Ugljevik, “European Chernobyl”: “What was taken away does not measure what we actually have!”
During the previous months representatives of the Center for Environment talked with locals of vulnerable local communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina located near thermal power plants. Plants whose work is justified by the production of electricity are at the same time one of the largest polluters of the environment. Their impact on quality of life is measured by “black” statistics that testify to an increase in the number of cancer patients and other, and especially respiratory diseases. Pollution is transmitted by toxic waters and deadly dust, it does not know the boundaries, nor man’s age. Our interlocutors are connected by the struggle for a life worthy of man. Let’s transfer their stories. (Foto: © Aleksandar Saša Škorić; Arhiva Udruženja “Kolona BB” / Video: © Vladimir Tadić, © Aleksandar Saša Škorić)
The European Chernobyl. That is the way how the Alliance for Health and the Environment (HEAL) representatives refers to Ugljevik Thermal Power Plant which annually emits more sulfur dioxide (SO2) than all thermal power plants in Germany together. With a chimney over 300 meters high, the thermal power plant dominates Ugljevik scenery. The attempt to avoid ashes and dust from this plant falling in the surrounding houses and the population, but to disperse further from the local settlements, deploying such a high chimney, resulted in the transfer of harmful particles to Semberija, Slovenia and even to Hungary. Despite that, the local population did not remain spared, so they are often waking up covered by ashes. Houses, roofs, cars, drying clothes… Sometimes the panorama looks like covered by a thin, dirty snow. But a snow full of toxic particles.
Expropriation and its consequences
Ugljevik Thermal Power Plant was put into operation in March 1985. In order to build it, it was necessary to displace around 200 households from Bogutovo village and over 50 from Stari Ugljevik. After the last war, 50 households more were evicted. Still several families have their roof in the immediate vicinity of the mine. Some have remained due to unresolved expropriation contracts, and some do not want to leave their home. Former locals gathered in the Association “Kolona BB” continue to long for their birthplace, their old yard and the land were they grew up.
“The mine and the thermal power plant have given us everything we have, and they have taken away everything we had… we are practically the first refugees in Yugoslavia – What was taken away does not measure what we will actually have later,” they point out in this association.
The Bogutovo village inhabitants’ lands were replaced by square-meters… Some of them were wealthier, some a little less, but the surface of the replacement space was the same for everyone. Relocation in some cases led even to tragic consequences.
“The relocation demanded an enormous work, and that neighbors stand by each other… Some folks decided to end their lives arbitrarily. It was a tectonic disorder in people’s lives, not just in digging the mine”, they say in the association. They describe life today as a communion which only exists in political parties and states:
“From the infrastructural point of view, today we have more asphalt, less greenery; bigger stores, smaller cinema; more sport betting houses, less libraries; more city, less urban culture; more pharmacies, less health care; more banks and micro credit organizations, less money; more children, less playgrounds; more inhabitants, less neighbors … ”
Poisoned living space: from dust to mental hygiene
When it comes to the sole thermos power plant, they point out that the impact on human health is undoubtedly huge, but that unfortunately, in the human nature, the choice between health and employment is not overly difficult…
“Recently, a desulphurization plant and modern filters have been installed, so the situation is different, at least visually. However, the environment also implies healthy interpersonal relationships, i.e. mental hygiene, and it turns out that the thermal power plant has the most significant impact there. The relationship between RITE Ugljevik as a state-owned company, i.e. in the “ownership” of a political group and a municipality that is “in possession” of another political bloc, poisons our living environment even more than coal, insanely and uninterruptedly. Our association is trying to show that the cooperation of these two groups would be more useful for both of them, and for those thirds who, because they do not belong, have a significantly narrowed maneuvering space for a normal life”, explain our interlocutors, adding:
Ugljevik 3 power plant project not to use approved environmental permit
Bosnia and Herzegovina committed not to use the environmental permit issued as a result of the non-compliant environmental impact assessment procedure of the planned 600 MW Ugljevik 3 thermal power plant (TPP) in Republika Srpska, the Energy Community (EnC) Secretariat said in a press release. The commitment came as a result of mediation conducted under the auspices of the EnC Secretariat’s Dispute Resolution Centre. The coal-fired power plant is to be constructed by Comsar Energy Group near the existing power plant Ugljevik 1. After receiving a complaint from Center for environment, the Secretariat initiated a dispute settlement procedure claiming that the permitting procedure of the planned TPP Ugljevik 3 failed to comply with the provisions of the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. According to the Secretariat, the settlement agreement was signed before the EnC’s Ministerial Council, held yesterday in Skopje.
