Home Business Balkan states face daunting task in environmental rehabilitation | Business

Balkan states face daunting task in environmental rehabilitation | Business

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November 8, 2019 started like any usual Friday for residents of Kisela Voda, a suburb of the Macedonian capital, Skopje. However, in the morning, people began to complain to the authorities of minor burning eyes and itchy throats. Shortly afterwards, the cause was discovered: a spill of methyl acrylate during the clean-up of a site belonging to the defunct chemical company OHIS.

The spill occurred during what was supposed to be routine processing of chemical waste from the abandoned factory. By the afternoon, the police and the army were on site, ensuring that the situation did not get out of control. Fortunately, there were no casualties as authorities reassured local residents that there was no immediate danger. However, in the days that followed, a surprising revelation came about the site: the amount of toxic waste present at the facility made it a huge potential risk.

The OHIS plant tops the list of 16 most critical environmental hotspots in North Macedonia, compiled by Trajce Stafilov of the Skopje Institute of Chemistry. At one time, OHIS (majority state-owned) operated five large factories, manufacturing various cleaning products, insecticides, pesticides and cosmetics sold throughout the Balkans.

An image showing the OHIS complex in Skopje, North Macedonia

A few years ago the company went bankrupt. Its factories are now abandoned, but the surplus chemicals and untreated waste left behind pose significant problems for local authorities. For example, there are two landfills that contain thousands of tons of soil contaminated with large amounts of insecticide. Lindane (gamma-hexachlorocyclohexane) and its isomers (collectively referred to as HCH). One of these landfills, located about 6 km from downtown Skopje, has remained open for decades. Local authorities have yet to find a waste manager to deal with lindane dumps, and until they are properly cleaned up, the potential consequences of exposure to lindane could be serious, campaigners warn civic.

There are discharges from industrial production of pesticides and other chemicals, residues from ore processing, tolls from metal production in metallurgical plants, refining works, cement production, ash waste from thermal power plants, etc.

“Lindane and other isomers of the same chemical, found in high quantities in OHIS, fall into the category of persistent organic pollutants, meaning they persist in the environment and are passed through the food chain “, explains Davor Pehcevski of Skopje-based Citizens. Eko-svest association (Eco-sense). “The fact that the landfill containing these chemicals is out in the open means we have been exposed for a long time and lindane is constantly building up in our bodies. The consequences on health, particularly among young people, could be very serious and each day of delay only increases the risk of illness,” he adds.

Start cleaning

After several years of planning, partial remediation of the plant area began in November 2019. Almost immediately, the efforts ran into difficulties. Waste management and recycling company EkoCentar 97 has been appointed to manage and treat 11 different types of hazardous waste identified at the site. Company employees began transferring the methyl acrylate into temporary containers, ready to be transported off-site for disposal. As they prepared to have the old storage tank cleaned and decontaminated, a valve inside broke, releasing the residue. Despite the accident and the criticism that followed, the company remains fully committed to completing the decontamination process, for which it now has an additional four months.

“We entered a dark tunnel, with very few clear parameters needed for our work,” says Sanja Momirovska of EkoCentar 97. World of chemistry. “But we hope to emerge from the tunnel as a company proud of what it has accomplished, and permanently eliminate and destroy OHIS chemicals and substances.” The company is currently working to organize the transport of the collected chemicals to an incinerator in Switzerland.

According to environmental activists, this incident is only a warning to the Macedonian authorities about the risks that could arise during the rehabilitation process. “The OHIS incident revealed decades-long neglect of the remains of the former factory, as well as an underestimation by authorities of the danger to entire neighborhoods and Skopje in general “, says Eli Peseva of the O2 Coalition, which brings together organizations campaigning against pollution. “The good news, if you can call it that, is that the public has learned that a process to eliminate hazardous chemical waste is underway,” she adds.

“Questions also arise as to how this waste will be transported out of the factory, since there is no longer a railway near the factory. The only option is therefore to transport it by road,” adds Peseva.

