Cleanup Of Infamous Pesticide Site Brings Toxic Legacy To An End

From left to right: Tofik Azizov, Ministry of Agriculture; Petr Sharov, Pure Earth; Technical Advisor Nicholas Albergo; Rovshan Abbasov, Pure Earth; Khatuna Akhalaya, Project Consultant.

If you asked any authority on pollution about Azerbaijan, the name Salyan, would inevitably come up.

Located about 93 miles (150 km) from the capital of Baku, Salyan was home to the most contaminated pesticide site in the country, and one of the most contaminated pesticide sites in Central Asia.

The story of Salyan is not unfamiliar. Around the world, there are many toxic hotspots where obsolete pesticides have been abandoned. These pesticide sites are mainly in low and middle-income countries, which often lack the resources to deal with the problem. As a result, these toxic legacies left behind continue to pollute and poison surrounding communities, sometimes for many decades.

The site, prior to remediation. There are decaying drums with their contents spilled, and contaminated soil all around. Beyond the walls of the compound, you can see some of the town’s buildings.

A Toxic Cocktail

The contaminated site at Salyan was a former storage facility for pesticides and fertilizers. When the building that housed pesticides was demolished in 1990, the abandoned pesticides were just left behind or scattered around the site, exposed to the elements. Over the years, hundreds of the metal drums deteriorated and began leaking. We found many containers half empty of their toxic contents.

Among the highly toxic substances documented at the site were DDT, Polydofen, Granozan, Zineb, and HCH, which we found in both liquid and powdered form.

The site prior to remediation. Deteriorated barrels were left scattered around and exposed to the elements, its toxic contents spilled.

When Pure Earth conducted an initial site assessment in June 2016 as part of the Toxic Sites Identification Program (TSIP), the team did not have to look far before they saw many vibrant red and purple traces — evidence of various strengths of Granozan, a highly toxic mercury-based pesticide that can poison if touched.

Traces of highly toxic Granozan can be seen exposed to the elements inside a decayed barrel.

Traces of highly toxic Granozan can be seen exposed and scattered out in the open.

What We Found

  • About 600 metal drums, badly damaged, partly empty, containing liquid pesticide, presumably Polydophen, 60 % DDT
  • About 50 kg of Granozan buried underneath metal drums
  • 300 m3 of pesticide powder in torn bags filled with DDT
  • About 2.000 m2 of visibly contaminated soil mostly on or near the foundations of demolished buildings

The site before remediation. This soil is contaminated with pesticides, including DDT mixed with HCH and Granozan.

Living With A Toxic Legacy

For nearly three decades, these highly toxic pesticides were exposed to the elements. They seeped into the ground and were scattered about by rain and wind.

Families living nearby were exposed to the toxic vapors and contaminated dust and soil. Many complained of headaches and the smell of DDT. Residents also told us about a farmer whose cattle died after he reused some of the heavily contaminated materials from the demolished facility to build a stable for his cattle.

From left to right: Pure Earth’s Rovshan Abbasov and Petr Sharov, with representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, who worked closely with us to clean up the site.

Even as the site was renowned as one of the worst contaminated in the country, the new owners, who took over the property in 1996, used part of the compound as a food storage facility.

The cleanup team took precautions before handling the toxic materials, including the use of respirators and safety suits.

A Fast-Track Collaboration: Succeeding Where Others Had Failed

The Salyan site had been the focus of attention for international and local authorities for quite some time and although numerous attempts had been made to clean the site, none had been successful until now.

Planning for the cleanup began in August 2016, two months after the TSIP assessment, which determined that the site should be a priority for remediation.

A follow-up detailed assessment of the site was conducted in January 2017 to determine the best and most cost-effective cleanup strategy.

In the months that followed, Rovshan Abbasov, Pure Earth’s coordinator in Azerbaijan, worked closely with local officials to push all the paperwork through, purchase necessary equipment, assemble the 37-person team, and coordinate the arrangements.

Shovels were in the ground by November 2017.

Not only did the Pure Earth team manage to clean up the site, but they also accomplished the task in record time, in part due to the close working relationships the local Pure Earth team, lead by Peter Sharov, had established with all the stakeholders. They included the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, Salyan Municipality, the landowner, and the Janggi Pesticide Polygon, where all the toxic materials were transported.

The Cleanup

Workers demarcating the different zones for the remediation project. There were 3 zones: Hot, Intermediate, and Clean.

The team used an excavator to dig up buried pesticides and move contaminated soil and hundreds of rusty, decayed drums.

A special metal funnel was used to bag some of the DDT and Granozan that was mixed in with the soil.

Fragile drums containing liquid pesticides were carefully placed in special plastic casings to prevent leaks.

All the contaminated materials were loaded onto trucks and transported to the Janggi Pesticide Polygon, a hazardous waste facility.

What We Removed

In total, the Pure Earth team removed and sent 510 m3 of contaminated material to Janggi, including:

  • 25 truckloads of drums filled with pesticides
  • 32 truckloads filled with about 500 rusty drums and soil contaminated with Polydophen and Granozan
  • 16 truckloads filled with soil contaminated with DDT and Granozan

The trucks were carefully covered with thick plastic to prevent the pesticides from dusting during transport. After delivery of the contaminated materials, the trucks were washed off at a specially designated area in order to remove any remaining contamination.

Rovshan Abbasov gets his hands washed in the Clean zone.

Graveyard for Pesticides

The Janggi Pesticide Polygon is where toxic obsolete pesticides can be stored safely, out of harm’s way. Much of the contaminated soil and barrels removed from the Salyan site were placed in 14 concrete-lined pits and covered with concrete slabs on the top.

The rest, including repacked drums and big bags of pesticides mixed with contaminated soil, were stored in a special facility at Janggi.

Bags of pesticide mixed with contaminated soil that were removed from the site at Salyan.

Many of the old, decaying barrels filled with pesticide were placed in special plastic casings to prevent leaks.

What’s Next

Today, the Salyan site is an example of progress, and what can be accomplished quickly, when stakeholders are brought together.

Pure Earth’s partners, from government officials to private enterprises and local experts, all showed up in force at a press conference to celebrate the successful completion of work. The project, a source of local pride, was widely covered by local news and TV networks. [Watch: Rovshan Abbasov talk about the cleanup on local TV – in Azerbaijani]

Pure Earth’s partners gathered at the press conference to celebrate the project and talk to the local press.

“In Salyan, this was a great threat to the local population,” said Petr Sharov, Pure Earth’s regional director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia. “Our job was to clear the area and remove the contaminants. We did it, and we stand ready to assist Azerbaijan in solving any pollution problems they may have.”

“Our cleanup of the toxic beach in Sumgayit was our first project in Azerbaijan. And now we have removed the worst of the toxic threat from Salyan. This progress continues, and I cannot be happier for my country,” said Abbasov.

The project fulfilled the main objective of removing the source of contamination from the area – piles of pesticides and the most contaminated soil underneath. This has significantly lowered the potential exposure of nearby residents to toxic fumes and dust. A follow-up assessment will be carried out to determine the proper way of dealing with what contamination remains.

This project was supported in part by the European Commission and UNIDO.

From the Project Page: Azerbaijan, Salyan – Persistent Obsolete Pesticide Removal

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