PETROLEUM: AREA ALBANIA

The gas station lights always stay on, during the day and at night long after closing time. They never rest. They are the only thing that keeps working in this country, never mind the fact that a recent storm has left half of the city without electricity. Nothing can stop the gas pumps filling the cars of the county of Fier. After midnight, only the candescent blue and green pumps of GAS AFT break the darkness along the SH95, one of the main arteries of the city. Stray dogs traverse the desolate road along with victims of insomnia who seem to walk in no particular direction.

In this small county of Albania, the stench of oil has become so unbearable that it hardly allows for sleep to set in at night. The odour permeates every experience and taints every memory, always reminding of its presence. “They take advantage of when it is dark to go down to the river and dump whatever is left over”, says the owner of the Prince Hotel. Headaches and migraines have become routine for the residents of Fier, as has buying bottled water because the tap water is unsafe to drink. However, the county of Fier and the practically abandoned oil refinery built on its periphery are only one link in a chain of production that begins 10 kilometers eastward. Patos-Marinëz is a vast region home to more than 5.3 billion barrels of crude oil stored away under its soil. Dictator Enver Hoxha and his regime was aware of the riches that lay beneath the land and in the middle of the Cold War recruited the resources of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Popular Republic to start drilling into the land.

To this end, the state run company Albpetrol was created to extract the country’s oil from beneath the surface. In a few years, the undulating fields across the county of Fier & Patos became littered with oil wells built with quickly and with little planning. Massive oil refineries were erected next to towns like Ballsh where the residents saw their villages turn into small cities with the construction of urban housing projects to house the influx of Chinese workers coming to work at the processing plant. The refinery became the sole motor of employment for the residents that lived around it. Thousands of workers performed tough labour in deplorable conditions without the opportunity to fight for a decent work conditions.

“All of us suffer or have suffered in the past because of the refinery. Headaches, lung cancer, nausea, so many things. But the refinery provides for our families. No one complains because no one can afford to lose their livelihood”, says Reis, a former refinery employee and resident of Ballsh. He currently runs a small corner shop that has allowed him to break free from the industrial sphere that controls the town’s economy. “Foreign companies buy the refinery, use it until they are done with it, and then they leave. They don’t invest in improving the facilities, and they work during the night, so we can’t see what is going on. Now, nobody knows who owns the refinery”. Like the people of Ballsh, the Mayor, Agron Kapllanaj, nor the Vice Mayor, Hajredin Serjanaj, can confirm who currently owns the refinery. The only current refinery employees are the security guards who watch over a neon yellow mountain of sulphur in the middle of a deserted industrial facility.

Foreign interest in Albania’s oil reserves took root after the fall of the dictatorship when the country began to gradually open itself to a market economy. Like many countries that had been in the orbit of the Soviet Union, Albania’s nationalized companies underwent a process of privatization in which much of the country’s wealth was handed to those closest to the centres of power at the time.

Despite the volume of its oil reserves, Albania does not partake in the global oil trade economy due to the “low quality and composition” of its crude, according to Mariano Marzo, Professor of Stratigraphy at the University of Barcelona. Transnational oil corporations do not work in the country. The majority of Albania’s oil extraction is exported to Italy, Spain, and Malta, where it is refined and then sold back to Albania for consumption. The cost of oil imports in 2017 reached 600 million dollars, compared to 380 million dollars of oil exports in the same year according to the Albanian Ministry of Energy.

Routine negligence and widespread corruption have led Albpetrol to bankruptcy. The company’s extraction technology remains unchanged since its introduction in the sixties. Most oil wells are out of service and those that remain active yield 50% of their production capacity. Oil leaks from the dilapidated wells form dark black pools of sludge. Cows graze around the leaky pipes, sheep feed on the grass that grows atop the blackened soil. The gravity of the environmental detriment multiplies in a social context where one out of every two people have livelihoods based on agriculture.

In 2006, Albpetrol sold a part of its production to the Canadian and now partly Chinese owned, Bankers Petroleum. The company invested in the modernization of existing oil infrastructure and began to implement basic environmental and safety standards. Over the years, Bankers acquired more territory and today runs 95% of crude extraction in the country. The modernization of Albania’s oil infrastructure also introduced new extraction techniques like fracking. This technique injects a pressurized chemical mixture through a perforation in the ground to fracture the rocky substrate and release the gas and oil contained within to the surface.

Over the past decade, Bankers Petroleum’s rapid development and uncontrolled practices have led to an uptick in tremors in the Zharrëz region. Dozens of families have been affected by earthquakes which destroyed a total of 71 houses and damaged a further 540 more between 2013 and 2017. Vasil Koço, a retired resident of Zharrëz, abandoned his house two years ago when cracks in the walls began rapidly multiplying because of the hydraulic fracking that had started nearby. Thousands of residents had to leave their homes and begin a new life elsewhere. Vasil now lives in a rental apartment in Fier and doesn’t plan on returning to his damaged home out of fear that it will collapse. Bankers made a donation towards rebuilding some of the lost homes but to this day has not assumed responsibility for their destruction.

