Field of Deadly Chemicals Alarms Albanians

By Suela Musta

TIRANA, Albania, February 2, 2005 (ENS) - Albanian environmentalists are voicing concern over the contents of a field, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the capital, Tirana, which the authorities have recently admitted has one of the largest and most deadly chemical deposits in the region.

The field contains some 600 canisters holding about 16 tons of arsenic and yperit, or sulphur mustard, which are both elements for the construction of chemical weapons.

The existence of the stockpile, thought to have been delivered to Enver Hoxha’s regime by China, was revealed by an American newspaper, the "Washington Post," on January 10.

Citing Albanian defense sources, the U.S. newspaper said local military officials came across the stockpile back in November 2002.

Speaking to journalists on January 12, after the issue had become news, Besnik Bare, Albania’s deputy defense minister, said the substances had been deposited in the 1970s, at the height of the then alliance between China and communist Albania.

Albania, the official added, had been interested in acquiring chemical weapons at the time. Sabit Brokaj, a former defense minister, said, “It’s obvious that Albania wanted to be lined up among the heaviest-armed countries.”

chemicals

Chemical weapons storage barn in Albania. Security fencing and cameras were only recently installed by the United States. (Photo courtesy Senator Richard Lugar) )
The Albanian authorities apparently forgot about the existence of the chemicals when Hoxha died in 1985.

Bare said there are no official documents explaining exactly how the chemicals were transported to Albania or why these substances were deposited there.

“We have reliable information that there are no other chemical deposits in the country except those that have been just discovered,” he added.

Albania is obliged to disclose and then eliminate chemical weapons under an international convention that the Tirana government signed in 1993.

Lieutenant Colonel Fadil Vucaj, an army specialist on chemical substances, said that international experts had carefully monitored the conditions of the canisters and could vouch for the fact that they remained hermetically sealed.

According to Vucaj, the containers were secured by at least 10 safety devices and were under 24 hour supervision.

Vucaj said he was convinced that the chemical deposits and their elimination posed no threat to the country’s security or to the environment.

defense Minister Pandeli Majko also insisted the deadly cache is safe. In a meeting on January 11 in Tirana with U.S. defense experts, Majko said the Albanian military had taken adequate measures to prevent the substances harming anyone.

However, Albanian environmentalists are not convinced.

“I am sure Albania does not have the specialized resources required to secure the civilians and the surrounding environment from contamination,” said Dritan Koka, a member of the Environmental Lawyers Association.

Many ordinary Albanians are also wondering whether the authorities are sufficiently competent to deal with the problem.

“What concerns me most is how secure is it going to be to remove these chemicals if Albanians have no experience whatsoever in such a process,” said Ilir Suni, a student at the University of Tirana.

Adam Ereli, a U.S. State Department spokesman, said the United States has offered US$20 million to assist Albania in eliminating the substances. Chemical weapons experts would bring mobile chemical weapons incinerators to Albania to ensure their destruction by 2007, said.

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Chemical weapons canisters inside the storage barn above (Photo courtesy Senator Richard Lugar) )
The Albanian stockpile, though relatively small, worries U.S. officials as one of a number of undocumented or poorly secured weapons caches around the world that could be exploited by terrorists.

Pellumb Qazimi, chief of the army general staff, said the Albanian government would also play a key role in getting rid of the deposits. “Their elimination means no risk at all for the civilian population,” he said.

In spite of all the reassurances, some environmentalists remain concerned. Environment Minister Ethem Ruka, hardly helped matters when he recently told the media that the substances were so toxic that it would take only a few milligrams to kill huge numbers of people.

An official at the state institute for the environment, speaking anonymously, said that the removal of the toxins and the decontamination of the surrounding area would require highly sophisticated methods.

“The elimination [of the chemicals] does not guarantee the preservation of the environment,” the source warned, “so the experts will need to rigorously follow international legislation on environmental preservation.”

Koka says the Albanian government’s reliance on U.S. expertise to deal with the crisis does not bode well for the future.

“Despite the fact that U.S. experts will be involved in the removal of these chemicals, we must make compiling a national plan for environmental protection a priority,” he said.

Turning to the topic of removal of the deadly stockpile, Vucaj said the authorities had yet to decide between the two available options of incineration or chemical neutralization.

“The methods are still being analyzed and then the most efficient method of elimination will be chosen,” he said.

The Albanian parliament’s defense commission, at a recent session, requested foreign experts to cooperate with the authorities here even after the substances have been destroyed.

Dashamir Shehi, chief of the commission, said this outside assistance should also focus on helping Albania to find and eliminate any other dangerous weapons that had been left over from the Hoxha era.

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.}