Like him, every other villager has something to say about cancer. In particular, they point to the source of the cancer: the industrial waste to which their village has been exposed. Millions of tons of uncontrolled dangerous waste continue to be a major source of death in Turkey. Mountains of waste dominate the skyline in Aliağa of İzmir province, Kazanlı in Mersin, Derince in Kocaeli, and Lake İznik in Bursa.
Heavy metals and chemicals from waste seep into water sources before being transmitted to humans via plants or animals. These types of industrial waste are regarded as a major cause of many diseases, particularly cancer. The Environment Ministry was established 19 years ago, but no significant step has been taken to get rid of mountains of waste.
Turkey ranks 72 on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), prepared by the World Economic Forum, and Columbia University, and falls under the category of “very fragile” countries. Environmental awareness, which is high on the agenda of the world, is only apparent as an “environmental problem” in Turkey. Many Turks still think, “Why should we care about studies conducted by foreigners?” But even a brief visit to certain sites confirms those studies a Turk tends to treat with some suspicion. Let us take a look at the current status of the mountains of waste.
Our first destination is Aliağa in İzmir. One of the largest industrial hubs of the country, with the petrochemical behemoth Petkim, iron and steel plants and ship dismantling and recycling facilities, Aliağa is under threat. To bring a healthy life to the people of the region, about 7 million tons of industrial waste need to be eliminated. Three years ago, a project was launched to build a recycling facility in the district, but it had to be discontinued due to obstruction by the İzmir Metropolitan Municipality. Now, the district is left to its fate with the waste.
Traveling from İzmir to Aliağa, as you pass the industrial facilities after the Yenifoça junction, mountains of waste rise up as if to block your way. Flue dust and metal slag from the iron and steel facilities in the district have been discharged over a wide area. Moreover, there is a stream meandering among the piles of waste. Now a fetid, murky black color, the stream flows into the Aegean Sea. But the real danger starts after this stage. Heavy metals and poisonous chemicals are first transmitted to fish and other sea creatures and then to human beings through the food chain.
A company in the district has recently started to cover the waste with excavated soil several meters thick for the purpose of building a port. But this does not prevent poison from reaching the sea, soil or groundwater. Hazardous waste must be buried in a safe place. Although waste has accumulated there, agriculture and stockbreeding continue in the vey same place.
The number of people who have died of cancer in Horozgediği village, the closest village to the Aliağa Industrial Area, is very high. Village muhtar Mete announced the death toll: “Out of 20 people who have died in our village over the last seven years, two lost their lives to traffic accidents and the remaining 18 because of cancer. Need I say more?” Mete particularly complains about the excessive dust caused by the shifting and moving of waste. He stresses that agricultural and livestock activities in the village have dwindled to next to nothing: “Seventy percent of our pregnant livestock miscarry. Newborn animals lack strength. The mortality rate is very high in livestock. Our people have lost their trust in the state, the press and associations.”
Recep Girgin, a villager, notes that they cannot open the windows of their houses, particularly at night. He says dust from the mountains of waste finds its way deep into the village’s houses.
The current situation notwithstanding, there is a promising development for the future of Aliağa. In recent years, the factories have started to store flue dust, which is a dangerous waste product, and metal slag, which can be reused or recycled, in different locations. The flue dust is now sent to a plant in Kayseri that produces zinc and to other locations abroad. The slag, which constitutes the largest part of the industrial waste in the district, is now being reused by a construction company in Aliağa. İsa Kılıç, a member of the executive board of this company, explains that they use the slag they store on their own land and that they currently have a two-year supply of the metal. The slag, classified as inert by the Environment Ministry, is used in the production of concrete, concrete pipes and cobblestones. By repurposing the waste product, this company avoids the mountains of waste where slag is mixed with hazardous waste.
Mountains of waste along Mediterranean coast
Another hot spot where waste poses great health risks to the human population is Kazanlı in Mersin. Located 17 kilometers to the east of the city of Mersin, the town has an unspoiled beach that stretches 15 kilometers in length. However, a nearby industrial plant has stripped the town of the possibility of emerging as a tourism destination. Şişe Cam’s soda bottle production factory and a chromium plant, Kromsan, have caused major environmental pollution in the area. In recent years, with some filtering systems, the factory’s pollution has decreased. But this positive development has been neutralized by the arrival of fuel distribution companies. Six oil companies have established numerous filling stations and storage tanks along the coast near the town. These oil storage tanks are so close together that one wonders how they could have obtained environmental permission.
About 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste lies in the courtyard of Kromsan in this Mediterranean town. This waste contains about 60,000 tons of Chromium 6, a very toxic substance. Chromium 6 is toxic even in tiny doses. Long-term exposure to it can cause cancer. Already, the annual rate of incidence of cancer has increased from about 10 new cases yearly to over 200.
The majority of these cancer patients reside in or around the town of Kazanlı. The increase in the rate of incidence of cancer is linked to Chromium 6, according to physicians and academics.
Kromsan was established in 1984 with Russian technology and originally produced four kilograms of waste per kilogram of finished product. The factory, located in the proximity of rich chromium ore deposits near Mersin, produces various chemicals. In 1998, the technology used in the plant was upgraded, reducing the rate of waste production to one kilogram per kilogram of product and neutralizing the resulting waste. But several million tons of waste had already piled up by that time. Kromsan started a project to neutralize hazardous waste in 1995, but it was scuppered by red tape. A growing environmental awareness started to impact Kromsan in 2001 as the local people voiced their reactions and launched legal action against the plant. In addition to the waste located on the plant’s grounds, waste materials were also dumped in pits in the region. A court ordered that samples should be taken from the mountains of waste. Meanwhile, deaths were documented among the sea turtles known as caretta caretta, an endangered species. This region is the second most important reproduction area for these sea turtles. Samples were taken from dead sea turtles and examined by the Council of Forensic Medicine (ATK) at İstanbul University, which found that chromium caused the death of the turtles.
