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

Villagers Want Action on Pollution in Georgian Mining Area

As locals say air quality is poor and water is unsafe to drink, a mining firm says it’s taking practical steps towards cleaner production.
By Malkhaz Mikeladze
  • Open-cast manganese mine at Rgani. (Photo: Oliko Tsiskarishvili)
    Open-cast manganese mine at Rgani. (Photo: Oliko Tsiskarishvili)
  • Open-cast manganese mine at Rgani. (Photo: Oliko Tsiskarishvili)
    Open-cast manganese mine at Rgani. (Photo: Oliko Tsiskarishvili)

People living in and around the Georgian town of Chiatura say more action is needed to reduce pollution from the numerous mines in the area.

The biggest mining company, Georgian Manganese, says it is doing all it can to introduce clean production systems, cut pollution and restore worked-out open-cast mines to their natural state.

Mining in Chiatura goes back to the 19th century, when manganese was discovered here, and it became intensive in the Soviet period as the metal was in high demand as an essential part of steel and aluminium production. The area still has some of the largest deposits of manganese ore in the world.

The situation is particularly bad in the village of Rgani, where three open-cast manganese mines are currently in operation. Rgani is home to around 600 families, and people there say air and water pollution, as well as damage to buildings caused by quarry blasting, are causing severe problems.

Some locals want the mines to be closed and the whole area to be planted with trees.

“The air is very dirty. Even if we ignore the discomfort caused by the noise and the daily movement of heavy machinery, the environment is being devastated and huge holes open up and fill with stagnant rainwater,” said village resident Tsisana Bedodze. “It isn’t safe to walk around at night. We don’t let our children go out, and there are similar [potholes] on the road leading to the school.”

Her neighbour Lamara Kobakhidze added, “The water is sometimes so murky that you can’t drink it. We are always afraid that the children will be poisoned, and there have actually been cases of this. It gets worse every time it rains.”

Villagers say their homes suffer structural damage from the use of explosives in the mine pits.

“The main thing that worries us is the dust. The road is damaged as well and it’s difficult to drive along it. Promises to get it repaired have remained just promises,” said Imeda Khvedelidze.

Georgian Manganese LLC, a local affiliate of Florida-based Georgian American Alloys Inc., is licensed to excavate manganese deposits in the area for the next 40 years. There are 15 active quarry sites around Chiatura, some of which the company has outsourced to smaller companies.

In a statement to IWPR, Georgian Manganese said it was working to address all the outstanding issues, and promised that land would be reclaimed as soon as extraction ended.

“The water supplies and road systems for which the company is responsible are constantly monitored and any damage is swiftly dealt with. Last year, the company procured special humidifying equipment to use along the main road during the hot days of summer so as to protect the environment from dust,” the statement read. “In spring and autumn last year, and in May this year, we planted 10,000 saplings on a ten hectare plot near the Mgvime mine so as to reclaim the land. Between 2007 and 2008, 0.9 hectares of land was recultivated around Rgani, particularly at the Keteladze quarries…. After the existing quarries in Rgani are worked out, the plan is to recultivate them, too.”

The ministry for the environment and natural resources says Georgian Manganese has been fined more than once for infringing environmental regulations. In April 2014, for example, it was accused of removing fertile topsoil and polluting river water.

The head of Chiatura municipality, Sulkhan Makhatadze, says local government has little power to demand change on its own.

“The situation in 12 villages is difficult. It’s the result of industrial activity that has been going on for many years,” he said, noting that before Georgian Manganese started working here, the mining companies that preceded it were not subject to any environmental regulations.

“The local municipality has no leverage to put pressure on the company – to do this we need help from central government,” Makhatadze said.

Local NGOs complain that the company does not talk to them.

“The company has done great damage to the ecosystem in this region,” Shota Gaprindashvili, chairman of the Chiatura Residents’ Association, said. “The situation in the municipality and the surrounding area continues to deteriorate. Despite our efforts, the company has not been in contact with us. The local population has been asking for help for several years, but the problems continue.”

Responding to these criticisms, the company said it was demonstrating a commitment to the environment by investing in clean production methods as well as restoring disused pits.

“In recent years, Georgian Manganese has been actively working on environmental issues and on introducing standards of technology that will minimise any negative impact on the environment,” the statement from the company said. “One example of this is the construction of a new ore enrichment plant. Once it starts up, any pollution of the river Kvirila and negative environmental impact caused by us will be reduced to zero.”

The statement from Georgian Manganese emphasised that it was not the only mine operator around Chiatura, and that it could only answer for its own actions.

“It should be noted that this is responsible behaviour on the part of our company, and it does not apply to the small mining companies of which about 20 operate in Chiatura,” the statement said.

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