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After citizen complaints, Environment Ministry monitors industrial plants

By Shorena Labadze
Friday, July 18
The Environment Ministry has begun inspecting major industrial factories in Georgia to test for health risks after a court case upheld locals’ complaints.

The first to be inspected is the ferroalloy factory in Zestaponi, a run-down industrial town in the western province of Imereti. Locals complain the factory belches huge amounts of toxic smoke across the town.

Environment Minister Irakli Ghvaladze is headed for Imereti to personally drop in on the inspections.

“The people of Zestaponi turned to the ministry. They had a claim that [the factory] makes the city filthy,” he said in a statement on the ministry’s website, explaining the motivation for the monitoring, which will take two weeks. “The results will be made known to society.”

Ekaterine Bendeliani, the Environment Ministry press speaker, said the people of Zestaponi have for months accused the ferroalloy factory of polluting their city, and worry about a link to cancer rates in the region.

Zestaponi residents sent a petition with 5 000 signatures to the ministry, she said.

“They will learn whether the quantity of manganese and dust [being produces by the plant] is within acceptable norms or not,” Bendeliani said.

Factory owner Georgian Manganese LTD, in a statement on the Environment Ministry’s website, said, “The ecological situation in Zestaponi has never been as good as it is now.”

After-hours phone calls to factory management did not reach anyone.

If the inspection concludes that the factory’s emissions are harmful to the health, the Environment Ministry press speaker said, the government will insist that the administration take measures to curb it.

“The Environment Ministry is obliged to demand due measures from the [factory] administration. If they won’t take care of it, there are the courts, administrative penalties and other means,” she said.

Zestaponi locals say the intervention couldn’t come soon enough.

“The situation is getting worse and worse,” says local pensioner Nazi Khijakadze. “We can’t even go out in the evening. It isn’t so noticeable in the daytime, but at night the terrible fumes are unbearable.”

In reaction to locals’ complaints, the ministry will also send out inspectors to factories in Rustavi and Kaspi.

In March this year, nearly 2000 workers from Zestaponi factory went on strike to protest low wages and alleged health hazards at the plant.

“One shouldn’t forget that our job directly affects our health. The materials we’re working with have an awful impact [on our health],” said of the employees then.

The factory, a major local employer, smelts iron and magnesium to make ferroalloys, and is infamous in Zestaponi for belching dark red smoke all over the area.

Doctors say long-term exposure to the magnesium in the factory can cause a set of symptoms which include kidney and nerve damage. Locals worry that the factory, which also works with silicon, is exposing workers to carcinogens.

Zestaponi residents also complain of layers of red dust from the metals settling on orchards.

Workers in the plant say the air filtration system is usually left off to save on utilities costs. Factory administration said that air filtration system, which costs GEL 3000–3500 to run each hour, is left off at night to cut costs.

Hamlet Vashadze, a former factory employee, says things only got worse after Georgian Manganese, a joint English-Ukrainian venture, took over.

“Since then, the technical and economic situation [in the plant] has gotten extremely worse,” he told the newspaper.

According to the Environment Ministry’s press speaker, the Ukrainian company which sold the factory will be responsible for fixing any problems inspectors find, including the air filtration system.