Kedainiai Alps, a long way from Oldbury.

Rimantas and Audrone suggest we go to visit the local chemical plant, the main employer in the area and truly one of the wonders of Lithuania they say. We soon find out why. Two kilometres outside of the town of Kėdainiai, a mineral phosphate plant was proposed by Soviet planners in the 1950’s. This location was selected because of easy access to the ice free Baltic port at Klaipėda; it was away from main population areas and the prevailing wind blew fumes away from the town. After final approvals in 1958, a concrete production plant was first constructed, and a network of roads and railways. The first sulphuric acid process line was completed in 1962. A small museum on site tells you this story.

The basic product manufactured here is the nitrogen-phosphorus fertilizer Diammonium Phosphate (DAP), the processing of which requires phosphoric acid and sulphuric acid, which are also produced at the company. Fluorine, the by-product of phosphoric acid process, is further utilised and reprocessed into Aluminium Fluoride. Animal feed additives, such as Monocalcium Phosphate, are produced from phosphoric acid. Most of these products are exported, with less than 4% remaining in Lithuania. Sulphur arrives from Kazakstan as a solid, to be heated, melted and turned into sulphuric acid. Phosphate rocks comes from Russia, Morocco and parts of Africa. My father worked in a similar plant in England, Albright & Wilson in Oldbury, West Midlands, a much older facility.

The plant generates its own electricity by utilising the steam discharged from the sulphuric acid. Indeed it has the equivalent power of an electricity generating station, sending some of this power back to the local grid. Currently the company produce about 250 million kWh of electricity, 50 million kWh of which are provided to the electric power network of the country and Kėdainiai itself is supplied with about 100 000 MWh of heat.

The company currently produces 1400 tons of phosphoric acid every single day. However, to produce fertiliser, for each ton of phosphoric acid there are 5 tons of phophorus gypsum waste. This waste is taken in trucks to a huge mountainous dump, between 70 and 86 metres in height. It’s known locally as The Kedainiai Alps. There are some 40 million tons currently – and it’s growing and growing, almost big enough to be visible from space. Major Tom to Ground Control: what the hell is that spreading milk white blob? It’s a lunar landscape that’s blinding on a sunny day and on rainy days you can’t go up there, as the surface becomes unstable.

There have been research initiatives looking at how to re-use this waste, one proposed to turn it into cheap building blocks for use in India, but it turned out to be not so economic. Some local farmers use small quantities to grow mushrooms, but this would need a lot of mushroom fields, stretching all the way to Belgium. Meanwhile, tourists come to gawp at this man-made phenomenon, rock bands use it as a backdrop for music videos, but the problem remains of what to do with all this waste product.

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