Revisiting Lithuania’s Toxic Past

In 1989, a cryogenic storage vessel containing 7,000 tonnes of liquid ammonia burst at the Achema factory in central Lithuania. 27 years later, the residents and wildlife in the contaminated area continue to battle with effects of the spill as they recount their experiences during the largest ecological disaster in the country’s history.

The Šventoji River snakes through the Ukmergė district in central Lithuania through farming communities and clusters of derelict grey highrises, a standing testament of the time under Soviet occupation. Flanked by pine trees, it runs in shadow for much of the day and wooden vacation shacks are scattered around on the slope between the berm and the riverbank.

Derelict building from the time under Soviet occupation are scattered all over the country © Aleksander Klug

On the morning of Monday, March 20, 1989, the people of Saleninkai awoke to a strange smell in the air. It smelled like decaying fish.

The village lies on the riverbank where the Šventoji and Neris rivers meet, and the residents were used to such occurrences, after all, they weren’t far from the Achema fertiliser factory in Jonava. But nothing had them prepared for what would come that day.

Jonas Šaulys had just finished his nightshift at the factory when he noticed that something was wrong. He had been working at the factory since it opened in 1962, and he was used to chemical fumes in the air and figured, that it would eventually go away. A few minutes passed. “I had just returned my safety equipment in the locker room and was about to change into civilian clothes when I saw the flames coming from the production units,” he recalls.

Jonas Šaulys photographed in his home in central Lithuania © Aleksander Klug

The Achema fertilizer factory was built in 1962, in what was Lithuanian SSR at the time. It’s main export is ammonia, primarily used in the agricultural industy and to this day, Achema remains the largest fertilizer producer in the Baltic states with a yearly turnover totalling 640 million Euros.

On the day of the accident, the two liquifying turbo-compressors used for the transfer of ammonia from the production units to the cryogenic reservoir, which keeps the ammonia cool, was halted for long term maintenance.

During the repair, factory workers had put the safety piston pump to draw the gaseous ammonia from the production units into operation, but difficulties in starting up the cooling circuit for the compressor delayed the operation. As the workers continued to work on the compressors, the pressure inside the storage vessel rapidly began to climb.

At 11:15, the reservoir burst due to the continued pressure building up inside the storage vessel. The 7,000 tonnes of liquid ammonia contained within the tank was propelled towards the phosphor nitrate production buildings roughly 40 meters away, destroying a reinforced concrete protecting wall on it’s path.

A rusty transportation shaft on the site of the largest industrial accident in Lithuania © Aleksander Klug

Upon reaching the fertiliser depots, the fumes emitting from the spill were ignited by a nearby flare-stack and a large-scale fire quickly propagated to all the buildings on the site.

“It was horrible,” Mr. Šaulys says. “Everyone was in panic and many people began to faint. All I could do was only run desperately forward through the smoke.”

All around him, workers were scrambling in an attempt to exit the factory site. Many falling over due to temporary blindness from the strong toxic fumes, others clutching their bodies, covered in chemical burns.

Many of the gas masks in the factory’s arsenal were spares from the nearby Soviet military base and the filters were rarely changed. So when the fire broke out, many factory workers were left without proper protection, leaving them exposed to the toxic fumes from the fire.

The Achema factory was, at the time, located within a military zone making access to the site virtually impossible. By the time the emergency services had gotten through the bureaucracy and arrived on site, 30 minutes had already passed since the ammonia was released from the storage vessel.

The first emergency responders at the scene were the company’s own firefighters. To reduce the immediate impact of the gas cloud on the surrounding areas, water curtains were set up in the direction of Kaunas, Lithuanias second largest city, but a sudden strong westernwind carried the cloud south and mere hours after the spill, the ammonia concentrations in the air in Ukmerge, 40 kilometers from the factory were four milligrams per cubic meter.

The maximum permitted rate of ammonia under normal conditions is 0.2 milligrams per cubic meter.

The decision to evacuate the factory workers came three hours after the fire in the production facilities, but according to Mr. Šaulys, it was more for show than anything else.

