The Environmental Tale of Klaipeda – Toxic Uncertainty and Silent Hope
Živilė Mantrimaitė, European Humanities University, 2023
Klaipeda, stretching along the Baltic sea, is Lithuania’s 3rd largest city. Sandwiched between the Klaipeda’s Port on the west and the Free Economic Zone on the east, the city’s neighbourhoods are filled with salty breeze and screams of seagulls. As throughout Europe, Klaipeda has been defined by heavy industrialisation processes. Yet, while many European cities are transforming to become more sustainable as the public dissatisfaction with industrial pollution is surging, Klaipeda’s residents have fallen into a state of dormancy. Ongoing environmental suffering is nearly invisible here, with many people choosing to move away or giving up on the prospects of a healthy living. We often hear the success or the failure stories of communities struggling against major polluters and fighting for the rights to the environmental commons. But there are also communities whose voices are silent, which leads to a knowledge gap of what it means to live in a heavily polluted environment. I want to tell a story which does not get told so often – of a tightly knit community of residents and industry, quiet environmental suffering, and a silent hope for a healthy place to live in.
Flower Neighbourhood of Klaipeda
I was born in the Lilac Street of Klaipeda’s Flower Neighbourhood, where streets are named after flowers, trees, and other plants. The district of four-flat and eight-flat houses was built in the 1930s to house the families of the new cardboard factory. In the 1960s, my grandmother started working in the cardboard factory as a lorry driver and when the time came, she passed the flat to her son – my dad – and his new family. The first memories I have of this neighbourhood are of me playing on the streets with a bunch of kids from the neighbourhood. We formed such a strong bond, that our parents would call us a squad. My mother would often meet other mothers to put some things in order: whose garden are the kids going to play in; when is the time to come home; or who is going to provide lunch for the kids. Soon these conversations progressed to irregular Sunday morning coffees, through which our fathers slowly got to know each other too. Later, they developed a more distinct garage culture to discuss car breakdowns or repair works.
In this time new small industrial factories have popped up surrounding the neighbourhood. Even now, I can distinctly remember the changing smells, which developed like a clockwork each day – the sweet smell of honey cakes being prepared in the morning, metallic odour from iron ore trains passing by in the afternoon, and sweet-acidic smell of cellulose being released in the evening. During the occupation of the Soviet Union, growing port activities attracted industries of cellulose and plastic production, oil and wood manufacturing, fertiliser, and iron ore storing to Klaipeda (Žukas 49). New companies have popped up in close vicinity to the city, or even in the city’s living districts. The remnants of unrestricted and wild industrialisation are seen through the spatiality of industrial companies, which are placed in the living districts, next to the city’s river and the old town.
The Toxic Uncertainty
The debate regarding environmental conditions of Klaipeda only became prominent in 2017, with a family establishing a neighbourhood Facebook group to share photos and frustrations over an everyday routine of cleaning dusty windowsills. Alina and Linas Andronovai have been living 50 metres away from the heaps of iron ore for 9 years and became known as Klaipeda’s activists for environment and democracy (Andronova). Alina started her battle against environmental pollution when the handling of iron ore intensified, as she was worried about long-term effects on the health of her children. Her struggle has been characterised by relentless door-knocking at municipality’s health care and environmental departments, letter writing to government officials, lawsuit initiation against the company handling iron ore, and an immense indifference from her neighbours and the rest of Klaipeda’s population. However, a recent survey of long-term residents, carried out by the “Baltic Surveys” revealed that people living in the city are enduring sleepless nights, nausea, and increased stress due to heightened air-pollution and industry sounds (Rumšienė). Alina was not the only one experiencing the environmental suffering, but so many have been watching it from the sidelines.
The survey respondents characterised a long-term reality of living surrounded by pungent smells, dust, and industrial sounds which disturb their social relations, working abilities, sense of security, quality of leisure time as well as, their physical health (Baltijos Tyrimai 7; Rumšienė). Families have been complaining about sleepless nights, nausea, children’s cough, and the need to constantly clean their household due to heavy dust particles sitting on the windowsills. “The smells I still remember from my childhood. They often depend on wind direction – when it comes from the south, it often happens that I am not fast enough to close the window before I get nauseous. They say it is not so toxic… They say we only exceed the limit by two points. But this is already like breathing into a petrol tank” – describes one of the respondents (Baltijos Tyrimai 12). People’s stories were also saturated with discontent for the companies residing in Klaipeda’s port, municipal and health care institutions, complicated bureaucratic processes, and the long-time it takes for making positive changes (Baltijos Tyrimai 32).
