by Ioanna Bratsiakou • photos & videos by Constantinos Stathias
July 23, 2019
A journey to Western Macedonia where the region’s villages are being wiped off the map by coal mining.
On Saturday morning in Pontokómis everything is totally quiet. Two kids sit on the steps of the community center. They are surrounded by empty offices and shops, signs of an abandoned village that once numbered more than 1,000 residents.
The village is now in the process of relocation in order for the lignite deposits hidden in the region’s soil to be developed. In the center of the square, residents have placed a model, depicting how they want their new town to look. “We want to capture something from the history of our Pontic background, in memory of our ancestors who came here as refugees after the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922,” Makis Michaelides, secretary general of the village’s cultural association, tells Solomon MAG.
The decision to enforce the eminent domain of Pontokomis by PPC (Public Power Corporation) was published in the Government Gazette in 2012. However, as the process of rebuilding the new settlement is delayed, many residents have moved to the nearby towns of Kozani and Ptolemaida.
Aleka Papadopoulou took up her new job as the headmaster of the village high school two years ago – at a school that came with an expiration date. “The stress of when the village would have to relocate made parents just take their children (and leave), and so we were only left with 16 students last year and it was decided that the school would shut down after 41 years of operation.”
Soon Mavrodendri will be the only village left on the map, the other villages will have become mines.
During this time, the school hosted children from four villages in the region, Pontokomi, Komano, Mavropigi and Mavrodendri. Soon Mavrodendri will be the only village left on the map, the other villages will have become mines. “Those who are outsiders and who have their own homes, for them it’s easy to say ‘the residents of those villages will be fine, they got their compensation money, let them relocate.’ But it’s still an uprooting,” the headmaster tells Solomon MAG.
The forced relocation of villages for coal mining in Western Macedonia began in 1972. Six villages have since been “lifted” – as locals say – and five more will follow. PPC officials interviewed by Solomon MAG reported that approximately €1 billion have been paid so far for expropriations and relocation, while another billion has been paid for land expropriations.
The cost of expropriation and relocation is entirely borne by PPC. However, in 2011, Law 3937 on Biodiversity Conservation provided for cases where the state budget is also burdened when the settlements do not have lignite deposits in their subsoil, but relocation is necessary because the quality of life for the inhabitants is significantly declined due to the proximity to the mines and coal ash dumps.
Rapid industrialization, aggressive de-industrialization
For decades, coal has provided cheap electricity and energy autonomy throughout Greece. Because the territories of Western Macedonia were rich in coal, the area gradually became one of the largest coal centers in the world, the Lignite Center of Ptolemaida – Amyntaiou. The four mines cover an area of 160,000 acres and in 2006 produced 49 million tons of coal, or about 80% of domestic production. Before the financial crisis, PPC had 5,000 permanent employees in Western Macedonia, used 42 bucket excavators, 16 repositories, 225 kilometers of conveyor belts and 1,000 diesel engines. Research by the Technical Chamber of Thessaloniki showed that for every permanent job created by PPC, 3.3 satellite jobs were created in machine shops and workshops. For every euro spent on wages and contracts, more than three euros were generated in the local economy, while the cumulative value of coal mined from 1960 to 2011 is estimated to have provided the region with a total wealth of €35 billion.
An agricultural district was rapidly converted into a vast industrial center.
Under these conditions, an agricultural district was rapidly converted into a vast industrial center. Unskilled farmers have become unskilled workers and traditional occupations have been significantly reduced, with a cost to the local economy valued at € 2.6 billion for 1999 – 2009 alone. At the same time, society has paid a high environmental price – which has largely been passed down to future generations.
Today, the smokestacks are not in constant use. The economic downturn has reduced electricity demand while oil and gas prices remain relatively low. Renewable Energy sources have increased competition, while high fines for carbon emissions imposed by European environmental legislation have made cost-cutting difficult for the production of lignite kilowatt hours, which according to PPC sources, have almost doubled.
