In December 2015 protests took place across the Balkans as a series of smog events enveloped towns and cities including Skopje, Tetovo, Sarajevo, Tuzla (Lukavac) and Pljevlja. Serious problems with air quality have been going on for many years in these locations and there seems to be no improvement in the situation.
On 22 December residents sent out a call for help, forming the letters S.O.S. with their bodies during a protest in Pljevlja.
According to the Montenegrin Decree on determining pollutant types, limit values and other air quality standards, the upper limit values must not be exceeded more than 35 times in a calendar year, while in Pljevlja dust limits have been exceeded by far for years.
The annual concentration of PM10 particles in Pljevlja is very high - in 2013 it amounted to 75.91 micrograms/m3 and in 2012, 90.7 micrograms/m3.
Up to date data on health problems in Pljevlja is scarce. However according to data from the Podgorica Institute for Public Health during 2007-2011 the three most common reported outpatient illnesses were inflammation of the throat and tonsils, upper respiratory tract infections, and inflammation of the bronchi and bronchioles.
Montenegro has adopted the EU Air Quality Directive, but little has changed.
Pljevlja is located at around 720 metres above sea level and suffers from particularly serious smog due to its location surrounded by hills.
The Montenegrin authorities are adamant that the main source of pollution is the combustion of lignite and wood in individual stoves, while environmental groups see the lignite-fired power plant – which is not compliant with either the Large Combustion Plants Directive (LCPD) or the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) – as a significant source. An action plan to reduce pollution has been drawn up but not implemented.
The sale of subsidized wood pellets to households was announced in the autumn, but was carried out only after many households had already bought their winter fuel. No subsidies were offered for specialized burners for pellets. The main measure mentioned recently by the Montenegrin government to reduce pollution is to construct a new lignite-fired power plant.
However, as well as economic and climate issues associated with the plant, it is doubtful whether this will improve the air quality. First, all coal plants pollute, and this one is in a particularly sensitive location. Second, there has been no clear commitment coming from the Montenegrin government about when it is planned to close the existing plant. An opt-out of compliance with the LCPD has been requested by Montenegro, which could delay closure by 20 000 hours (about 3 years of full-time operation) if approved.
There is no guarantee that this will be feasible, given the relatively small size of the town, and it may be wiser to look into other forms of heating such as heat pumps or efficient biomass burners. An air quality action plan was adopted for Pljevlja in 2013 but is considered by environmental activists to be of little value as it considers individual households to be the main polluters and hardly mentions the power plant. Even if it was to be implemented, Pljevlja’s problems would be far from solved, and a new plan is needed.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
In Sarajevo, PM10 levels were elevated throughout December 2015, a state of affairs which has also continued in January 2016. Lack of natural gas for heating, and its high price, is one of the reasons why many people have shifted to heating on wood, coal, and even waste materials. Traffic is also an important cause of pollution. During periods such as December 2015, in which there was prolonged temperature inversion, more than 130 000 cars in Sarajevo every day, with thousands of individually heated houses, cause around 4 times more PM 10 than maximum allowed concentrations, and by the evening this concentration rises up to 7-8 time more than the maximum allowed (50µ/m3)
On 24 January 2016 Sarajevo suffered from the highest concentration of PM10 this winter. At 22:00 hours, there was 720 µ/m3 of PM10. Due to a lack of natural gas and high prices during a cold period, the public heating system has switched to using oil for heating. The lack of gas was caused by an administrative mistake which resulted in too little gas being contracted for transportation across Hungary.
In Tuzla, main source of problem with polluted air is the thermal power plant, traffic and individual heating. In December, a meeting of environmental NGOs was held in Tuzla, with the aim of sending a clear message that the citizens of Tuzla are suffering from pollution caused by the power plant (image below).
The concentration of PM 2.5 is up to 300 micrograms/m3 and more, along with with high concentrations of SO2, making air pollution in Tuzla worse than in other cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Long periods of pollution, almost every day in December, made the situation intolerable. Lack of interest from the responsible cantonal ministry and inadequate plans for emergency measures, and additionally incomplete federal legislation (there are no defined maximum concentrations of PM 2.5), resulted in no warning or measures despite the fact that concentrations reached twelve times more than the WHO guidelines of 25 micrograms/m3 for 24-hour averages.
In December 2015 several cities in Macedonia also suffered from increased air pollution levels (Skopje, Tetovo, Bitola, Kicevo). Environmental NGOs have notified the Ministry of Environment 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 of Environment drew up several urgent measures to decrease pollution levels, but the Government refused to undertake any of them.
Protests were organised in different cities in the country during December. In Tetovo, according to media reports, 5000 citizens blocked the city’s entrances and marched through the streets, the protests lasted for 2 days. In Skopje, there were 2 protests in December. The one in front of the Government building recorded around 3000 citizens (28 December 2015).
The source of pollution is officially still unclear. For 2 consequent years, the Minister for Environment has been claiming that a chemical analysis as well as a study about the sources of pollution for Skopje and Tetovo was underway, but no results have been published so far.
It is estimated that in Skopje and Tetovo PM10 pollution comes from the transport and domestic heating (primarily on wood as many households switched to wood stoves after an increase in central heating bills). Small and large industries also play a role, as many probably work during the nights. In December, pollution reached an alarming level recorded at 996µ PM10. High schools and primary school closed their half-academic year term due to the pollution.
In Bitola, the vicinity of the thermal power plant and the ash deposit play a significant role in the PM10 pollution. Kicevo, although close to the closed Oslomej TPP, is primarily polluted by wood burning as the city does not have a district heating system. Macedonia has adopted the EU’s Air Quality Directive (the first Air Quality Law dates from 2004 and the latest changes to the law were made in 2013). However, the existing power plants are not in line either with the LCPD nor the IED, and the same also goes for most industries in the country. Moreover, the legislation in place does not provide for municipalities to take concrete actions against pollution by limiting the work of industries, transport etc. when pollution levels are alarmingly high (exceeding the levels and duration of the allowed concentrations).
There is a monitoring system established by the Ministry of environment, consisting of metering stations (18 altogether across the country). The data is aggregated and processed visually on the web site. A mobile phone app was developed by IT students which collects the data and notifies the users about pollution levels. This possibility has made people far more alert and concerned about the air quality in their surroundings.
According to the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning and the index for air quality, air pollution by particulate matter (PM10), which is greater than 180 μg / m3, is considered very high. In the city of Skopje, from October 25 to November 16, very high pollution particulate matter (PM10) is measured at even ten days in the same period. The greatest pollution is notes in Lisiche where 21 days of which 16 subsequent contamination is above 180 μg / m3, and record pollution is measured on 5 November (Thursday) when 12 midnight with pollution particulate matter (PM 10) was 534 μg / m3.
According to a recent study carried out by Eko-svest, the 2 thermal power plants in Macedonia contribute to 17 premature deaths on the territory of Macedonia, but to 447 every year in the EU, and cost European taxpayers between EUR 482-556 million annually.
- The EC needs to push for the rapid adoption and thorough implementation of the Air Quality Directive and Industrial Emissions Directive in its communication with accession countries.
- The Air Quality Directive and Industrial Emissions Directive (Chapter II) need to become part of the Energy Community acquis as soon as practicably possible
For more in-depth analysis, read our two new studies here:
- Prospects for implementing air quality directives in the Energy Community
- Legal analysis: application of chapter II of the Industrial Emissions Directive in the Energy Community
* Converted from 163 US AQI figures