Kosovo Pollution Fears

Lung cancer and respiratory diseases are cutting a swathe through villages next to Kosovo’s ageing electricity stations.

Kosovo Pollution Fears

Lung cancer and respiratory diseases are cutting a swathe through villages next to Kosovo’s ageing electricity stations.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

The streets of Dardhishte village, seven kilometres northwest of Pristina, are empty and dusty. A closer look reveals that most of the roof tops are covered with a dark red layer of particles, which appears to have come from the nearby, 70-meter-high, concrete chimney of Kosova A, one of two power stations of the Kosovo Energetic Corporation, KEK.

Looking at the tall chimney, belching huge clouds of sinister-looking yellow smoke, Muhamet Gerguri, 37, a village leader, says local families look on the chimney with deep foreboding. “In Dardhishte, you consider yourself lucky if no one in your family has yet died, or is now dying of, cancer,” he said.

There is plenty of evidence to support the villagers’ suspicions about the plant’s appalling impact on their health. A report by Kosovo’s ministry of environment in May 2003 said Kosova A emitted around 2.5 tons of dust per hour, which exceeds the European standard by some 74 times.

The same report concluded that in the Obiliq/Kastriot area, where the power plants are sited, air pollution is responsible for 63 per cent of baby fatalities and 48 per cent of stillborn babies.

The report went on to say that the baleful effects of Kosovo A affected more than the villages next to the plants, and that for at least 18 days a year, the city of Pristina suffered from dust clouds and smoke brought over by wind from the power plants.

But it is the Obiliq/Kastriot area that suffers most acutely from Kosovo’s ailing power stations. There, families with members suffering from lung cancer or other respiratory diseases are far more numerous than anyone would have a right to expect in a non-urban area.

Valon Mexhuani, 21, a shopkeeper in Dardhishte, blames pollution from Kosova A for the recent death of his uncle. “I know it was pollution from KEK, as my uncle died of lung disease, like so many others do here,” he said.

Fear of the contaminated atmosphere has driven many people from the village entirely. Since the 1999 war, about 40 per cent of the population of Dardhishte has moved to other villages or towns, fleeing the pollution. The ones that remain have nowhere to go and cannot sell their homes, as few want to buy land in this village.

The pollution is mainly attributed to general poor maintenance of the two power plants, Kosova A and Kosova B, and to malfunctioning filters. The filters in Kosovo A, which came from the former USSR, work only at half their expected capacity.

It seems that rotten filters are not the only cause of pollution, however. Workers at Kosova A told IWPR that during the plant’s second and the third shift, from 4pm to 8am, the filters are often removed completely.

Nysret Ternava, a technician at Kosova A, said workers on these later shifts took off the filters so they did not have to keep an eye on them. “It is pure laziness,” he said. “The workers don’t want to have to stand by the machines - that’s why they just remove the filters, so the work is easier.”

Muhamet Gerguri, who also works in KEK, has a slightly different explanation for this practice, “The filters reduce the capacity to produce power - that’s why they are taken off at night without any consideration to health warnings.”

The only official institute in Kosovo authorised to measure pollution is the INKOS institute. But as this is a department of KEK, which is responsible for the pollution in the first place, its position is not wholly independent.

Moreover, INKOS officials say they lack the equipment to measure toxicity in the air, saying it was stolen, or destroyed, when the Serb authorities withdrew from Kosovo in June 1999.

Raif Bytyqi, environment coordinator at INKOS, admits to feeling helpless. “When we see the colour of the waste water that goes out [of the plants] untreated, we know it contains toxic materials, but we cannot measure it, as we lack the essential equipment,” he said.

INKOS is also unable to confirm or deny reports that the filters are removed during the night shifts, as it only monitors the first shift.

The polluted dust, which is a compound of lead, different airborne chemicals and waste deposits, attacks Kosovo’s air, earth and water in equal measure.

Untreated waste water from ash deposits, containing phenol, a highly toxic chemical, pores into the stream that runs through Dardhishte, which then floods houses during and after heavy rain.

Ali Muriqi, a scientist at University of Prishtina, said the effects of these phenols was both short and long-term, “prompting both cancerous growths and psychic and physical disorders within new-born babies”.

These phenols, released during heavy rain into the village stream, also contaminate the garden wells that many villagers use for getting their drinking water.

Zeqir Veseli, an advisor in the ministry of environment, does not expect much improvement in the near future.

“We have no experience of dealing with environmental problems,” he said, adding that Kosovo also lacked the legal infrastructure and know-how that would make it possible to penalise a big company like KEK.

Veseli is convinced that money is the biggest obstacle to dealing with an environmental emergency, such as the pollution emitted from the KEK plants.

“The harmonisation of its environmental legislation with EU standards has cost Slovenia about 1.7 billion euro,” Veseli adds, referring to the richest republic of former Yugoslavia.

Blerim Vela, from the international environmental NGO, the Regional Environmental Center, REC, which campaigns against the pollution from KEK, says Kosovo may have to decide whether clean air or electricity is its top priority.

“Kosovo’s institutions are under a lot of pressure,” he said. “They cannot ask the KEK to stop work, as there is an energy shortage in Kosovo. On the other hand, the production of this energy is causing pollution.”

Vela stressed that the level of pollution from the KEK plants had already reached dire proportions. “The latest health control conducted by KEK’s Institute for Health and Safety at Work concluded that every employee working in the power plants suffered from some respiratory tract disease,” he said.

For the villagers of Dardhishte this is not good news. Valon Mexhuani would gladly move if he could find some place to go to. His last hope is that the government may come up with a plan that will help families from Dardhishte to escape life beside the power plants.

“We have heard promises that they will relocate the 40 families that are most directly affected, but so far nothing has been done,” Mexhuani said.

Palokë Berisha, a spokesperson of KEK said, “Yes, we are aware that the work of the power plants pollutes the environment, but maintaining Kosova A in particular and buying the filters costs the money that KEK can not afford.”

Regarding the removal of the filters from Kosova A by KEK workers, Berisha said, “I am not aware that the filters are removed deliberately by workers, and if this goes on there is no good reason why it happens.”

When challenged with the results of the ministry of environment report concerning the link between fatalities amongst babies and local pollution, Berisha said, “I have not heard of these figures, but if that is indeed true than I can only say that that is absolutely tragic.”

Arben Salihu is attending an IWPR journalism course supported by the OSCE.

Balkans, Kosovo
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