Chromium Suspect in Sea Turtle Deaths on Turkish Beach

By Jon Gorvett

ISTANBUL, Turkey, August 31, 2001 (ENS) - Controversy is raging between environmentalists, local politicians, businesses and the government over the mysterious deaths of some of the world's rarest sea turtles, washed up on a southern Turkish beach.

Since April, 32 Green sea turtles have been found apparently poisoned on the beach at Kazanli, near Mersin in southern Turkey. It is an area that is under the protection of a joint United Nations-Turkish program that aims to boost turtle numbers.


Green turtle nest and egg (Photo courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The animals, which grow to a length of around three feet and an average weight of 375 pounds, use the beach for laying their eggs, with the sands forming a vital part of the species' life cycle.

With the development of mass tourism around the Mediterranean leaving fewer and fewer undisturbed beaches, the Green sea turtles have been disappearing from the region. They were placed on the list of endangered and threatened species back in 1978. Recent estimates put their global population at around half a million.

Environmentalists and the local mayor claim that the turtles have died as a result of pollution and point the finger at a local chromium plant run by the Turkish company Kromsan.

"A long time ago we started looking into this," Kazanli Mayor Kenan Yildirim told ENS. "We sent a group down to test the sea and they said there was a high level of chromium in the water and the factory was discharging into the sea."

Yildirim said that the factory had been fined some US$20,000 by the regional governorate for this last March. The governorate had warned local people not to drink water from local wells after tests on these had also shown a high concentration of chrome and various heavy metals, he said.

"On the 23rd of June," he added, "the state water board area directorate also took samples from three wells and said they had found heavy metals and industrial waste."

Yildirim claimed that although the tests had been conclusive, Kromsan was "obstructing" the results being made public and "misrepresenting the issue." Kromsan is part of Sisecam, Turkey's largest glass company, and the factory at Kazanli is the country's only chrome producing plant, giving it great strategic significance.

"This pollution has the same status as nuclear waste," said Yildirim. "It's in the water so much that if you come here now you will see that the sea has turned red."

The mayor's conclusions have been challenged by Kromsan and by the Turkish Environment Ministry, which also conducted tests on sea and drinking water in the region.


Kromsan plant (Photo courtesy Sisecam)
"We sent the local environment manager down to check this out," Kromsan factory manager Ayhan Yilmaz told ENS. "He said that the water had never been good enough to drink around here anyway and was only for agricultural use."

Yilmaz also said that the sea turning red was probably the result of a "red tide" of microplankton, a "natural phenomena also witnessed in the Gulf of Iskenderun." He was referring to the nearby water course which has also been environmentally controversial. Greenpeace has labelled it "one of the most polluted stretches of water in the Mediterranean."

The position that the water is naturally polluted is partly backed up by the Environment Ministry, whose press spokeswoman, Asli Ceren Inanc, told ENS that there had always been "a high concentration" of chromium in the local soil.

The ministry did concede that the Kromsan factory is an environmental risk that needs stricter controls.

Mayor Yildirim explained that his municipality is taking no risks and has begun bringing water in from neighboring Berdan for the villagers to drink.

It seems the turtles too have begun voting on the issue with their flippers and are trying to avoid the beach, moving further down the coast to lay their eggs.