In contrast, the company’s permanent workforce has shrunk by 1,600 people. Workers who retire are not replaced with new hires. And the residents themselves, who for many years have been suffering environmental and health consequences “in return” for the wealth that coal has brought to the area, now wait for announcements of short, temporary job contracts with the company, so they can be employed for a few months.
At the same time, PPC has accumulated debts to the local businesses and contractors – who, in turn, owe employees their wages, as this was confirmed to Solomon MAG by company executives. “It’s the (sic) whole society, from the largest contractor to the last pensioner, for a hundred years we owe them,” said a contractor working in the area.
“It’s either life or a job”
In a Pontokomis coffee shop, discussions about political developments and the future of PPC are frequent. As young people move to the cities, the majority of those who remain in the village are retired, many of whom worked in the PPC mines and factories.
Based on the ages written on the gravestones in the village cemetery you understand the problem
Antonis Samaras, a former coal worker and president of the local Association for the Environment and Quality of Life, having spent a lifetime in the mines with intense trade unionism, explains the dilemma: “Life or work. Wherever there’s industrial development, you have to choose: do you want development or do you want health?” He tells Solomon MAG. “Based on the ages written on the gravestones in the village cemetery you understand the problem. Young people, from 45 to 60 years old, die of heart attacks, cancer, respiratory problems. I lost my 49-year-old brother to cancer, he was a coal worker like me, but he didn’t reach retirement,” Antonis says, explaining that since the closure of Ptolemaidas Power Station and two of the four units of the Kardias Power Station, the situation has improved. “Fortunately, now we have no ash, only coal dust,” he notes. “But what difference does that make when people work for a contractor for two euro an hour? You work twelve hours in the mine to make 22 euro, that is to say you have to support your family on 450 euro a month. You can tell the young people to become farmers, but on what land? Currently, PPC has thousands of acres of land. Soil must be restored, distributed to the people. There’s a problem here, you understand?”
Impact on health and the environment
Three power stations now operate on the Ptolemaida-Amyntaio axis, Agios Dimitrios Power Station, Amyntaio Power Station and units 3 and 4 of the Kardias Power Station. According to the WWF’s Lignite Observatory, all three are subject to an exemption by environmental law, which lead to increased pollution emissions, while Amyntaio and Agios Dimitrios Stations are among those which emit the highest pollution in Europe.
Despite its reduction, from 80% of total electricity generation in 1995 to 35% in 2016, coal is still responsible for more than 30% of Greece’s total greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, international research has shown that burning coal emits dust, heavy metals and other toxic substances that contribute to acid rain and are linked to diseases such as asthma and cancer. According to a report by four environmental organizations, 22,900 premature deaths per year in Europe are due to air pollution caused by coal-burning power plants. However, despite the extensive lignite activity next to the cities, villages and arable lands of Western Macedonia, no epidemiological study has been carried out in the area. Individual studies have shown increased incidences of respiratory-related illnesses, and evidence that has seen occasional publicity from the two major hospitals in Kozani and Ptolemaida confirms the rapid increase in cancer cases described by residents.
Mrs Grigoriadou lost her husband to lung cancer at the age of 59, and after a few years she became ill herself.
Mrs Grigoriadou lost her husband to lung cancer at the age of 59, and after a few years she became ill herself. “Every family has at least one cancer patient. My kids saw both parents get cancer, they lost their father.” After struggling with illness, she registered with the Eordiaia Association of Cancer Patients, and became president of the association a year and a half ago. “We have 400 registered members, including young children, and we are in contact with another 400 people who wish not to register for reasons of privacy.”
Water contaminated with the chemical hexavalent chromium
A short distance from the South Field Mine, the largest in the Balkans, lies the village of Akrini. The mine runs parallel to the village, a few hundred meters from the first houses, while Agios Dimitrios Power Station is only a short distance away. Ash and aggregate deposits are present, and ash and coal conveyors are nearby.