Javier Auyero and Débora Alejandra Swistun “Flammable” explores the toxic experiences of everyday life in Villa Inflamable residents. Environmental suffering in Klaipeda, as in Villa Inflamable, is formed not only through toxic compounds found in the air, soil, water, or on the windowsills, but also through construction of long-term confusion and lingering insecurity. In both Klaipeda and Villa Inflamable, the environmental suffering of the residents is managed by the city’s institutions and external agents to advance their own profits (Auyero and Swistun 6). In “Flammable” this is defined as labour of confusion – contradicting discourses produced by the state institutions, to give and to take away hope at the same time (Auyero and Swistun 145). The labour of confusion intersects with relational anchoring of risk perception (Auyero and Swistun 146), which refers to (un)availability of information regarding the toxic impacts on people’s health and the environment. The authors argue that these two factors produce toxic uncertainty (Auyero and Swistun 66) of the residents which subordinates the community to resign from environmental struggling through invisible symbolic power and everyday routines.
Construction of Confusion
Looking back at the actions taken or lack of actions thereof by the local municipality, it becomes clear that residents of Klaipeda have been receiving contradicting information and constantly waiting for solutions. In 2018 one of the prominent Klaipeda‘s politicians announced that a new urban plan is being developed and at its center is a project of moving industrial activities of the port beyond the city boundaries (Vainorius). In 2021, the new urban plan for Klaipeda was revealed with more old town areas claimed by the port companies and no new areas planned for relocation of the existing industrial activities (Mūsų Klaipėda pranešimas spaudai). Similarly, a minuscule change in people’s surroundings and a new hope has been described since 2020 – due to a temporary lawsuit, the company, which handles iron ore, had to halt their activities and thus the dustiness has reduced (Rumšienė). However, the company has revived its handling activities in 2022 and planted new dismay for communities living next to it (Andronova).
“The healthcare department has initiated soil tests in children’s playgrounds after our complaint, that was a very welcomed step. We are still waiting for the results” and “We haven’t done anything, we got used to it” – were some of the answers given to Klaipeda’s researchers when they asked about the importance of actions against industrial pollution (Baltijos Tyrimai 34). Confusion among residents has been produced not only through waiting for institutional decisions and promises, but also over straight lies. A respondent’s story portrays this – “the municipality has organised a group excursion to one of the companies, which the residents were complaining about. They have allowed us to climb one of the chimneys. Company and municipality workers said – ‘we don’t smell it’. But it [smell] was intense and sweetly acidic” (Baltijos Tyrimai 35). Such flagrant communication has pushed the residents of Klaipeda to curtail their trust in the institutions and resign from the environmental struggling.
(Un)availability of Information
Since the industrialisation of Klaipeda, the media or science has not reported considerable revelations on correlation between pollution and health impacts, nor large industrial accidents have happened. Perception of the ‘lack of risk’ can be attributed to the absence of medical and biological testing done and thus information available. The first environmental testing of heavy particles in the city was only done in 2020 by Klaipeda’s University and it resulted in a temporary halt of iron ore handling activities in the city centre (Rumšienė). Nevertheless, the medical implications of dustiness, smells and noise are cumulative in the long-term and can hardly be measured by irregular testing. As the research shows, respondents of the interviews felt uncertain over the toxic impacts to their and their children’s health – “There haven’t been medical tests, we don’t know how this impacts our health. We can see it [dust] on our windows, but we don’t know what we breathe in” (Baltijos Tyrimai 17).
Residents also feel insecure over the lack of accessible information on what potential risks are situated next to their homes – for example, they are not sure whether fertiliser stored in the city centre of Klaipeda is potentially flammable and what to do in case of industrial accidents. Researchers note that these new worries have been raised in relation to the explosion of a fertiliser storage in a port of Beirut in 2020, slowly changing the risk perception of the residents. However, in general, the daily routines are prioritised over the time that could be wasted on lengthy bureaucratic processes – “I haven’t taken any actions, I am working and taking care of my parents. It’s the responsibility of the city and one person cannot change anything anyways” (Baltijos Tyrimai, 34). Many more respondents who took individual actions reaffirmed that often their complaints got entangled in bureaucratic procedures, which caused more stress and time, thus eventually they stopped (Baltijos Tyrimai 38).
Is There Hope for Klaipeda?
The conceptualisation of toxic uncertainty helps to hypothesise why the majority of Klaipeda’s residents resign from the environmental struggle, even if pollution affects their lives extensively. The survey revealed stark division between the residents – some people are still hopeful for the promised changes, while most think that the situation is becoming worse and will not turn around. Since 2022, tired of constant struggling, Alina and her family have moved away from Klaipeda. Similarly, my parents have reflected that the tightly knit community of Lilac Street neighbours has left, with many flats dedicated to short-term rentals for workers.
Despite the global endeavour to transition to post-industrial societies, Klaipeda has been caught in a limbo between industrial and the post-industrial. New factories are still moving into Klaipeda, air and soil pollution is worsening, while new city roads are being constructed for the growing number of trucks servicing the port (Šulcas). Many residents have been faced with a tough decision: stay in the city, where many industry jobs are available, but with unknown toxicity or move to study and work to other cities or even abroad. Nevertheless, Klaipeda has the advantages of the surrounding nature – the forests and the Baltic Sea. Although I do not live in Klaipeda anymore, I am still hopeful that the world-wide transition to post-industrial societies will catch up to it and one day it will become a seaside city, sustainably growing along the shores of the Curonian Lagoon.
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