Toxic Fires Reveal Poland's "Time Bomb" Of Illegal Waste Dumps
A fire involving a hazardous waste dump has brought attention to the hundreds of illegal waste dumps across Poland. Yet the government has failed to offer an adequate response.
ZIELONA — On July 23, an illegal toxic waste dump set ablaze in Zielona Góra, a city of about 140,000 inhabitants in western Poland, causing high levels of polluted smog and a fire that raged for several hours before finally being extinguished. The waste brought attention to the sheer number of illegal landfills across the country. There are hundreds of such places in Poland, and even more companies operating this way. They are present in every region of the country.
The ruling party government has boasted about tightening the regulations on illegally dumping waste, which they claim has been a so-called “declaration of war” on the “garbage mafia”.
It turns out, however, that the more restrictive the regulations, the more the black market behind Poland’s waste management is able to develop. Recent data shows that every year, more warehouses and sheds filled with toxic chemicals are detected. And this is not the only problem regarding illegal waste storage sites.
“Where did the poisonous dust fall, what did it contaminate?” residents of Zielona Góra asked government officials following the fire. The government offered no explanation, nor did they properly warn those living in the vicinity how to prevent their exposure to the pollutants.
“If government and city sirens went off, people would run away or go home,” says Anna, a resident of Zielona Góra, who says that she and her community were not warned of the extent of the pollution. She left the city with her husband and two children after finding out that the waste contained poisons, toxins, and materials from radiology offices.
Several residents noted the environmental challenges facing the city during the fire and in its immediate aftermath. “Bees died in Łężyca, birds stopped singing in Płoty, in the evenings you can't hear the crackling of wild boars or roe deer,” said residents from several of the city’s neighborhoods.
The city authorities also turned off its public air monitoring boards, where the results of the concentration of particulate matter and dioxins are published.
Massive warehouse fire, Zielona Góra, Poland, causing uncontrolled explosions.
@daviddulb via Twitter.
Lack of government warning
Dr. Mateusz Cuske, a forensic expert and specialist in dangerous landfills, had been investigating an illegal warehouse long before the fire on behalf of prosecutors from Zielona Góra. He recommended that the chemicals be removed quickly. He warned that if there was a fire, poisonous dust with heavy metals would be released.
They damage the lungs, thyroid, kidneys and heart.
“A truly toxic element is arsenic, which has teratogenic [causes birth defects], mutagenic and carcinogenic properties (…). The dioxins contained in the dust affect fertility disorders and the maintenance of pregnancy. They damage the lungs, thyroid, kidneys and heart.”
Dr. Cuske is not the only one warning of the impacts of this fire and others like it. Hubert Harasimowicz, former provincial commander of the fire brigade in Gorzów, has doubts whether the eventual evacuation of the surrounding area was ordered effectively. "On public television and radio, there was a message that the air quality is normal, that the toxic cloud disappeared behind the forest.”
Government officials also maintain that the situation was placed under control. Still, fire marshal Harasimowicz is demanding the disclosure of the air quality reports to the public.
From bad to worse
Though the latest fires have been blamed on the neglect of these sites by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) administration, illegal landfills, including dangerous or toxic ones like that in Zielona Góra, were also present during the 1990s under different administrations.
It’s a simple formula. A company rents a warehouse, a barn, a hall or an empty plot for pennies, and then brings and abandons waste instead of utilizing it. Many companies have been given permits to collect, store, segregate or transport waste. Only after some time did it turn out that they did not comply with the conditions of the permit. But there were also those who did not even care about appearing compliant, and acted illegally from the beginning.
Following a series of fires in illegal waste dumps in 2018, the PiS tightened its rules. Permits for waste storage were shortened to one year, visual inspections of such sites were put into place, and the need to have an individualized decision on building conditions was introduced.
As a result of the changes, some small but honest entrepreneurs who were not able to meet all the requirements dropped out of the market. Thus, the costs of waste management increased. Criminals took advantage, offering to collect and dispose of waste at lower rates. So instead of solving the problem, it has been magnified.
Skye view of the massive warehouse fire, Zielona Góra, Poland.
@MaciejLazor via Twitter
Waste imported from abroad
In recent years, the import of hazardous waste from abroad has been banned, and special units have been set up in environmental protection inspectorates to fight the so-called "mafia”.
But Poland alone cannot be blamed for the issue.
According to 2022 data from the Chief Inspectorate of Environmental Protection (NIK) , Poland reported a total of 424 dangerous waste dumps. Every year, inspections show an increase anywhere from dozens to hundreds of new dumps. However, the audit office and the inspectorate both maintain that neither of them is aware of the true scale of the problem because of the lack of mandatory reporting of such incidents in Poland.
But Poland alone cannot be blamed for the issue. Non-hazardous, mainly municipal, waste is still flowing to Poland from abroad. In 2021, a total of 350,000 tons of waste arrived in the country. In 2022, this number was slightly lower but not by much — 332,000 tons. Theoretically, this waste was imported to Poland for recycling purposes. But, as many examples across Poland show, in reality they have been lying abandoned for several years.
Lack of government action
In spite of the revelations about the numbers of waste dumps, both legal and illegal, the Polish government has not taken any concrete action
Waste management specialists have been calling for the establishment of a government fund that would cover the costs of liquidating illegal warehouses and landfills. However, the government has not expressed any plans to set up the fund, or any concrete plans to clear the waste.
Experts and local government officials believe that the fight against illegal landfills is hindered by protracted administrative proceedings and conflicting expert opinions on ongoing risk assessment. Prosecutor's investigations are also dragging on and are often suspended because the suspects are in hiding. Environmental protection inspectors do not have the funds for more frequent inspections.
The construction of a hazardous waste incineration plant, promised by the Deputy Minister of Climate Jacek Dekora, has not yet started. And the operator of the incineration plant is set to be Polish petrol giant Orlen, the largest company in the country. So far there has been little discussion about development conditions or environmental decisions when it comes to the landfills or the incineration center.
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