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Chiatura – Zone of a Disaster [Investigation]

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Friday, 02 June 2023 23:52 hits 2896 times

Journalistic investigation by the online publication Mountain Stories reports, how the mining company Georgian Manganese, which makes fortunes from the extraction of manganese in the Chiatura region, completely disregards laws, inflicts irreversible damage on the environment, endangers people’s health, and literally buries their property and future perspective into the ground. In this wicked campaign, the Georgian Manganese’s ally and guardian is the state.

 

Danger to life

30-year-old Giorgi Ghughunishvili was returning home when he fell into a water-filled ditch and drowned. The trenches dug along each side of the road leading to residential homes in the village of Darkveti are the work of Georgian Manganese. After extracting manganese from underground, the site is simply abandoned and remains dug up for years, or for good. 3 years on from Giorgi’s death, the area still poses a danger to life.

Giorgi’s family did not sue Georgian Manganese. The father of the deceased works in one of the mines. Neither did the Ministry of Internal Affairs initiate an investigation of their own volition, despite the fact that violating safety standards during work is a criminal offense, which, in cases of involuntary manslaughter, is punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

Village Darkveti of the Chiatura municipality is no exception. Not even ambulances can reach Khalipauri districts due to the road being destroyed by open quarries.

“I have complained many times, I plead to the City Hall, but they are telling me the road cannot be fixed until Georgian Manganese pulls out. It is about 3 kilometers to the school. The car cannot reach here. Children walk the muddy trail to Khalipauri hall wearing rubber boots, change their shoes there, and take the bus to school. Same on the way back,” tells us Nino Tsukhishvili, a Khalipauri resident.

There are no lines Georgian Manganese is not willing to cross when it comes to harvesting the ore. Schools, gardens, and sports grounds are no obstacles for them.

Georgian Manganese extracted the ore in the new district of ​​Tabagrebi 10 years ago and left this part of the village stranded without a road. For all these years, it has been impossible to reach the homes even with four-by-fours.

To study the impact of the 17-year mining by Georgian Manganese on people and their lives, Mountain Stories conducted 15 expeditions to 15 villages of Chiatura. Not a single settlement or person remains in the municipality who has not been affected by the production.

The village of Mghvimevi has also been turned into one big quarry. 10 steps from Lia Zhividze's house lay waste heaps abandoned after mining. A passage runs through the quarry, which Lia uses to take her cattle to the pasture in the morning and bring them back in the evening. Often a pungent smell fills the area, which has made Lia sick on many occasions.

“As a result of the bottom layers of land being pulled up to the surface, heavy metals permeate the fertile layer of earth and end up being ingested by the cattle, and subsequently humans. These toxic metals are not easily excreted by the human body and cause many diseases. The danger is very serious.

That is why there are subsoil mining regulations, which stipulate that humans should not be directly exposed to open quarries, the washed-down soil should not end up in people’s gardens, the dust should not be allowed to be dispersed by the wind, and the site must be isolated from human settlements as much as possible,” according to environmental protection expert, Nino Gujaraidze’s assessment, these rules are completely disregarded in Chiatura.

To live in a non-hazardous, safe environment is a constitutional right of a citizen. Article 29 of the Georgian Constitution has no power in the Chiatura region.

Georgian Manganese has a 40-year mining license over 16 430 hectares of land in Chiatura and Sachkhere.

A lawyer at the NGO Center for Civil Activities, Lado Kutateladze, explains that the fact that a private owner agrees to the extraction of manganese from his property in exchange for financial compensation does not free the company or the state from environmental responsibility:

“The Article 29 of the Constitution on the right to a healthy environment also covers the obligation for safe and appropriate treatment of private land.

In the given case, both the company and the local governing bodies are required to ensure normal and harmless living conditions for the local residents. Whether the company has a Surface Access Agreement with some residents or not is completely irrelevant.

Moreover, an agreement where a person, due to various circumstances, is forced to accept conditions that put him on unequal terms with the other party and endanger his health and life is illegal by the Civil Code.

Considering the impoverished population, the monopoly of the company, and its impunity, the contracts with the population do not reflect their actual will and are often signed out of desperation. Therefore, each such contract can be considered unlawful, and immoral, and be declared invalid.

 

A Freewheeling Company

After the restoration of independence, the state reserved exclusive rights for extracting manganese. In 2006, the company Chiatumanganum was auctioned off together with the mining license.

Ukrainian Private Group became the private owner of the enterprise. After the change of government, in 2013-2017, the company was fined 416 million GEL for environmental damage. On this pretext, in 2017, the state introduced a special manager into the company – Nikoloz Chikovani, one closely affiliated with the Georgian Dream ruling party, who was wanted for financial crimes at one point. After the appointment of Chikovani, the fine of almost half a billion GEL was written off.

The special manager was tasked to fulfill 14 conditions, among which one of the most important was the reclamation of areas with open pits. The term of the manager appointed for three years was extended in 2020, as he failed to fulfill his obligations.

