Oil Pollution Threatens Europe’s Last Wild River – Analysis
Spills of oil waste from the wells of Albania’s state-owned company Albpetrol pollute the Vjosa River, an environmental crime that activists warn threatens its ecosystem, considered by scientists an oasis of biodiversity.
By Edmond Hoxhaj
For 270 kilometers, from the mountain to the sea the Vjosa River flows free – from a canyon to a wide river bed with bays, beaches and white gravel islands. Downstream the river bed is as wide as two kilometers at several points, creating a breathtaking natural ensemble.
However, the rich ecosystem of the last big wild river in Europe – as scientist and activists like to describe the Vjosa, is under stress from oil pollution. Oil spills from the deposits of state-owned company Albpetrol near the village of Gorisht – 160 kilometers south of the capital Tirana, have created a stream oil sludge which flows in the Vjosa River.
Documents obtained by BIRN show that this stream of sludge is not an isolated case and that pollution has reached a critical level in two oil fields managed by Albpetrol, Gorisht-Kocul and Cakran-Mollaj.
According to activist, the constant leak of heavy oil wastes and industrial water from the decantation station of Albpetrol amounts to an environmental crime, which not only threatens the rich flora and fauna of the river, but also the pollutes the land and fresh water sources.
“Since this is persistent pollution that damages the ecosystem, the species of flora and fauna in the lower stream of the Vjosa River, this pollution could have affected also the irrigated land,” said green activist Lavdosh Ferrruni. “It can also affect the quality of fresh water used for consumption,” he warned.
Queried by BIRN Albpetrol admitted through a written statement the leak of oil wastes on the Vjosa River, but underlined that this was historical pollution and blamed concessionary companies that had managed these oil fields during the last decade.
“The reasons for terminating the concessionary agreements for these two oil fields were many, but among them were also the failure to invest for the safeguard of the environment, health and security of workers,” said an Albpetrol spokesperson.
“In the moment that Albpetrol took over the oil fields the environmental situation was serious,” he added, underlining that solutions require investments and the company is conscious “that needs to do more.”
The Vjosa River flows from the Pindus Mountains in Greece to the Adriatic Sea in Albania. According to scientists the Vjosa is a habitat to many species of animals and plants which are rare or completely extinct from other European rivers.
In April 2017, some 30 scientist from four different European countries descended for a week on the Vjosa valley and studied its biodiversity, registering 300 different creatures, including 41 species found for the first time in Albania, as we all as a fish and a water insect new to science.
However, many of these creatures know are under threat of extinction from oil pollution. A few kilometers away from the river bank, on top of a hill close to the village of Gorisht, are the decantation pools of Albpetrol for the Gorisht-Kocul oil field. The field where the decantation station rests is not inhabited and the only people roaming the land are shepherds, who appear undisturbed from the heavy odor of gas and oil.
Inside the decantation station, the buildings built decades ago look abandoned with partly crumbling walls and roofs. In the lower side of the station it’s a big pond where waste of technological water is deposited. However, this waste is everywhere and occupies good part of the encampment, flowing in a nearby stream that five kilometers down the road ends up in the River Vjosa, near the village of Karbunare.
The stream collects the waste that spills from the deposits and wells of Albpetrol, together with sludge, and rainwater they flow in the Vjosa River, where a black spothas been created on the white gravel river bank.
“Here the pollution is extreme, the oil was at least half-meter deep, but the biggest part was washed downstream from the rain,” said Besnik Kapaj, a farmer from the village of Karbunare, who has built his house close to the mouth of the stream that flows the oil waste into the Vjosa.
“During the summer months the pollution is even more evident, because the oil is deposited and has a heavy odor, while now it’s is washed by the rain into the Vjosa,” he added.
The oil smudge that is 15 meters wide and 200 meters long, which can be seen even through satellite pictures on Google Earth, it’s not the only area in the region polluted by oil wastes, which are due to the poor infrastructure of Albpetrol’s wells and stations.
An environmental monitoring report produced by a specialized company for Albpetrol, a copy of which has been obtained by BIRN, underlines that this river of sludge and oil poses a threat to local people, because the majority of emergency deposits in wells are not reinforced with concrete and are relatively small and can hold a small amount of fluid.
“This makes these deposits produce uncontrolled spills in the environment, above and belowground, causing pollution,” reads the report prepared by the Center for the Monitoring of the Environment, CME. “We should underline that the environmental situation is very problematic in the decantation station of Gorisht, where the waters flowing from the station end up in the Vjosa River,” the report adds.
The report highlights the fact that in the Gorisht-Kocul oil field, there are leaks of oil from deposits in the land. Also CME, writes that technical failures in the deposits and industrial water systems of Albpetrol have not been fixed for a long time.