They were pouring pure ash – in other words, cancer – and they destroyed the area, and the groundwater, and us.
The president of the local environmental association, Kostas Poutakidis, has been “at war” with PPC for a decade. “The biggest crime that PPC committed was that by 1991 they had been depositing pure ash outside the village,” he tells Solomon MAG. “And because of our efforts and disputes, they covered it with soil and planted acacia trees. That’s what we went through. They were pouring pure ash – in other words, cancer – and they destroyed the area, and the groundwater, and us. When the wind blew, the ash rose and descended on the village. We have three times as many lung cancer deaths in our area. Four times they tried to do an epidemiological study but they never managed to do it. But we went to the local registry, we looked at all the death certificates and causes of death and recorded our own archives.”
In 2013, a survey by the Kozani Municipal Sewerage Company detected high levels of faint chromium in the spring water that supplied Akrini and three other villages at the time. Findings from experts of Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University led to who was responsible for the management of the ash, resulting in four PPC executives being charged. Three were convicted, as the court ruled that the rinsing of the ash due to improper management and its penetration into the groundwater played a role in contaminating the springs. For its part, PPC has filed evidence that the area’s rock formations are at fault, and is awaiting an appeal. “We are accused of contaminating the groundwater at 600 meters but we found chromium at 1,500 meters, 800 meters beyond the Agios Dimitrios plant, which is supposedly responsible. The water goes from top to bottom. The ash is not the cause of the hexavalent chromium findings, and this will be proven in the Court of Appeals,” company executives told Solomon MAG.
“They say that on a spring coming down from the mountain, chromium is in the water. And I say, how is it possible to find a spring contaminated with chromium and not inform the locals?” Kostas Poutakidis wonders. For the inhabitants of the village, the court’s judgement is an important argument in favor of their struggle for relocation. PPC has expropriated 5,000 acres of arable land and had expressed interest in expropriating another 5,000 in the Akrini plain, but not the village itself, as it contains no lignite in its subsoil.
In 2011, residents succeeded in including the relocation of Akrini in Biodiversity Conservation Act 3937, citing not only the deterioration of their quality of life due to environmental damage but also from the standpoint of sustainability. What will those who lose their fields live on? The law providing for the cost of relocation to be shared between PPC and the state has not yet been implemented, and PPC has made clear that it will not proceed.
Since the mines and factories were built here, for better or for worse, and since all of Greece wants coal, give us the right to a second chance to leave the area and relocate.
“As long as Akrini does not have lignite in its soil, PPC is not entitled to relocate the village. The expropriation of the plain was also canceled as was the promotion of having the mine near Akrini, as PPC was not expanding its activities to the area of Akrini,”say business executives. “Since the mines and factories were built here, for better or for worse, and since all of Greece wants coal, give us the right to a second chance to leave the area and relocate,” says Kostas Poutakidis. “Otherwise stop the activity completely, shut down. Can the state, society, the region withstand it? Let them do it. This is my opinion.”
Upon leaving Akrini, we met Tassos while he was grazing his flock. The Agios Dimitrios Power Station loomed in the distance. “Life next to the factory and mine is grim,” he told us. “Go see the fields, it’s full of ash. I grow corn, clovers, sunflower seeds. Our water is diminishing, what can we do without water? The levels are going down. As they dig, the groundwater goes into the mines and the fields become dry. What do you get out of dry fields? And the climate has changed, has gone mad, and it never rains.”
In the coming years, millions of people will become environmental refugees because of the effects of environmental pollution and the consequences of climate change. In Greece this has been happening since the 1970s because of the country’s energy dependence on coal, which has been a national policy for decades.
In part two of Solomon MAG’s report, read about the personal testimonies of the residents of two more coal villages in Western Macedonia. Learn how locals, environmental organizations and PPC executives are positioned to move into a post-coal era which has already begun.