Only after 6 years, the company announced that the technical and biological reclamation of part of the excavated areas had been completed.

We inspected the alleged “recultivated areas” together with environmental expert Nino Gujaraidze. The company had planted cherry plum saplings directly into the rubble.

By law, before starting the mining works, the company was required to remove and store the fertile layer of the land - humus. After finishing the works, it had to conduct technical reclamation first, which means leveling the ditches and then reapplying the stored fertile layer. The company has been working in violation of these mandatory rules for years, destroying humus over hundreds of hectares.

“It takes a hundred years for a one-centimeter thick layer of fertile soil to mature. Nature should work without interference for a century, and if you disturb it, those hundred years will reset. Earth has to basically start over its history to create the same ecosystem that was destroyed.

Quarrying has many negative consequences. This process begins with the opening-up of the quarry, which means that in order to reach the ore, everything above and below the ground needs to be destroyed,” says biodiversity expert Irakli Macharashvili.

Since Georgian Manganese is supervised by a special manager appointed by the state, the company's activities are no longer inspected by the Department of Environmental Supervision. Therefore, there is no more accurate data on the scale of damage inflicted to the environment, or by how much the 416 million worth of damage has grown in the last 6 years. We only know that the area of ​​open pit mining has at least doubled.

Mining in forested areas requires a special permit or revoking of the forest status of an area of interest. According to the research by Green Alternative, such status has not been revoked until 2019, and the Forestry Agency did not provide us with the records for the following years. As for special tree-cutting permits, such permit has not been issued between 2017-2023.

 

Critically Polluted River

Among the 14 conditions set for the special manager was to protect the Kvirila River from pollution. You can tell how this promise was fulfilled with the naked eye.

“We haven’t been able to discern clear water in Kvirila even for an hour in recent years,” says Mikheil Imedadze, head of Chiatura fishing club.

None of the Georgian Manganese factories have a functioning purification plant. All sewage tanks are out of order. The river is yellowish before it reaches the treatment plants and turns pitch black after the manganese waste is poured in.

State inspectors do not test the water in those villages where conditions are the worst due to open-pit mining of manganese. Because of this, Mountain Stories itself took water samples from the Kvirila river and submitted them for analysis to the state laboratory, which belongs to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Agriculture. In their answer, we read:

“The sample turned out highly contaminated and could not be analyzed using the tools and methods available in the laboratory.”

Eco Club Chiatura did the same and submitted their sample to the Tbilisi State University laboratory, which concluded that the Kvirila River and its tributaries are critically polluted with heavy metals.

In the samples taken from Kvirila in the city of Chiatura, manganese exceeds the permissible concentration 42 times; 147 times near the city of Zestaponi; 3857 times in the river Bogiristskali, the right tributary of Kvirila; and 647 times in the so-called Tsofi section. Lead concentration is 8-12, nickel - 41, cobalt - 12, and zinc - 1361 times higher.

“We are poisoning the villages and cities in the regions of Chiatura and Zestaponi that Kvirila passes through,” the head of the Chiatura fishing club says that multiple species of fish disappeared in recent years. “From here, the contaminated river merges into Rioni in Vartsikhe. Whether animals drink from it or it is used to water crops, it’s harmful to everything. When the water evaporates, the air is poisoned.”

 

Government Concealing Files

The National Environmental Agency has been evaluating air quality in Georgia since 2018. Along with the Constitution of Georgia, the Aarhus Convention also obliges the transparency of the Agency's research results. Despite this, the state agencies refused to provide us with data on the air quality in Chiatura. The reason they gave was that these materials are part of a criminal case. Several cases have indeed been initiated in the prosecutor's office on the instances of atmospheric air pollution by the activities of Georgian Manganese, but none of them have been investigated so far. Mountain Stories has already appealed to the court for obtaining air quality data.

One of the documents unofficially obtained by us from the Ministry of Environmental Protection reveals that the dust content in the air caused by the activities of Georgian Manganese in Chiatura exceeds the acceptable concentration, which causes atmospheric pollution.

 

 

Itkhvisi – Village Being Swallowed by the Earth

People of the Chiatura municipality are threatened not just from the air, but from underground.

House of Giorgi and Gulnara Megrelishvili in Itkhvisi stood exactly on the spot where now a giant pit starts. The house, garage, barn, and everything they owned are now buried in the ditch.

In the Village of Itkhvisi, manganese is cultivated using the underground method. A network of mining tunnels runs below the village. Cracks on the walls of Giorgi Megrelishvili’s house had been growing for years, until in March of last year, an 800-meter-long land mass collapsed and completely buried the house. This is not the only home destroyed in Itkhvisi.

The span of the destruction reached 40 hectares. 20 houses have been completely destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, and a further 86 families are within the risk zone.  

The government’s response to the Itkhvisi disaster was to create yet another commission, which was supposed to determine the real cause of the destruction.

In their conclusion, the commission did not hold Georgian Manganese accountable.

In search of justice, the villagers held several rallies in front of Chiatura City Hall.