“These waters are let to flow free, causing heavy pollution of the land, underground and above ground water,” writes CME.
“Such exposure creates a major problem for the wellbeing of the inhabitants of the area, as well as the ecosystem in general, recognizing the accumulative nature of pollutants that are emitted by this industry that become part of the food chain,” it added.
According to the CME report, apart from the decantation station in Gorisht, gas leaks into the air and solid waste was registered in the seven points that were monitored.
The environmental monitoring carried out by CME for the period February-April 2018, reports that in the well groups2,6,8,9 and 17 of the Gorisht-Kocul oil field, there is a high concentration of sulfuric gas, 2-to-8 times higher than the allowed norm. Even during the environmental monitoring carried out in the Cakran-Mollaj oil field, in point Q-59 there were levels of sulfuric gas three times the norm.
According to experts this level of high concentration of gas can cause health problems for Albpetrol’s workers, who are exposed for long periods of time.
“The high level of sulfuric gas is very problematic in most of the well groups, several times above the allowed norm,” the report writes.
“This creates a high risk for the wellbeing and health of workers, who are exposed for long periods of time to high concentration of H2S. Also it cannot be excluded the impact of H2S gas and VOC on the local population and ecosystem,” it adds.
Another monitoring report of CME for the Cakran-Mollaj oil field raises alarm bells for a similar situation, noting that in the well groups the deposits for the collection of fluids were substandard. Only the well group Q17 has a concrete deposit connected to the decantation station in Usoje. While all the other fluid pools were opened in an amateurish way, without hydro isolation and concrete coating.
“From the way these pools were constructed we can deduct that the industrial water collected flows and pollutes underground and above ground water,” the report writes.
BIRN queried the State Environmental, Forest, Water and Land Inspectorate on the pollution on the Vjosa River from the oil industry. The local office of the Inspectorate in Vlora responded, underlining that in the last three years it has carried some inspections of the oil area of Gorisht, Amonice and Kocul and imposed fines on oil companies, which were yet to be collected due to court proceedings.
In total the inspectorate had imposed 8 million lek (€65,000) in administrative fines to oil companies in this area for pollution from 2015 to 2018. The inspectorate had last inspected the Gorisht decantation station on March 29, 2018 and said that the introduction of new equipment for the treatment of oil waste had held reduced the impact on the environment.
The oil fields of Gorisht-Kocul and Cakran-Mollaj were controlled until the first quarter of 2017 by concessionary companies. First the field was awarded by Albpetrol under an oil sharing agreement to Stream Oil and Gas from 2007 to 2012, later to Transatlantic Albania and finally to GBC in the period 2016-2017.
Queried by BIRN, Albpetrol admitted to the pollution caused by its wells, which it claims that is due to historic factors, due to the poor management of the oil fields during communism and by the concessionary companies in the past decade.
“In the period Albpetrol took control of the oil fields, the environmental situation was grave and required investments for rehabilitation and upkeep,” the state-owned oil company said.
“Regarding these oil fields, we should stress that the environmental situation is serious, inherited historically from 50 year of hydrocarbon sector activity,” it added.
The threat to the river
The extraction of oil from the fields in Southern Albania from the 1930 has not been without consequences for the region and its people. An earlier investigation published by BIRN Albania in October 2017, exposed the negative impact on the health of the people living close to the Patos-Marinza oil field – the largest onshore oil field in Europe.
According to experts, the dumping of oil waste on the Vjosa River is a potential hazard and might expand the map of areas in Albania negatively impacted by the oil industry.
“When we deal with rivers and concretely with the Vjosa, which we consider one of the most important in the Balkans and beyond for its biodiversity, we believe it should be treated in a specific way,” said Olsi Nika, executive director of Eco Albania.
“Industrial pollution has a very negative effect on the fauna of this river and touches all the food chain, considering the fact that there are fishermen that make a living by fishing in the Vjosa,” he added.
For the importance of the Vjosa River Lavdosh Ferruni agrees, underlining that this valley should have been a protected natural park and not an area polluted by hydrocarbons.
“In the view of many scientific institutions, but also of civil society Albanian and international, we hope someday also of politicians, the perspective of the Vjosa valley is for the establishment of a protected natural park, which can be turned into an important tourist product,” Ferruni said.
“For this reason, the oil industry can only exist here if only the best European standards for its management are respected. Any deviation from these standards is nothing less than an environmental crime,” he added.
Nika, who for years has led a campaign to protect the Vjosa from dams, calls on institutions to react to the pollution caused by the oil industry.
“In this flagrant case the Environmental Inspectorate should have acted already,” he said. “This pollution seriously damages Europe’s last wild river,” Nika concluded.