Europe's Dirtiest Nation? Albania Piled With Trash

ALBANIANS don't shout: ``Look out below!'' when they empty their trash. But they should.

Waste has never been properly disposed of in Albania, but the crumbling of the trash collection system has residents dumping garbage out of upper-story windows, sometimes striking pedestrians on the streets below.

Story-high heaps of trash pile up outside drab apartment buildings throughout this tiny Balkan nation, perhaps the East European country least prepared to deal with its serious environmental problems.

The trash dumping began in 1991 after the collapse of one of the world's most stringent Communist dictatorships. But among all the profound environmental problems to be found here, garbage is the only the most visible.

In the past four years, some 750,000 acres of state-owned forests have been chopped down for use as firewood and by illegal lumbering operations. Soil erosion is destroying cropland at an alarming rate. And pesticide, fertilizer, and chemical factories release enormous quantities of pollution, contaminating soil and water supplies.

The problems not only damage Albania's landscape and people, they also stifle investment from abroad. Foreigners are cautious about building on existing industrial sites, because of concern over liabilities for contamination.

But not all of Albania's environmental problems are of its own making. Lirim Selfo, chairman of the state Committee for Environmental Protection, says he often encounters unscrupulous Western firms trying to export hazardous waste to Albania.

Sometimes toxic substances are packaged as ``humanitarian aid,'' as in the case of an infamous ``train of death'': 17 wagons of dangerous, improperly packaged pesticides ``donated'' by Schmidt Cretan, a German firm that vanished after the shipment arrived in Albania in 1992.

The wagons are now stranded in a remote train depot near the border with Yugoslav Montenegro. Experts estimate disposal of the train's contents will cost millions of dollars.

Some damage may be irreversible. ``Many of the pesticides were shipped in big plastic bottles, which are sought after by local people,'' says Albanian Television producer Xhemal Mato, whose documentary on the shipment helped expose the story. ``They poured the contents on the ground, then used the containers for milk or watering livestock.''

This fall authorities started repackaging the waste to return it to Germany.

THOUGH the collapse of communism created some environmental problems, it eased others.

In Elbasan, long-regarded as the country's most polluted city, air quality has improved since the closure of the city's industries. Most of the massive Elbasan Metallurgical Combine stands idle, its thousands of workers laid off when Albania's industrial sector folded three years ago.

Most of the machinery for the 750-acre complex was brought in from China in the mid-`70s, already obsolete when installed.

For decades, the combine produced much of the country's steel, copper, iron, chrome, and cement - a niche that became increasingly important when ties with Beijing were cut and the country slid into nearly total isolation from the outside world. ``We never did have to pay [Beijing] back for building the plant,'' a plant technician laughs.

But Elbasan has paid dearly for the antiquated plant, which produced thousands of tons of sulfur dioxides, heavy metals, dust, arsenic, petrochemicals, and carbon that hung over the Elbasan basin for years. Like most industrial facilities in the country, the combine's forest of chimneys and smokestacks lack even the most rudimentary environmental controls.

Teachers at the local secondary school lament the lack of water or sewage-treatment facilities. There are no sewage treatment plants in Albania and only two overworked water-treatment plants. Sewage is simply discharged into rivers and streams, which are still used as a source of village drinking water.

In a nation of 3 million people where average incomes are less than $50 a month, paying to clean up the environment is less of a priority than just curbing present polluters. The scope and effect of such environmental problems are still impossible to quantify, as the country has no monitoring equipment or regulatory administration in place to measure pollution or public health.

``We have nothing to work with,'' laments Shaban Kamberi, head of environmental protection for Tirana, ``not even the most basic statistics.''

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