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‘The Illegality is Enormous’: Turkey’s Quake Cleanup May Kill Even More

As the road winds around the Mediterranean coastline on the southern edge of Turkey’s Hatay province, the outline of what seems to be hills appear on the horizon. But as they loom closer it becomes clear these are hulking mountains of rubble, so big that they have their own topography, as heavy machinery sorting through the debris tucks into the many crevices.

A fine plume of pale dust blows behind a mechanical claw stripping out valuable metal from the concrete, a toxic cloud that drifts over the nearby beachfront restaurants as well as across a camp for people displaced by February’s deadly earthquakes.

A rubble dump just metres from a family home stretches into the distance in the town of Samandağ.

“The pile poses a threat. It contains asbestos, and there are still pieces of bodies in there,” says Yilmaz Can, the owner of a soup restaurant, wiping his brow, frustrated at being unable to open his windows in the midsummer humidity. Residents of the container camp, just metres from the heap of rubble, say they have stopped going outside in the evenings, when extra machines arrive to sift the debris, causing dust to engulf the camp and bringing with it eye infections and breathing difficulties.

Samandağ is one of at least 18 locations where authorities have dumped rubble across Hatay province, after two powerful earthquakes killed more than 60,000 people in south-east Turkey and northern Syria in early February. Trucks piled with valuable metal pulled from the remnants of demolished homes zigzag across the province, while thousands of damaged buildings are torn down, creating dust that blankets whole streets.

Dust flies as a bulldozer excavates the ruins of a church in Antakya’s old city.

Six months on from the disaster, the people of Hatay now have to deal with the aftermath – and the long-term environmental and public health effects of the cleanup. Still grieving their human losses, people backed by lawyers and activists are now engaged in a bitter fight with local authorities that allow private companies to dump rubble in rivers, on wildlife reserves and in residential areas.

We want the authorities to do the right thing. If not, we want them to understand there will be consequences

Ecevit Alkan, lawyer

Can’s fears about asbestos, a carcinogen, are no hyperbole. Two months ago, a team from Turkey’s chamber of environmental engineers (CMO) analysed eight samples from dumps across Hatay, including from the pile in Samandağ, and found evidence of asbestos in all of them. In four, they were able to identify chrysotile, one of the most common forms of asbestos, banned in Turkey in 2010 but commonly used in roofing and houses built before the ban, including across the earthquake zone.

Companies breaking up rubble and separating materials are required to spray water to stop the spread of the dust. But such precautions are rarely visible in Hatay. CMO advises anyone living near the dumps to wear masks, warning that “the people of the region will be faced with very serious public health problems in the coming years due to poor practices in waste management, and at the same time, pollution and ecological destruction will occur”.

Ecevit Alkan, stands in front of a large rubble dump in Samandağ.

Lawyer Ecevit Alkan has to yell to be heard above the noise of trucks bringing more rubble to the pile in Samandağ. “They chose sites close to roads to make it easier for companies,” he says. “Over there is a school, one in use right now. The rubble contains everything you can imagine: oil, medical waste, pieces of bodies, dead pets. Everything that could be in a home has been torn down and moved here.”

Alkan is critical of the fact that local authorities prioritised speed over safety in the cleanup, emphasising that proper disaster management should also have meant selecting sites for the dumps before the earthquake. “First, the authorities told us this was a temporary site for the rubble, and after a while they would move it somewhere else. But it doesn’t look as if they’re taking it anywhere. The problem is there are no consequences for lying,” he says.

Initial estimates by the UN suggested the earthquakes generated up to 210m tonnes of rubble, while Turkish officials said at least 200,000 buildings were destroyed. Hatay, a fertile province of olive groves and orange orchards between the Nur mountains and the Mediterranean, was badly affected, compounded by a third, 6.4 magnitude quake in mid-February.

Earthquake damage in central Antakya.

People in the province have long seen themselves as neglected by central government in Ankara, with help arriving later in Hatay than elsewhere after the earthquakes. Now it’s feared the authorities have put people at risk with the cleanup. The location of the temporary camp for displaced people in Samandağ was chosen in April, two months after the dump site began to grow.

“The authorities haven’t even cleared half the destruction in Samandağ. Our fear is the pile will only get bigger – where are they going to dump all of the rubble, where will it fit?” says Can, who adds that when people held protests against the dump, security forces violently broke them up including with pepper spray. “The illegality of this is enormous, no one recognises anyone’s rights.”

Hatay’s mayor, Lütfü Savaş, blames Turkey’s disaster management agency, Afad, for the locations of the dump sites, which he says were chosen in the days immediately after the quakes. A lack of care when handling the toxic rubble and creating dust that engulfed communities was, he says, a consequence of workers trying to “work fast and make money”.

People clamber over partly cleared rubble looking for lost belongings.

“This is an exceedingly complex issue. On one hand, people want to get back on track, and we need to get rid of the destroyed buildings fast. On the other hand, there is no ideal place to dump the rubble. But the rubble should be removed with more care, with less damage to the environment and the living,” he says.

The waste will leak into the seawater … If it kills the seaweed in the water, life on the coast will end

Alkan, along with other lawyers from the Hatay bar association, environmental engineers and the Turkish Medical Association, filed suit against the Hatay government, demanding an immediate halt to the dumping of rubble in residential areas, wetlands, olive groves and near camps for displaced people. The lawsuit notes that the dump site in Samandağ contains asbestos, heavy metals, sewage and medical waste, and that the site has expanded far beyond the limits agreed by the authorities.

“The lawsuit is a note to history,” says Alkan. “When the time comes that people are diagnosed with illnesses related to asbestos, they will see what we filed with the court.

A man walks across the rubble of collapsed building toward in Kahramanmaras, close to the quake's centre, on 7 February 2023.

“We want the authorities to do the right thing. If not, we want them to understand there will be consequences for their choices.”

Wetlands have been severely affected by the installation of nearby dump sites.

The pile of debris grows by the hour as a stream of trucks arrives. People are angry about the choice of location for another reason: it’s next to a public beach known as a breeding ground for sea turtles. What was once a thriving oasis for birds and butterflies has been completely smothered.

Panos Arda Çapar, a vet in Samandağ, says the rubble has altered the route for migratory birds, and that he has been treating animals for eye and respiratory infections caused by the pollution, similar to complaints from those living in the camp next to the dump.

“The waste will leak into the seawater through air, soil and water,” says Çapar. “If it kills the seaweed in the water, life on the coast will end. Sea turtles will not return as they are feeding on seaweed, the fish will move to the deep waters. If the waste contaminates the water used in agriculture, it will pose serious risks.”

View of one of the dumps as seen from a table at Fehmiye Miçoğulları’s restaurant in Samandağ.

Fehmiye Miçoğulları, the owner of a fish restaurant with windows on one side that look out to the Mediterranean and the other side to the rubble, says she watched the birds that used to return to the wetland dwindle in number. When the wind blows the dust from the dump towards her restaurant she, along with her staff and customers, regularly have to leave, she says.

“People get allergic reactions, their eyes redden and itch,” she says. “These kinds of health issues will only get worse, and people are not aware of the danger. A bigger danger than the earthquake awaits us.”

Source : The Guardian