Protesters in Zanjan last Thursday.
Tired of the air pollution caused by a factory in the northwestern city of Zanjan, local residents twice took to the streets in the past two weeks, prompting the government to finally shut it down.
The state-owned lead factory had operated on the outskirts of Zanjan for two decades, but several health studies published in the last few years prompted growing animosity from local residents. Some of these studies showed that beyond polluting the air, the groundwater had been contaminated far beyond the authorised levels.
Despite this, the government resisted calls to move the factory further from the city. According to local residents, who believe the pollution is causing cancer, about 10,000 people turned out for the first protest on August 11, which ended in clashes with the security forces. Despite a ban, a second demonstration was held last Thursday, this time with about 5,000 people, and again ending in clashes. However, the authorities then quickly moved to shut the factory down.
Protesters last Thursday in Zanjan.
According to the local media, Lead & Zinc Co., which owns the factory, will have to fire at least 400 workers. About 300 workers took part in a counter-protest on Wednesday, arguing that they were in fine health and that the sudden shutdown was unwarranted. The authorities did not answer their calls, and have not yet said whether they will re-open the factory elsewhere.
Similar protests over factory pollution are also being held on a weekly basis in the city of Arak, in central Iran. However, the authorities there have not yet moved to close any of the factories in this highly-industrialised city.
Protesters in Arak.
“The authorities put up billboards in the city centre, explaining that the governor had ordered the factory closure!”
Ahmad, 26, is an environmental activist in Zanjan.
During the past few years, people have repeatedly voiced their concerns about the severe pollution, but the authorities did not come up with any answers. They kept telling us that they would study the matter, but that closing the factory would harm the economy of the province. People were unsatisfied with this answer, and the only thing to do was hit the streets. The movement quickly spread through SMS, social media, pamphlets, and mouth-to-mouth.After the first, huge protest, the authorities warned us not to hold a second one – and promised that the factory would be closed. We didn’t believe it, so we went out anyway, chanting that they should close the factory immediately. We were met with riot police with batons. There were some clashes, and some people were beaten up, but thanks in particular to the presence of women protesters, the demonstration was overall orderly and harmonious.Riot police in Zanjan last Thursday.After this second protest, the authorities put up billboards in the city centre, explaining that in accordance with the citizens’ request and following violations of regulations at the factory, the governor had ordered it shut down. And indeed, it was!However, only the main factory, which produced lead, has shut down. But the company also runs other smaller factories located around the city that worked with the main one, and they remain open. Some of these places store dangerous materials. We hope to hear from the government soon about what they plan to do about these, and whether they’ll re-open the lead factory somewhere else so that the workers don't lose their jobs.
Post written with freelance journalist Omid Habibinia.