In the face of increasing pressure, Kromsan stepped up its efforts to finish the previously suspended treatment plant project, which was eventually completed in November 2009. Kromsan Deputy Director Altuğ Şener indicates that the plant will change Chromium 6 to its naturally found, less hazardous form, Chromium 3, processing 100,000 tons of waste annually. In this way, hazardous waste will be neutralized. The processing of the waste will still take 13 years. Neutralized waste will be buried at designated sites. Kromsan has spent $9.5 million on the neutralization of waste thus far, including $1.5 million spent on the phase of burying it. The figure is expected to reach $60 million by the end of the project. Şener explains that they are undertaking the project in line with company policies to minimize interaction with the environment. He also makes an interesting point. “Our rivals in the US and Italy operate without any requirement for treatment,” he says. Claiming that this leads to unfair competition, Şener calls on politicians and civil society organizations to exert pressure on these countries. He further maintains that the turtle deaths are not caused by their factory, but by fishermen.
Kazanlı muhtar Süleyman Serin says that while the pollution attributed to Kromsan is in the process of being addressed, they are now troubled by the oil filling and storage facilities. Noting that all streams and water wells now have a “black leakage,” Serin argues that the coast, too, is contaminated with oil from the fuel transfers from and to oil tankers off the coast. This drives him to the point of rebellion: “I cannot understand how the authorities granted permission to so many densely populated oil storage tanks! As the town municipalities were annexed to the metropolitan municipalities, they were built quickly. If someone examines this business, he would surely find some big cases of fraud. We expect officials to show some interest.” Noting that they met with some civil society organizations, Serin announced that some big protests would soon take place in the region.
Lake İznik under threat
Lake İznik, the country’s fifth-largest lake, located near Bursa, is another spot suffering from an onslaught of waste. The foundry near the lake dumped its wastes on the coast of the lake for years. When there was no space left for dumping, it began to dump its waste in the Orhangazi and Gemlik districts, which did not go unnoticed by the gendarmerie environment squads. Then, the company built a waste depot near the lake, surrounding an area of 2,500 square meters with walls towering up to five meters. But this depot filled quickly, and waste started to overflow into the surrounding area. Samples taken nearby showed dangerous concentrations of chemicals.
Then, Mustafa Yavuz, the former muhtar of Örnekköy, filed a complaint against the company. Yavuz explains that the land where the waste is stored was acquired by the municipality before being leased to the company. He underlines that black dust is discharged by the factory, causing damage to the locals’ agricultural produce, adding that the waste in question was also used in the foundation-level filling for local houses. Mehmet Özbay, another former muhtar, claims that the waste was also buried along the shores of the lake. At that time, they did not think it would be dangerous.
After these developments, the Environment Ministry issued a small fine -- TL 782 -- to the company. One year after the first fine, the ministry acted again after numerous complaints made by the gendarmerie. An environmental inspection was conducted at the company. An administrative fine amounting to TL 398,616 was issued to the company, which challenged the fine at the Court of Appeals; the judicial process is still under way. The company claims that they have eliminated the risks by removing the hazardous waste from the facility.
The villagers living next to the waste, on the other hand, complain about air pollution as well. Kemal Özbay, who has been living in the village for 27 years, says in a disgruntled voice: “Even the clovers do not grow sufficiently. They are all dust-covered. My sleep patterns have been disrupted. I am asthmatic. My 26-year-old son’s health is getting worse. Everyone in the village is sick.” The symptoms reported by villagers correspond to those of disorders caused by heavy metal pollution.
Waste is dangerous without regular storage
The Environment Ministry’s crackdown against insecticide depots started in 2003. The ministry assigned scientists the task of determining the current status of insecticide depots and developing a cleanup plan in March 2003. These scientists prepared a preliminary feasibility study on the waste. The assessment committee set up by the ministry after the study decided that the waste should be stored at a temporary secure area to be established by the İzmit Waste and Residue Treatment, Incineration and Recycling Corporation (İZAYDAŞ).
It was planned that the chemical waste would be destroyed at blast furnaces in Germany under a protocol signed in 2006. Former Environment Minister Osman Pepe had come to Kocaeli to attend the signing ceremony of this protocol. A first shipment of 20 tons of waste was sent in April 2006. According to the plan, shipments of 30 or 40 tons would be sent every month. But the project had to be abandoned due to a lack of sufficient financing and technical problems. There are thus still risks for Marmara.
Professor Çağatay Güler, from the public health department at Hacettepe University, points out that if there is no system in place for storing waste, waste will pose risks for the environment. Noting that the line between “hazardous” and “non-hazardous” is drawn based on industrial practices, Güler indicated that things that were not regarded as hazardous during the early years of his career are now considered hazardous. He explains that there is no institution that can act as an arbitrator in this regard and cautions that any draft legislation should be carefully scrutinized to identify and eliminate any loopholes. “High-cost analyses are required to detect the risk status of waste. We frequently mention that the number of cancer cases is on the rise. The opposition camp argues that there are insufficient data about cancer cases due to waste. However, it can be said that those cancer cases which, in the past, could not be detected due to lack of sufficient medical advances can now be easily detected,” he says.