A bus arrived to pick us up and we were driven out to a field a few kilometers from the plant. There, we were checked by military doctors who dismissed everyone as being perfectly fine. Nobody told us what to do, in case we got sick. We were just driven back to the factory once the fire had been extinguished.

Abandoned factory buildings on the site of the largest industrial accident in Lithuania © Aleksander Klug

Danute Zaborski lay in the Nephrology ward of the Ligoninė hospital in Ukmergė when fire broke out.

“All the doctors, nurses and whatever patients were able to help all rushed to fill every crack in the hospital with blankets and cloths and board up the windows.” she says.

Danute Zaborski photographed in her home in Vilnius © Aleksander Klug

“It was clear to us that something was clearly wrong, but the officials did not provide us with any information.”

In the days following the spill, the battle to obtain some of the basic elements of government service — potable water, safe schools, public-health advice — was disorienting.

“They didn’t know what the extend of the damage was, they didn’t know how much of the ammonia had leaked into the soil and the atmosphere,” she recalls.

Much of the wildlife in the area around the Achema factory is still contaminated to this day © Aleksander Klug

By thursday morning, 32.000 people were displaced. The first official human casualty list cited 7 deaths and 57 wounded among the operational personnel of the factory and of the construction companies working close to the accident site. A toxic cloud composed of ammonia vapour and products of the thermal decomposition of the fertiliser was observed as far away as 35 km from the accident site. The contaminated zone spanned over 400 km2. and 20 km from the site, the toxic cloud reached 800 m into the sky.

Hundreds of people showed up at nearby emergency rooms with rashes, nausea, and complaints about respiratory problems. A nurse who was on duty at the hospital in Kausas remembers many people coming in with severe corrosive damage or burns to the mouth, throat, and stomach. Mr. Šaulys and his wife also felt the symptoms of poisoning.

Abandoned factory buildings on the site of the largest industrial accident in Lithuania © Aleksander Klug

“After ten days we left for Vilnius to seek medical profession, because we were getting worse and worse. At the hospital, we were diagnosed with Upper Respiratory Tract Poisoning and spent about a week there.

The effects of the spill didn’t only affect the human population in the immediate vicinity of the Achema factory, it also took it’s toll on local wildlife. Thousands of farm animals died on the surrounding collective farmsteads. The nearby coniferous forests were completely dead by the end of the year.

The vacation shacks below the pine trees on riverbank are left in disrepair and farmsteads around the factory site remains abandoned as their previous owners found new houses in unaffected towns after the spill and have stayed there since. Only a small minority of farmers have stayed in the area, braving the effects of the contaminated soil.

Since the spill, Mrs Zaborskė has persistently tried to find out, why neither the government or the factory leadership provided proper compensation to residents affected by the disaster.

An abandoned home near the Achema factory. Most residents in the area have received little, if any compensation for the loss of their properties and livestock following the spill in 1989. © Aleksander Klug

“To my knowledge, several million Soviet rubles were allocated after the disaster for compensation to residents affected by the spill, but no one I know have ever seen any of those funds,” she says. “Every official I have sought out have been silent and claimed they knew nothing of such funds.”

To this day, she has still not received any form of apology or compensation from Achema, despite still fighting with respiratory problems and elevated bloodpressure.

Achema’s Technical Director, Juozas Tunaitis claims that the company has done everything in it’s power to prevent that such a disaster ever happens again.

“The incident took place a quarter of a century ago, when the equipment and safety standards were different. It was a very painful experience and we have learned our lesson. After the accident, the equipment was shut down. We continuously carry out inspections, organise workshops on how to behave in case of emergency.”

Since the end of the Second World War, nitrogen-based fertilizer production has increased at least twentyfold. Such are the quantities being churned out in factories from the U.S. to Uzbekistan that humans are now likely responsible for fixing more nitrogen than all terrestrial ecosystems combined. It’s been estimated that almost half of the world’s current population subsists on crops grown using ammonia based products.

The remnents of a flare-stack on the site of the largest industrial accident in Lithuania © Aleksander Klug

Air quality in Lithuania continues to give cause for concern. For the year 2013, the European Environment Agency estimated that about 3 170 premature deaths were attributable to industrial pollution.