August 6, 2019
by Lazaros Beltsos • photos by #save_agrafa • translated by Gigi Papoulias
Despite the urgency to produce energy with a smaller environmental footprint, authorization to install Renewable Energy Sources in protected areas raises questions − especially when compliance laws are not fully upheld.
In the heart of the southern range of the Pindos Mountains lies the region of Agrafa. It is an area which includes seven of Greece’s 42 peaks which measure more than 2,000 meters high, with almost zero intrusion by humans, rich in flora and fauna and a significant number of endangered species. This is also the main reason that the region is a listed protected area of the Natura 2000 network .
However, with a recent State Council decision rejecting the appeal of organizations and residents who were opposed to the wind farm permit, Agrafa will be turned into a construction site for two corporations which plan to install 40 wind turbines, each 120-meters-high, on its peaks.
At the same time, a group of people from across Greece have gathered on the Karamanolis Plateau of Agrafa, and reside there in a make-shift camp in order to raise awareness, where they await the undesirable situation – the commencement of the project. “We want people to come here to get to know the mountain and its species which are under threat,” Panagiotis Giannopoulos tells Solomon MAG from atop one of Agrafa’s peaks. He is a psychiatrist and a member of the #save_agrafa initiative.
Biodiversity under threat and encroachment of Natura
A few days before this article was published [in Greek] on July 25, the European Commission referred Greece to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately protect its biodiversity, as stated in the ruling. “Although Greece has designated specific conservation areas for the protection of natural habitats and species included in the Natura 2000 network, it has not set the necessary conservation goals and measures to meet the ecological requirements of the types of natural habitats and species living in all of these places,” the Commission decision states.
In order for a company to acquire a permit to install wind turbines in a region, a specific procedure has to be followed, which is stricter for Natura 2000 sites, “but not as stringent as it should be,” says Panos Fokas, a lawyer and member of the #save_agrafa initiative.
It all began in 2008 when the Joint Ministerial Decision (JMD) entitled “Approval of a Special Planning and Sustainable Development Framework for Renewable Energy Sources and its Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment” was issued by the then-minister of the environment Georgios Souflias. Within this JMD, certain regions have been identified as a priority for the development of wind energy − areas which qualify for the development of Renewable Energy Sources (RES), many of which are located within the Natura 2000 network.
One such area is Agrafa, located in the Evritania prefecture. Corporations interested in installing wind turbines must first apply for a power generation license with the Energy Regulatory Authority (RAE). In October 2010, RAE issued two licenses to ANEMODYNAMIKI SA and POUNENTIS SA, within three days (October 4 and 7, 2010, respectively). As stated in the decisions, 50% of ANEMODYNAMIKI is owned by EL.TECH. ANEMOS and 50% by Athanasios Katselis. In addition, 100% of POUNENTIS is held by EL.TECH. ANEMOS, which is a company in the ELLAKTOR group.
The urgent approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment
Upon authorization, these companies were required to compile an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) − Solomon MAG has acquired a copy of this − which must outline the possibility for irreversible environmental impact, state the site’s associated projects (in this case road excavation), and the impact on bird habitats, including a specialized study on this issue.
Just two days before national elections, the ELLAKTOR group was granted the approval which would lead to acquiring the license for installation
The corporations filed an EIA with the Ministry of Environment, Energy and Climate Change in March 2011 and on May 4, 2012, (when Georgios Papakonstantinou was head of the Ministry). And just two days before national elections, the ELLAKTOR group was granted the approval which would lead to acquiring the license for installation.
“Here, the first mistake was made on the part of the citizens, who should have appealed against the EIA approval decision, but they realized it only afterwards and we could only appeal against the establishment permit. It was certainly not their fault,” says Tryfonas Kollias, the lawyer representing those seeking justice from the Council of State.
As Mr. Kollias explains, in 2014 a bill was voted into law, which called for conducting mandatory public consultations on EIAs (Environmental Impact Assessments). However, in 2011, when the contested EIA was filed, all it took was for a local newspaper to report that the EIA had been filed, and if anyone even noticed it, they had the right to ask to see the study and to express any objections. “So, in this way, the EIA somehow remained under the radar,” the lawyer concludes.