At the bottom of a towering hill lies the most visited lounge in the town of Ballsh. The darkly lit clubroom is the place to gather for Ballsh’s youngest. Outside, heated discussions about football or video games ensue through lingering cigarette smoke. Deciding who is better, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, usually arouses strong opinions from the group of young men who are sure to laugh and taunt their friends when they pull up outside in their noisy Mercedes. “Today I am going to crush you in Fifa”, exclaims Jetnor, a 26-year-old who grew up in Ballsh and will soon go back to Germany to work with his brother Neim. “In this town there are no opportunities, the maximum one can do is save up and get out of here”, laments Jetnor.

They are the face of the Albanian diaspora. Young men whose only hope of a better economic future means leaving their country for Italy, Greece, Germany, or the United States. Although there is no official figure, it is estimated that more Albanians live abroad than in their home country. Erion Manaj who waits tables at a gas station in Ballsh was found by French authorities hiding underneath a truck as he attempted to cross the border into the United Kingdom. Erion says he is saving money so that he can try again in the future, an example of how Albanian youth are becoming more and more desperate to risk it all for a better economic future.

In 2015, the “Patriotic Contract” initiative was created by Prime Minister Edi Rama to compile statistics and information from Albanians abroad in order to better understand the scale of Albanian emigration. The project aimed to quantify one of the country’s main exports which, like its oil, is a product of a long production chain that ends in the Albanian port of Vlorë, where boats come to take away the country’s two most valuable resources: the oil and its people.

Author Daniel Cole, Jaime de Lorenzo and Jordi Jon PardoYear2019-2020LocationBallsh, AlbaniaStatusWork in progress

The lake of Rezevuari i Hekalit in Ballsh, surrounded by oil wells of the Mallakastër industrial complex.

The abandoned village station has become a leisure center for Ballsh's residents.

After spending last summer as an agricultural worker in Italy, Jahaj, 24, had returned to his hometown of Ballsh hoping to make a life selling the cherries his family grows on their land. In the picture, Jahaj poses with his family in their living room.

One of the techniques used by Bankers Petroleum to extract gas and oil from the subsoil is fracking. This has caused earthquakes that destroyed 71 houses and partially damaged 540 between 2013 and 2017. Many residents of Zharrëz have had to leave their homes for fear of collapsing.

Workers of Bankers Petroleum in the oil field of Marinëz. In order to extract the crude from under the soil the refineries use different techniques including fracking as of most recently in the south of Albania. The introduction of fracking has resulted in the regular earthquakes destroying the homes of 71 residents and damaging 540 more during the last decade. Bankers Petroleum made a donation to help rebuild some of the homes but has not claimed responsibility.

The abandoned power plant on the outskirts of Fier. This town became one of the most important cities in Albania during the era of industrialization after the Second World War. Industrial plants and a refinery were constructed. In the 1960s, Korporata Elektroenergjitike Shqiptare (Albanian Electric Power Company, KESH) constructed a huge steam power plant (Termocentrali i Fierit) with an adjoining fertilizer factory. In 2007 it was finally shut down and the entire area sold to a Greek investment group for the symbolic price of a single Euro.

Dismantled buildings, abandoned gas stations and plots for sale are a common part of the Albanian landscape. In the photograph, a dismantled structure next to a service station that has been converted into a hay warehouse for the surrounding farmers.

Linaq, a 12-year-old neighbor of Ballsh, is affected by architectural pollution. She lives with her family few meters away from an abandoned house damaged by fires 25 years ago. Ruins such as this one are spread out all over Albania.

A worker sprays a school bus at a car wash in the town of Ballsh.

A sample of the Gjanica, the most polluted river in Albania. The Industrial negligence, mainly oil spills from Patos-Marinza and Ballsh refineries, is affecting the agricultural, herding and fishing activities from most of Southern Albania. May 2019.

Illiri, a farmer who lives and works next to the refinery, burns olive trees prunings.

A mountain and industrial landscape, pictured from the vicinities of Ballsh.

A man takes an evening stroll through an orchard in the town.

Tire tracks from a truck reflect the state of abandonment and lack of control that exists in oil wells run by Albpetrol, Albania's state owned oil company.

Young people from Ballsh pass the time playing video games at a leisure hall till dusk.

Night falls and the air in the Fier Mallakastër region becomes turbid. At times, the stench of oil becomes unbearable in the thick of the night.