 

Evidence Exposing Georgian Manganese

Chiatura Mayor Givi Modebadze is a member of the State Commission investigating the Itkhvisi disaster. He is a deputy chairman of the commission. The reason he gives for the destruction of the houses is a landslide, which was ruled out by the commission in its final report: “With a high probability, subsidence (land collapse) indicates the impact of mining works, rather than a typical landslide process triggered by natural factors,” the commission's report reads.

The State Commission is not denying that the land subsidence in Itkhvisi is caused by manganese mining works, but names the production of the 1970s and 80s as the culprit and strictly rules out the culpability of Georgian Manganese – which has been mining the ore in Chiatura since 2007.

According to the statement by the Mayor of Chiatura, “research has established that Georgian Manganese has not entered and mined ore in that area. No one claims the ore has not been extracted, of course, it was, but it was extracted before 2007.”

Mountain Stories obtained several documents as evidence that confirms that Georgian Manganese has been mining ore under the village in recent years as well. All documents are signed by company management.  

- “The management of Shukhruti mine is informing you that we are conducting manganese ore extraction works by underground mining under the villages of Itkhvisi and Shukhruti. The year 2007.”

- “Georgian Manganese LLC’s commission determined on site that Shukhruti mine is conducting underground mining works under Buchu Megrelishvili’s plot. The year 2008.”

- “Below the homestead land that belongs to you, underground mining works are being carried out by the Chiatura mining and beneficiation combine of Georgian Manganese LLC - the Pataridze (Itkhvisi) mine. The year 2010.”

- Management of Shukhruti mine of Georgian Manganese LLC is informing you that under the plot of land owned by Teimuraz Megrelishvili of the village of Itkhvisi, we are conducting manganese ore extraction through underground mining. The year 2013.”

The state commission worked on the case for four months, and even though they had access to all this evidence, in their report they wrote: subsidence must have been caused by a combination of several factors, namely: underground cavities created as a result of mining works at different points of the last century, unstable nature of underground rock layers, and abundant atmospheric precipitation.

“They can keep blaming rain or snow all they want. There wasn’t that much precipitation,” Tea Godoladze, Director of the National Seismic Monitoring Center, rules out earthquakes as possible catalysts for the destruction, which the State Commission treats as a possibility.

The leading seismologist of the country has been observing the events in this region for a while and is baffled by how much the subsidence accelerated in the last year. “They grossly mishandled mineral extraction and hollowed out earth so quickly, they abandoned a tunnel without support beams, and an instant collapse followed. This is not the result of the works in the 70s and 90s, this is new, in recent times.”

The state’s shielding of Georgian Manganese from justice and help in evading responsibility, blaming natural causes instead weigh on the taxpayers. Affected families are paid 30 000 GEL compensation as eco-migrants from the state budget. Chiatura City Hall also pays out secondary compensation, which depends on the amount of damage and is determined by Samkharauli’s damage-assessment team. According to victims, the compensation falls far short of the market value of the assets.

In the course of this investigation, Mountain Stories made several attempts to meet with the state manager of Georgian Manganese. All attempts were unsuccessful.

Nikoloz Chikovani also did not show up at the meeting of the Chiatura City Council on April 7, 2023, where council members, citizens, and NGO representatives were waiting for him. Chikovani sent a written correspondence saying he is not accountable to the self-governing body.

 

Silence – The Result of the System

Georgian Manganese has up to 6000 employees. At least one member of almost every family in Chiatura works for the company. Wage from mining is often the sole source of income, and many workers do not dare turn against the hand that feeds them.

Nevertheless, Shukruti residents responded to the uncontrolled activities of Georgian Manganese – destroyed houses, a cracked church, collapsed graves, and destruction of property – with several protest rallies. The first instance of disobedience was met with repressions from the state. The village conceded and broke up the picket at the mine, but their compromise was not met with any steps in return, so the village planned a new protest. A few hours leading up to the rally, the police conducted a raid in Shukruti. Giorgi Neparidze was first told he was being questioned as a witness and was then charged with absurd accusations. He carried the status of a defendant for two years and 26 court sessions were held on his case. All charges were ultimately dropped. 

The longest and loudest protest was the 150-day non-stop rally. Giorgi Neparidze’s example clearly shows how the system punishes those who dare to openly defend their rights and how coordinated the government bodies are in their defense of a supposedly private company.

Georgian Manganese is the largest miner in Georgia and the richest company with a turnover of hundreds of millions and an annual profit of 96 million. The region where it operates is the poorest in the country. Every third person in Chiatura Municipality is below the poverty threshold and receives social care.

It is horrifying to witness the barren fields, and swamped and buried villages, but even more horrifying is the sobering realization that this will not stop for years to come. According to the terms of the license, Georgian Manganese will continue mining ore until 2047.

Gela Mtivlishvili

Editor at mtisambebi.ge, a lawyer by education. Gela works on topics related to human rights, ethnic minorities, conflict zones and terrorism. E-mail: [email protected]

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