marinza fields, located about 100 kilometers south of Tirana, are operated by national company Albpetrol and China’s Bankers Petroleum Albania, and produced more than 550,000 tons of crude oil there in 2022, according to officials. In total, Albania produces about 650,000 tons of crude oil annually, mostly exported to the European Union.
“The black gold took millions of dollars out of the ground, but the residents barely benefited,” says Marceline Senka, cradling her two-month-old baby, who is suffering from acute bronchitis. in the hospital. “Pollution is not a priority for oil companies.”
Dozens of wells in Zharrez, more than fifty years old, work as they do near residential houses. There is also a corroded eight-cylinder Albpetrol tank. According to Gani Rredhi, director of the Zharrëz environmental protection association, “more than 18,000 square meters of land is heavily polluted with crude oil due to abandoned infrastructure for more than 25 years, which is harmful to the environment and the health of residents.”.
Patos-Marinza is one of the eighteen high-risk areas identified by the Albanian Ministry of Environment. During the communist dictatorship of Anwar Hoxha, this area was mostly off-limits to habitation. But after the fall of the regime in the early 1990s, the government tolerates the people who live there, driven by poverty. Oil and gas vapors make the air unbreathable.
“The proximity of residential areas and agricultural greenhouses to oil fields, old wells (…) and the lack of security and rehabilitation measures are of great concern,” the Albanian Helsinki Committee for the Protection of Human Rights noted in its latest report. “The number of residents complaining of breathing problems, high concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood or suffering from diseases related to industrial activity is very high,” says Adriatic Golemi, a journalist and member of the association. Local environmental protection.
It has linked pollution to cancers from which several residents have died, but Fatjon Şehu, head of the village health center, explains that it is difficult to make a connection in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of research. . Apart from health problems, danger is everywhere.
“Three years ago, a woman accidentally drowned in an oil slick while following her poultry,” Adriatic Golem told AFP. There are at least five sticks in the village where people, especially children, are at risk of death. Gani Redhi adds that “there have been cases of cattle or birds drowning in oil fields.” He mentions “strong gas fumes” sometimes coming from “abandoned wells”.
Contacted by AFP, the Ministry of Energy wants reassurance and says it is committed to solving environmental problems. “Companies working in the Patos-Marinza oil fields are preparing action plans to restore all the damaged infrastructure of the past,” he assures, referring to the ban on access to oil wells, spill clean-up and oil waste treatment.
Milita Vrapin’s daughter, a 16-year-old high school student, objects to Artemis. “We need to think not only about the economy and oil production, but above all about health issues, saving people’s lives, saving the environment and our planet,” he says.
Meanwhile, the hole near their house has been out of order for a week. Qadri Shahu, 58, half of whom works in the oil industry, is struggling to make amends as the failure affects his performance bonuses. His basic salary is 540 euros, which is not enough to support his family of six.