Green MEP Michalis Tremopoulos speaks about toxics in the Balkans
You are the only elected green MEP from the Balkans and you have taken it upon yourself to help solve environmental issues across the region. Six months ago Hungary had an awful toxic spill from which the country is still recovering. At the time WWF highlighted similar toxic threats across our region. What have you learned so far about the types of potential toxic threats in the Balkans?
In my opinion the situation is very bad and it has to do with low protection and precautionary standards. All Balkan countries of the former eastern communist bloc are still struggling economically, and in this effort they do not much care about safety.
Specifically in the countries that the Danube River is crossing we have learned that there is a horrible record of events and potential toxic threats. In Hungary, the Ajka tailings dam that has been damaged six months ago, is not the only one that is a cause for concern. Two more tailings dams are right on the bank of the Danube, one of them near Almásfüzitő, about 80 km upstream from Budapest.
In Serbia, there are two oil refineries situated very close to the Danube (in Pancevo and Novi Sad), while in 2006, there was an oil spill at Prahovo.
In Bulgaria, there are almost 20 tailings dams. Some of them have been decommissioned, but the heavy metals are still there and pose a potential significant risk for human health and the environment. Many of them are situated next to rivers and the pollution can spread very quickly. One such tailings dam is situated close to the town of Chiprovtsi in North West Bulgaria, on the river Ogosta, one of the major Danube tributaries in Bulgaria.
In Romania, we still remember the horrible Baia Mare cyanide spill, in 2000. The state-run gold mine was forced to close in late 2006. The campaign against cyanide mining at Roşia Montană was one of the largest campaigns over a non-political cause in the last 20 years in Romania. Nevertheless, in late 2009, the Romanian government announced it made a priority starting a new mine in the same area by Gabriel Resources of Canada.
In Greece, we have mining activity in NE Chalkidiki, cyanide tailing ponds, and frightening projects for gold mining in the same area, but also in two positions near Alexandroupolis. The situation does not seem very different from the rest of the Balkan countries.
From what you can gather, are Balkan states taking good care to prevent toxic spills similar to the one in Hungary?
No, and my impression is that the situation is worsening instead of improving.
Do you think that good management and evacuation plans are in place and would they work in case of an emergency?
I think that the standards for crisis management and evacuation plans are quite low, due to increased costs.
Are you aware of cases when toxic spills have occurred but the local population has not been made aware?
We are in the process of collecting such data. We are encouraging environmental organizations from the Balkan countries to send us relevant information.
To the best of your knowledge, which are the most dangerous places in the Balkans right now and why?
I mentioned some places above, but I am very concerned about the situation in Chalkidiki. Perhaps it is not the worst case, but as it is closer to the place where I live, I have a first hand impression of its potential threats. A possible spill could undermine the tourist activities along an extended coastline.
What do you think the European Commission should do to prevent toxic spills occurring in our region in the future?
First of all the Commission must adopt the European Parliament resolution against the use of cyanide in mining activities. There have been amendments to the Seveso II Directive, which included mineral processing of ores, tailings ponds or dams, an amendment to the Hazardous Waste List to include certain mining wastes, a best available techniques reference document on waste rock and tailings, a legislative instrument on the management of mining waste. The last point resulted in the Mining Waste Directive (Directive 2006/21/EC on the Management of Waste from the Extractive Industries). This Directive covers only the most damaging waste and needs adequate implementation. This last “detail” needs further attention.