“BiH committed, with the agreement of the investor, Comsar Energy Republika Srpska Ltd. Banja Luka, not to use the environmental permit issued as a result of the non-compliant environmental impact assessment procedure,” the Secretariat’s press release reads. The investor has the possibility to initiate a new environmental impact assessment procedure, which will be completed with the support of the Secretariat.
The ecological permit for Ugljevik III has already been disputed once at the Supreme Court of Republika Srpska after a lawsuit by the Center for the Environment. As Ministry of Spacial Planning, Civil Engineering and Ecology of Republic of Srpska didn’t follow the instructions from the court decission, Center for Environment filed a new lawsuit to the District Court. This lawsuit is still in the process.
“In that case, they stress, solving the sewage that flows directly into the Janje River, near the primary school, would have a higher priority than paving. Employees in the thermal power plant, who actually paid for their jobs, and not to the company but to the company manager, and whose company pays huge rent to the municipality, would not say that Ugljevik would not have existed without them, and the municipality would not spend the same money on meaningless overdimensioned projects, most of them outside of the city, for the sake of gaining political points and personal profit (not the municipality, but its leader). Bribes, corruption, nepotism connect people on the basis of interest, but essentially separate them more and distance them more from what we are looking for: the life that we remember from Old Ugljevik, and pollute our living environment”.
A fight longer than three decades
At the thermal power plant opening time, March 1985, it was as well-known as today that the coal available in Ugljevik contains a huge amount of sulfur, but in spite of that, the construction began.
“The starting base for building such a plant were the coal reserves that we were having available, but even at that time there were big issues around it. The question whether to build or not such a big thermo power plant regarding the coal quality, i.e. the amount of sulfur in it, was raised. That was the reason why the Thermo power plant project was made as it is, with a high chimney, in order to try to rise and disperse the sulfur smokes and the ashes as far as possible. So that, our ashes has even reached the Hungarian border”, explains Ratko Đurković, who at the time of the thermal power plant opening was the president of Ugljevik’s municipal council.
The construction of a high chimney did not solve the problem. Further solutions were looked for in the following years. “The latest electro filters, capturing up to 97% of the smoke gases were built in. However, it happened that the filtering got stopped due to technical problems, and then the chaos arose here. All those ashes and smoke gases fall down here in Ugljevik. Ugljevik is a fruit-growing region, so here it comes to various problems, from problems with the amount of plums to the drying of the plant”, Đurković said.
A fight longer than thirty years continues. Today, with the Japan Government credit a desulphurization plant it is being built and should start operating next year. Solutions to reduce pollution are being sought, but none of them imply giving up from investments in fossil fuels and get into the path of just transition that the whole Europe is wishing to follow. On the contrary, Comsar Energy plans to build a new block with an installed capacity of 2 x 300 MW (mainly known as Ugljevik 3), along with new surface mines.
At the same time, according to the latest report by CEE Bankwatch Network, which was prepared and compiled by representatives of non-governmental organizations from Southeastern Europe, the mine and the thermal power plant operated in 2017 with a loss of 3.4 million euros. In addition, according to the report, investments are needed to bring the operation of the thermal power plant into line with the large combustion plants Directive and the industrial emissions Directive, what will only further increase operational costs. Questions are inevitably raised. Who is actually having interest and to whom it is worthwhile investing in this “European Chernobyl “? Why and till when is it thought to invest in outdated systems for generating energy from fossil fuels? How long will the population be poisoned for the few jobs that this plant provides them? Does the health of the inhabitants of Ugljevik still have a price?