Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dust Fear in Georgian Port Town

By Lasha Zarginava

My investigation into the pollution of my home town with aluminium oxide started in earnest last November.

I had long been interested in this issue, but Poti residents had refused to talk about it publicly for fear of losing their jobs at our port, which is a major employer and which specialises in unloading the ore for shipment on to Armenia.

But then Nana Tabadze walked into my office, carrying a glass jar full of this dust, which she had gathered from surfaces inside her house.

She was the first source I had who was prepared to talk about the problems of people who live near the port, and the information she gave me laid the ground for my work.

Before I met her, I had thought only port workers were suffering from the dust. It had, after all, been the centre of a major legal battle over the death of a dock worker in 2002. Medical analysis determined that Arsen Zarkua was killed by high concentrations of aluminium oxide in his lungs.

A court ordered the port to pay his family compensation equivalent to his salary for the next ten years, as well as making monthly payments to his young children.

But Poti residents think the dust is a hazard to the health of people outside the loading bays too. They link it to incidences of lung diseases that they say have increased in recent years, including tuberculosis.

The first obstacle I faced was the refusal of the port’s administration to talk to me. I wanted to reflect their opinion in the article, but the foreign managers of the Poti sea port declined to give me any information. Aluminium oxide, which is also called bauxite, is a major revenue earner for the port, and port officials avoided any comments on the subject.

City officials also were reluctant to speak. They told me they did not have the right to interfere in the affairs of a private company, although it is their duty to look after the needs of the local population.

Failing to get information from these sources, I appealed to B&P, which rents a plot in the port where it processes the bauxite. Company representative Tamaz Kapanadze was the only official prepared to talk to me on the subject, and told me that the dust was completely harmless.

In the absence of information, and wishing to see for myself the truth of the residents’ complaints about the quantity of dust landing in their homes, I set up a small experiment to see how much dust was blown in on a windy day.

Some 100 grammes of dust with a high concentration of aluminium oxide landed on the balcony of one apartment on one such day, meaning this was clearly a serious issue, and one worth investigating.

In my quest for reliable information, I appealed to local non-governmental organisations. One of which, the Society for the Fight Against Corruption and for the Defence of Human Rights, was also interested in this problem and we worked together to find out what was happening.

Its activists helped me obtain the summary by medical experts from the N Makhviladze Institute of Labour, Medicine and Ecology, which said – much to the anger of local residents – that the dust posed no threat to people’s health.

The whole article, including the collection of documents related to the death of Arsen Zarkua, took me four months. Throughout the whole period, ever since I tried to get information from port officials, I have received regular anonymous calls telling me to stop investigating the subject. Even acquaintances of mine who work at the port have rung me and asked me to desist.

“If they stop loading aluminium oxide, then the Poti port could completely close,” one said.

However, I did not listen to them, and IWPR published the article and a Georgia radio station also broadcast a piece by me about the dust. Not long ago I spoke to some of the residents who had complained about the dust most bitterly, and they said that since my article was published loading had been moved to the northern edge of the port complex, furthest away from residential areas.

Although that is a small triumph, it is still not clear what will happen to the workers processing the bauxite, and how their health will be protected.

Lasha Zarginava is editor of Poti’s resume newspaper.

Link to original story by Lasha Zarginava published in CRS No. 531, 12-Feb-10

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