While efforts are being made in the European Union to bring down air pollution to a safe level for people’s health and the environment, at the EU’s doorsteps, in the Western Balkan countries, air quality data is either unavailable or unreliable. Metering stations are placed in irrelevant locations and often certain pollutants are simply not monitored.
For this reason, Bankwatch and our partner organisations from the region have embarked on an independent dust monitoring adventure. Between October 2016 and April 2017, our Environmental Dust Monitor (EDM 164) traveled to four selected locations in Western Balkan countries, plus two more in Bulgaria and Romania.
The results can be downloaded as a briefing and are presented here together with video testimonies from locals.
The role of coal
All these places are home to ageing coal power plants and open-cast lignite mines, which play an important role in aggravating air quality. In all cases we have found worrying levels of particulate matter (PM 10 and PM 2.5), dust so small it enters deep into our lungs and blood streams causing irreversible damage and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
In spite of continued public protests, governments in the region are not treating air quality as a priority issue. At the same time they are promoting plans to build even more coal capacity in most of these cases.
Most importantly, there is no regional political decision to tackle a problem that requires action and cooperation at global, European, national and local levels, which must reach across different sectors of the economy and engage the public.
We call on the EU to introduce air quality legislation in the Energy Community Treaty and set the tone for a unified approach which affects tens of thousands of people in the Western Balkan countries every year.
Continue reading or ...
1. The monitoring data has been gathered for at least 30 continuous days from each location - with the exception of Bitola, Macedonia, where the machine broke down very soon after installation due to clogged filters and contamination of the measuring chamber, and Pernik, Bulgaria, where measuring was carried out for 19 days before the filter clogged and monitoring was interrupted.
The data is therefore indicative and not intended to replace stationary long-term monitoring. Still, the results help understand the intrinsic relation between coal combustion and mining with high levels of PM 10 and PM 2.5.
near the Tuzla lignite power plant
After years of suffering, locals from the city of Tuzla in Bosnia-Herzegovina took to the streets in recent winters to complain about the heavy levels of fine dust in the atmosphere.
For unknown reasons, the official air quality monitoring stations in Tuzla do not provide data regarding PM 10 - reason enough to take independent measurements. But these seemed all the more urgent, because the state-owned electricity company EPBiH plans to build a new 450 MW lignite-fired unit at the Tuzla power plant. This would only replace two of the four remaining units and thus increase the overall capacity.
The results - sky-rocketing levels at night
Monitoring period: 6 October – 14 November 2016
The high peaks for both PM 10 and PPM 2.5 during night time - a pattern of emissions skyrocketing as soon as it gets dark, after 19:00 local time – suggest that the Tuzla power plant’s pollution filters might not function properly or even be turned off during night time.
The 24 hour averages of the dust pollution levels show how the legal limit for PM 10 in Bosnia and Herzegovina was exceeded on 25 days out of 41 days monitored (or 61 percent).
As compared to the 24-hour PM10 limit of 50 micrograms/m3 in the European Union, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a more lenient standard, of 65 µg/m3. In the EU, in the course of a year, there should be a maximum of 35 days on which the average concentration exceeds the legal limit for PM10. It’s almost impossible to imagine that this limit will not be breached in Tuzla.
The concentration of PM2.5 is up to 300 micrograms/m3 and more, along with high concentrations of SO2, making air pollution in Tuzla worse than in other cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
What authorities do
The lack of vision from the responsible cantonal ministry and inadequate plans beyond emergency measures, and additionally incomplete federal legislation (there are no defined maximum concentrations of PM 2.5), resulted in no warning or measures related to this pollutant despite the fact that concentrations reached twelve times more than the WHO guidelines of 25 micrograms/m3 for 24-hour averages in previous years.
The monetised impact on public health of the planned 450MW unit was estimated by a recent HEAL study to be between 4-12 million EUR/ year.
While different causes exist for the pollution - the Tuzla lignite power plant (with four working units), road traffic and individual heating - local authorities have so far failed to determine how much each sector contributes to the problem.
Independent monitoring shows massive air pollution near Bosnian lignite plant
Blog post | October 28, 2016
Image credits: Zlatko Babic, released under a creative commons licence
near the Kostolac B lignite power plant
The village of Drmno is sandwiched between the Kostolac B power plant and the Drmno open-cast lignite mine which supplies its fuel.
A new 350 MW lignite plant is planned at the Kostolac complex, on top of the existing 4 units. The current ash dump is a constant source of PM pollution. With the north wind blowing the dust in the direction of the inhabited areas and the new ash dump planned in the opposite direction, the surrounding villages will practically have to live with around the clock pollution.
There is no official way for the locals to find out how bad the pollution is, as the official measurement station only monitors two types of pollutants: sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide. But the black clouds are full of other types of pollutants too, including dust particles, PM 10 and PM 2.5, which enter the lungs and blood streams of those exposed.
