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

Georgian Cement Plant Blamed for Health Problems

Locals call for more action to be taken to reduce pollution.
By Malkhaz Mikeladze
  • Many Kaspi residents think the local cement plant is bad for their health. (Photo: Mikuladze)
    Many Kaspi residents think the local cement plant is bad for their health. (Photo: Mikuladze)

Tengiz Sukhiashvili used to make his living by growing cucumbers, tomatoes and other vegetables for the local market.

But Sukhiashvili, who lives in the town of Kaspi in eastern Georgia, says pollution from the massive cement plant there has forced him to give up his market garden, and he now works as a taxi driver.

“The plant has a bad impact on the environment and on health,” he said. “Almost no one farms in Kaspi, as the dust destroys everything. Most of the population has thyroid problems.”

The cement plant in Kaspi first began operating in 1931, and is currently managed by Heidelberg Cement. Operating around the clock, it produces more than 760,000 tonnes of cement each year.

In a 2010 study by Georgia’s environment ministry, the Kaspi plant was recognised as one of the country’s major air polluters.

Although it is a major source of employment for the town, locals say they pay a heavy price.

The 150 families who live in a housing estate originally built for factory workers are affected most directly. Residents say they suffer from cement dust from the factory, also from the heavy commercial traffic on the road that cuts through the neighbourhood.

“The situation gets worse in the summer due to the low rainfall,” explained Nino Enukidze, who lives on the estate. “The dust really bothers us, and you can’t go outside in the evenings because of the noise. It would be good if the plant could try to reduce the level of dust it produces. We are also asking for a new highway so that the trucks carrying cement for sale bypass the settlement.”

Another Kaspi resident, Robert Kavtishvili, acknowledged that the factory brought a great deal of revenue into the local economy, but said more should be spent on curbing pollution.

“Cleaning filters were installed in 20121, but the problems continue. As far as I know, they are turned off at night. Several villages around Kaspi experience the same problems as the town itself," he said. "The municipality and the plant management need to take appropriate action to reduce emissions and cause less damage to the environment.”

Kaspi’s municipal government co-finances treatment for cancer and bronchial asthma for those who need it, and the number of people applying for this assistance is rising, according to Dali Davitashvili, head of the municipal department for health and welfare.

“In 2013, 17 people got funding for [cancer treatment] from the municipal budget. In 2014 it was 57, while in January and February 2015 alone, 16 people with cancer applied for funding,” she said. As for bronchial asthma, 49 applied for funding last year, while “in the first two months of this year, 28 people have contacted us already”, Davitashvili added.

Some experts fear that the extent of the health problems may be more severe, since many people do not seek treatment because they are unaware it is on offer, and could not afford to pay for it themselves.

Giorgi Kazarov, a dermatologist from Kaspi’s town hospital, said no research had been carried out on whether pollution from the plant was increasing the incidence of certain diseases.

“Compared with other municipalities, Kaspi has a high number of people coming in with fungal infections and asthmatic diseases. We are often approached by people with tumours of the skin or mucus membranes. We send them to various hospitals in Tbilisi since we don’t have the equipment needed to investigate this.”

A few years ago, local residents campaigned for filters to be fitted to the factory furnaces and for the plant to shift from coal to the cleaner natural gas. Filters were fitted in 2012, but the plant still runs on coal.

Gocha Gochitashvili, the head of the municipality in Kaspi, confirmed that the plant was still using coal-fired furnaces. “They installed filters, so it no longer “snows” cement, but this is only a slight improvement,” he added.

Gochitashvili complained that the factory management did not liaise with his office.

 In a recent report, the Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN) said  Kaspi remained one of the Georgia’s most polluted municipalities.

“As a rule, the lime for cement production is mined in open pits in a haphazard way. The fertile topsoil is not set aside so that the land can be cultivated later,” the report said.

CENN recommended that lime and cement be sealed for transport to prevent dust getting into the air, and called for the plant to be fitted with the most modern filters available.

The cement plant’s managers deny that it is a major source of pollution.

“The emissions are steam, not cement dust,” company spokesperson Nino Tkemaladze told IWPR. “We installed filters in 2012, and they have an operational life of 15 years, are of high quality and meet international standards. At present three open pits [for lime] are being dug and the factory is taking care of biodiversity issues.”

Tkemaladze declined to comment on reports of risings rates of illness in the area, but pointed out that the factory provided 300 jobs.

The Georgian ministry of environmental protection and natural resources says the factory has made significant progress in reducing pollution in recent years.  A ministry spokesperson told IWPR that an inspection would take place in the near future.

Malkhaz Mikeladze is a freelance journalist in the Shida Kartli region of Georgia.

[Correction: The company fined by the environment ministry last year was not the Kaspi plant or its owner. Apologies for this error.]