The hidden poisons of Iaghluja Mountain

Lasha Shakulashvili , Elene Shengelia,

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, former republics like Georgia inherited a legacy of dangerous substances held in sub-par storage.

Over two decades later, some Georgian communities are still largely in the dark about the potential health risks posed by stockpiles of dangerous pesticides and chemicals.

While there is some effort by the Georgian Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture to remove and clean up some outdated pesticides and chemical waste, there is a lack of public information about where the stockpiles are located and how potentially dangerous they are for nearby communities and livestock.

Iaghluja Mountain in southern Georgia is a good example. Georgia’s National Archives – even the environmental ministry – does not have much publicly available information on the site.

But the mountain, located an hour from the capital Tbilisi and just five kilometers from the closest community, has been the home to hundreds of tons of outdated pesticides for over 40 years.

Standing on the main highway overlooking the Iaghluja Mountain, there is no outward indication of what lies under the soil.  It looks very like most other mountains in this part of Georgia: dusty with a rocky cover and very few trees. What is remarkable is the wind; strong gusts of wind that blow the surface dirt off the mountain, down toward nearby villages.  Local residents often complain about how strong the wind blows, without realizing what these winds might be blowing into their homes, farms and gardens. 

One local, Nino, recalls that her family received a plot of land near Iaghluja Mountain during the Soviet Union. The land was offered to people who lived and worked in the nearby factory town of Rustavi. 

“I spoke to my relatives and acquaintances (who still own these land plots) and found out that upon receiving lands, none of them had any idea about the burial site of pesticides/chemicals,” she said, adding that some of them cultivated the land—even building houses and raising cattle.

Most of the people who were given small pieces of land around Iaghluja Mountain during the Soviet Union were not able to live in their new homes due to the heat and poor conditions.

Still, there are a few who were brave enough to build comfortable lives in Soviet-designed country homes. Some of them knew about the dumpsite for expired pesticides/chemicals, however, they believed that the materials used during the Soviet Union were much less dangerous than the pesticides available in the market today.

The USSR-designed settlement around Iaghluja Mountain was never firmly rooted in the existing environment. Pine trees were planted sparsely to create the illusion of green space and hundreds of (now abandoned) poor quality houses were built without access to running water.

Despite the fact that the mountain’s status as a pesticide dump was officially closed in 1985, more chemicals and pesticides have been buried in the mountain in the past decade. While the environmental ministry has worked with international partners to remove the waste, there is still a stark absence of official information about what exactly was in the mountain, what remains and what dangers it poses for the local community.

Zarina, 31, recently moved to a house near the mountain because she wanted to be closer to the capital but still enjoy fresh air and a mountain view. She can see Iaghluja Mountain from her window, and she likes to enjoy the sight of it in the morning, while she drinks her coffee. 

She first heard about the stockpile in the mountain when Chai Khana contacted her. 

 “I have just moved in. Neither have I read or heard any story about the mountain; I am confident than the vast majority of my neighbors are unaware of what may lie underneath the Iaghluja Mountain.” 

Local residents are not interested in discussing the dumpsite at Iaghluja Mountain, and most prefer to either ignore it or be content with the way the government buried the waste.

Locals appear to have little information about what is buried beneath the soil - and little interest in finding out. Their lack of general knowledge about the dangers of pesticides raises concerns about the chemicals they are using on their own lands.

While the vast majority of locals are not aware of where exactly the burial sites are, they have continuously witnessed trucks driving from the mountain accompanied by police cars.

A local resident, who also works as a taxi driver, advises visitors not to ask too many questions about the waste site and avoid attracting "too much attention" on the topic.

The only association that people have with Iaghluja Mountain is the military base located at one side of the mountain.

The chemicals and pesticides buried in the mountain fall in the category of organic pollutants known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). POPs are chemicals of global concern due to their significant negative effects on human health and the environment.

According to the study conducted by the European Union, humans are exposed to chemical pollutants – like pesticides – through the air, water and dust as well as with consumer products (including packaging containing POPs) and also through diet, by eating POP-contaminated food. Dairy or meat products from the cattle utilizing the contaminated area without limitations could potentially carry enormous effect on local dwellers’ and other beneficiaries’ health condition. 

What is publicly known about Iaghluja Mountain’s chemical stockpile dates from a press release issued by the environmental ministry in 2009, when residents of a village Ortasheni in Georgia’s central region of Kartli complained that a nearby stockpile of outdated pesticides was polluting the land and causing locals to fall ill.   

In response, the environmental ministry packed up 22 tons of old pesticides and other chemicals – as well as 220 tons of polluted top soil. The old pesticides were moved to Iaghluja Mountain.

The ministry press release noted that the pesticides were relocated because the Ortasheni storage site had been near a residential area and school. The press release said the stockpiles had “posed a serious threat to the local residents’ health for years.” 

But there was no information about what sort of pesticides or chemicals, or what kind of threat the locals had been under. There was also no explanation of why the pesticides were moved to Iaghluja Mountain, which is about five kilometers from a small settlement.

A study the same year by the environmental NGO CENN found there were 2700 tons of various chemical pesticides, including a large concentration of chlorine, at the site at Iaghluja Mountains.

The study states that the “condition of the site is non-satisfactory, it has not been fenced, the site is unprotected and cattle can move freely. There are cases of local dwellers removing pesticides and metals within them. Some of the pesticides and their packaging are exposed on the ground in an open space. Pesticides are washed by uncontrolled pollution of the environment continues.”

The study released by CENN indicates that even though the Georgian government ratified an international convention that obliges it to contain pesticides and pollutants safely, the Iaghluja Mountain’s site remained open to public and local dwellers, who dug the chemicals out of soil for their use as late as 2009.

The ministry remained distant while responding to Chai Khana’s questions about the dumpsite or the level of danger they represent to nearby communities.

It did note that an effort to remove the pesticides from Iaghluja Mountain started through the assistance of the international community. The latest press-release from 2016 notes that the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization offered to help the government safely clean up the site and move the chemicals to a safe site in France. Reportedly, 208 bags of waste were removed. The ministry has not published any details on how much was cleaned in tons, and how much remains, however. 

Despite the fact that the Ministry of Environment Protection and Agriculture of Georgia, the European Union and the UNDP have started packaging and removing the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from the site, the lack of publicity and public information makes the topic taboo for local residents and the general public. (Source: Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture of Georgia)

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