An image showing the OHIS complex in Skopje, North Macedonia

Suzana Andonova, from the Persistent Organic Pollutants Unit at the Macedonian Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, says her team has been working on the problem for over 9 years, including planning and researching the best way to deal with different types of contamination. and waste on site. At this stage, raising awareness among local residents remains a priority.

“We will need all relevant institutions and stakeholders, including citizens, to be fully coordinated in order to carry out the whole process as planned,” says Andonova. World of chemistry. “We are pleased that general public awareness of the environment in general is at a much higher level than in 2005-2010, when we began our activities around HCH-contaminated landfills and soil contamination in the OHIS.” However, there is still a long way to go. Remediation of the plant’s smaller landfill could take up to 30 months, she noted.

Common problems

The OHIS issue represents only part of the problem for the Macedonian authorities, as there are many other hot spots that need to be resolved. “Most of these hotspots are the result of past industrial activities, when environmental standards did not exist or were very flexible,” says Stafilov.

“There are discharges from industrial production of pesticides and other chemicals, residues from ore processing, tolls from metal production in metallurgical plants, refining works, cement production , ash waste from thermal power plants, etc.,” he adds.

Similar problems extend across the entire Western Balkans region. For example, in the small town of Krusevac in central Serbia, residents complained of foul odors coming from a site owned by another former chemical giant, Zupa Chemicals.

The odors emanated from facilities located in the former Zupa complex, now owned by Trash trade, since September. The company makes xanthate salts and says the stench is not toxic, but simply a side effect of the production process. Although health inspections have confirmed these claims, residents of Krusevac remain concerned, especially given the state of the area around the compound. The Zupa site, like the OHIS in North Macedonia, tops the Serbian list of 14 critical environmental hotspots. Most of these hotspots are caused by increased industrial production and ineffective waste management policies. Both countries also face high levels of air pollution, particularly in winter.

Looking for support

As Serbia and North Macedonia seek EU membership, their authorities need to pay much more attention to European standards for environmental protection, says Emina Rustemoska, an expert on European environmental law at Saint Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. “Chapter 27 (Environment and climate change) can prove particularly critical in the negotiation process, or even delay the accession process of a country,” she explains. “This is because this chapter is one of the most complex and costly chapters to implement (it touches on other areas such as agriculture, energy and transport) and that it covers almost a third of total EU legislation.”

“If the new European Commission’s focus on climate change is also taken into account, then we need a well-planned budget, as well as a strong commitment to environmental issues and adaptation to climate change. climate change (from government agencies),” says Rustemoska, adding that the EU recommendations also call for more investment in prevention and environmental protection measures.

Budgetary and financial plans partly explain why countries in the region are not able to solve these problems as easily as Western countries, says Stafilov. Solving these problems usually requires enormous financial resources. And while special funds are available to EU member states – to conduct studies of solutions and undertake actions to prevent further negative impacts – non-members cannot access these funds. “Of course, national (governmental) institutions should be responsible for these activities and must provide appropriate funds,” says Stafilov. Chemistry World. But this almost certainly means that the process will be more gradual and take longer, unless other sources of support can be tapped.

There are, however, positive examples to learn from in the region, which can be seen as a testimony to the impact of sanitation. For 18 years, a railway station on the shores of Lake Skadar, near the town of Bajza in Albania, was used to store hundreds of tonnes of dangerous chemicals and pesticides, many of which had been banned in the EU since the 1980s. At that time, the site was one of the most problematic hotspots in Albania.

The rehabilitation of the area was carried out by a British company and took 17 months. In 2010, the site was completely free of hazardous waste. Although Albania still has its share of environmental hotspots, the Bajza case offers hope that with careful planning and sufficient funding (in this case, the United Nations Development Program and the Dutch government played a role important role), there are ways to deal with many problems. similar problems facing states in the Balkan region.

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