The existing units are not in compliance with the Large Combustion Plants Directive emissions levels; moreover the oldest two units (A1 and A2) are expected to keep operating with reduced operating hours until 2023 without any pollution filtering improvements.
A recent report by HEAL shows that in 2010, more than 10,000 people in Serbia died prematurely from particulate matter (PM) and ozone exposure. It is the second highest rate of premature deaths due air pollution in Europe.
Monitoring period: 17 November - 16 December 2016
The graph below shows some very high peaks for PM 10 hourly values (blue), up to more than 300 micrograms/cubic meter. Also PM 2.5 levels (red) have similarly high peaks and are on average more regularly above EU limits. The curved lines show the trend over the observation period. The straight horizontal lines represent EU level standards as per the Air Quality Directive.
The legal limit for the daily average for PM 10 was breached on 16 days out of 30 days observed. According to Serbian law, the PM 10 limit may be breached on 35 days over the course of one year, just like in the EU’s Air Quality Directive limits.
As far as PM 2.5 is concerned, the results are nothing less than alarming - only on 4 days of the entire 30 days of monitoring was the limit for PM2.5 not breached.
According to Serbian legislation, the maximum allowed annual average for this pollutant was 27.14 µg/m³ for a 24h average in 2016. By 2024 this limit will be tightened to 20µg/m³ which is also the limit recommended by the World Health Organisation and the one used by the Institute for Public Health in Serbia in its communication.
near the Pljevlja lignite power plant
Pljevlja is located at around 720 metres above sea level and suffers from particularly serious smog due to its location surrounded by hills.
Air pollution in Pljevlja has led to protests in many forms: residents lining up to form the letters SOS, visible from high above, and oversized electricity bills featuring the heavy health costs of coal displayed in the town square.
PM 2.5 levels are not monitored by official monitoring stations in Montenegro, so even though the locals can feel that the air is bad, there is no way to tell exactly how dire the situation is.
Monitoring period: 22 December 2016 – 15 January 2017
The graph of hourly measurements shows high PM 10 peaks, with the highest recorded on Christmas day at eight in the morning, at 294.15 micrograms per cubic metre. Similarly PM 2.5 levels spiked on a number of occasions and are on average above the EU annual limit more often than not. The highest levels of PM2.5 recorded came on 13 January between midnight and one in the morning, standing at 238.85 and 206.16 μg/m3, respectively.
In Pljevlja, the PM 10 daily average was breached on 21 of the 35 days observed. Over the course of one year, the PM 10 limit may be exceeded no more than 35 times.
The EU limit for PM 2.5 was exceeded on 29 of the 35 days observed, or 83% of the time. The EU’s directive on air quality, which has been transposed in Montenegrin legislation, does not allow for any exceedance of the PM 2.5 limits.
Particularly worrying are the high PM 2.5 levels in Pljevlja, because these particles are lighter and penetrate deeper into the lungs, causing greater respiratory damage in long-term. PM 2.5 also stays in the air longer and can travel farther: while PM 10 particles remain in the air for minutes or hours and can travel from a hundred metres up to 30 kilometres, PM 2.5 particles can stay in the air for days or weeks, travelling up to many hundreds of kilometres.
What authorities do
In spite of the alarming levels of officially measured PM emissions the Montenegrin authorities are adamant that the main source of pollution is the combustion of lignite and wood in individual stoves, even though the Pljevlja lignite power plant is not compliant with either the Large Combustion Plants Directive (LCPD) or the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED).
There are no serious plans in the short term to tackle the pollution, and the long-term solution offered by the government is to construct another unit at the power plant.
In 2016 the two main financiers withdrew their support to the project, signalling the lack of financial and economic sense of it. However, the government is determined to go ahead with this project.
Under heavy skies: dire results from first independent pollution monitoring in Montenegro
Blog post | February 23, 2017
near the Bitola lignite power plant
In Bitola, the vicinity of the thermal power plant and the ash deposit play a significant role in the PM10 pollution, however the source of pollution is officially still unclear.
For two consequent years, the Ministry for Environment in Macedonia has been claiming that a chemical analysis as well as a study about the sources of pollution was underway, but no results have been published so far.
The results: too much pollution for the measuring device
In Bitola, the pollution levels were so high that after only a few days the machine’s filters and measurement chamber were contaminated and it had to be sent for clean-up and re-calibration. Measurements at this location have been resumed at the time of writing.
What the authorities do
Environmental NGOs have notified the Ministry for the last 3 years about the risks to human health and about the measures needed to prevent air pollution, but without success. In 2015 the Ministry drew up several urgent measures to decrease pollution levels, but the Government refused to undertake any of them.
near the Pernik lignite power plant
In 2013, the European Environment Agency’s report on air pollution found that four of Europe’s five cities with the most consistently high levels of particulate matter were Bulgarian. The small town of Pernik topped the list as the dirtiest one, with too high concentrations of particulates in the air around half of the year.
Official air quality data is not available in the public domain and the measurement stations are often wrongly placed, moved away from the site of severe pollution.
Nowhere in the town is it clean – there’s the power plant in one part, the coal transporting rail in the other, and right in the middle of it a now abandoned lignite open-pit, which used to fuel the power plant. No reclamation works have been carried out in this mine, the heap soil was left on site without any protection measures, making it very easy for the wind to carry the dust away.
Bulgaria is already subject to an infringement procedure due to systematic non-compliance with the Air Quality Directive, and our monitoring will support the local campaign aiming to shut down the non-compliant units.
The results - night and day
Monitoring period: 28 March - 15 April 2017
Nothing seems to have improved since 2013. The graph of hourly measurements shows high PM 10 peaks, with the highest recorded with 409 micrograms per cubic metre, eight times above the allowed limit. PM 2.5 levels spiked on a number of occasions and are on average above the EU annual limit more often than not.
We also found big discrepancies between the levels recorded during day time and night time, which may point to the dust filters of the nearby power plant not functioning properly or at all. The trend over the observed period shows an increase in PM10 levels every day after 7PM, lasting until 8AM the following morning.
The EU limit on PM 2.5 was exceeded on 10 of the 19 days of monitoring. The PM 2.5 limit is yearly and must not be exceeded at all.
The high concentration of particles caused the filter of our monitoring device to be clogged much sooner than anticipated. The filter could no longer accept any more dust. The monitoring period had to be cut almost by half from a planned full month.
The dirty secret in Sofia’s backyard - the coal dust that only comes at night
Blog post | May 10, 2017
near the Rovinari lignite power plant
The village of Rogojel near the existing Rovinari power plant has been exposed for years to extreme air pollution, originating from the power plant, the open-pit mines which surround it and an illegal coal storage depot nearby.
The coal dust is blown both from the coal deposits in the area and from the conveyor belts that are neither covered, nor have water sprinklers.
On its surface, the earth in the area is not soil but rather a layer of coal dust deposited there. The villagers from Rogojel complain that they are not able to rear animals or grow crops because the soil is poisoned by coal dust. Their request to be relocated filed back in 2007 has been ignored by the company and government.
Monitoring period: 26 April – 25 May 2017
Results of our independent measurements point to levels of PM 10 thirty times above the legal limit, of over 1500 micrograms/m3 for several hourly averages.
The graph illustrates how the PM 10 levels peak most around 8AM local time when work starts at the nearby lignite mine, or around 1PM when the shifts change.
Distinctly different from the previous locations is that the hourly measurements shows large differences between concentrations of PM 10 and PM 2.5. In other locations, PM 2.5 represented approximately 75% - 80% of the PM 10 emissions, while in Rosia de Jiu this is clearly not the case. The high levels of coarse particles, PM 10, are indicative of its primary sources: the open-cast mine, the coal deposit, open conveyor belts and unpaved road to the mine.
Even though PM 2.5 levels fade in comparison to the PM 10 ones, they have shown peaks of over 100 µg/m3 on 43 instances.
Over the 30 days of monitoring, it was only on two days that the EU limit on PM 10 was not exceeded. In other words, for over 93 percent of the time, the PM 10 concentration was above the limit, while on nine of the days monitored, the measured PM 10 stayed four times above the regulated 24-hour average.
The EU limit on PM 2.5 was exceeded on 23 of the 30 days of monitoring.
The worst was yet to come - ludicrous air pollution in Romanian village
Blog post | June 8, 2017
The European Commission should table a proposal for the adoption of the Air Quality Directive, adapted for network energy, in the Energy Community as soon as practicably possible.
The Energy Community is recommended to adopt and implement this legislation promptly after a proposal is presented by the Commission, in order to avoid further worsening of the air pollution and its deadly impacts on health.
The national authorities in the Energy Community countries are recommended to thoroughly monitor air pollution levels in locations prone to high emissions because of coal mining and combustion activity and to make this data available to the public.
The national authorities would have to design a long term vision would prioritise decarbonised energy generation sectors across the region, putting energy efficiency first, cleaner/alternative fuels for all modes of transportation, and strict enforcement of air quality standards.
Environmental authorities in both the Western Balkan countries, as well as those in Bulgaria and Romania should ensure PM 2.5 monitoring equipment on existing official monitoring stations and should make the measurements available in real-time.
Environmental and local authorities are recommended to draw up/ revise and implement local action plans on air pollution, addressing the local main sources of pollution and set up emergency measures for periods of time when the allowed levels of emissions go beyond the EU limit for 24-hour average.