An unorthodox process
Panos Fokas is also a lawyer who got know Agrafa through his favorite hobby, hiking. According to Mr. Fokas, there are many issues raised by the special study on bird habitats, which was hastily filed with the EIA in March 2011 – without the 12-month on-site observation necessary to draw sound conclusions on the possible extinction of large-scale species. “Subsequently, when they were apparently informed that the bill was due to be filed (end of July 2011), they rushed to submit their final studies on June 21, which again did not cover a one-year period.”
Solomon MAG contacted ELLAKTOR Group’s Corporate Communications Manager, Mary Andreadis, who acknowledged that the on-site observation did not cover the 12-month period, but said it was not necessary as “the timeframe of the fieldwork depends on the seasonal presence of the species and can be limited to less than 12 months if the researcher establishes that the behavioral analysis of the species over a year’s time has been appropriately assessed.” Of course, the researchers who drafted the preliminary study themselves report that 12 months is indeed necessary in order to draw conclusions.
The bill cited by Mr. Fokas as a reason for expediting the process (from the company’s point of view) is Law 4014/2011, which for the first time, documents the need for a specific ecological study for projects in Natura areas. In fact, the Ministry’s approval of the EIA, (because it came after the law was passed, as opposed to the submission of the file shortly before), was contingent upon the company submitting a specific environmental assessment within 6 months – a term which was not met during the specified timeframe.
As ELLAKTOR stated to Solomon MAG, they have now submitted the required assessments to the Ministry and are awaiting approval. “Failure to comply with the deadlines does not affect the legality of the procedure if the special study is submitted before the company is set up to undertake a works project,” the company stated, and consequently the Council of State also agreed via its June 5, 2019 decision.
But one point that raises quite a few questions is the estimations of not only the local Karpenisi Forestry Office but the even higher district authority of the Evritania Forestry Directorate. In April 2011 and just a month before the EIA filing was published, the Karpenisi Forestry Office issued a negative position on the issue, dealing a harsh blow to the entire project.
We are adversely opposed to the project which will degrade the environment of the entire region of Agrafa to an irreversible degree.
The local forestry services’s estimations detail the irreversible effects on the untainted environment of Agrafa and conclude that “there is no justification for an intervention of such proportions.”
A few days later the Evritania Forestry Department, fully agreed with the local forestry services’s opinion and in turn stated that “we are adversely opposed to the project which will degrade the environment of the entire region of Agrafa to an irreversible degree.”
However, in February 2012, shortly before the approval by the Ministry, the Karpenisi Forestry Office issued a favorable estimation entitled “Review of the two EIAs”, but instead of submitting it to the Evritania Forestry Directorate, the Forestry Director Ioannis Fakas, filed it directly to the authorization authority (the special services for the environment of the Ministry of Environment and Energy), bypassing the proper channels of hierarchy. Therefore, as the appeal (against granting approval) which was filed to the Council of State supports, Greece’s highest forestry authority never had a positive estimation of the project, on the contrary, the authority vehemently opposed it.
The role of the local community
Dr. Panagiotis Giannopoulos regularly visits the villages affected by the project, (in his opinion, negatively affected), and he has determined three categories of citizens’ views on the imminent installation of the wind turbines.
According to Mr. Giannopoulos, the first category is the citizens who are completely opposed to the project and favor sustainable ways of developing the area through innocuous activities related to nature and conservation, such as hiking. This category of inhabitants constitutes the majority, as evidenced by the fact that all five newly-elected mayors of the surrounding areas were and are openly opposed to the project. Indeed, after their election, they also issued a joint statement calling for the cancellation of all decisions on environmental grounds and for the complete exclusion of the region from wind priority areas.
Solomon MAG contacted the mayor of Limni Plastira, Panagiotis Nanos, who considers it unacceptable to even discuss a project that would require such large infrastructure projects and road-building at a time when, even without any such interventions, there is a high risk of landslides in the region. “Two of our villages, Lambero and Kerasia, are in the process of relocation due to landslides,” Mr. Nanos reports.
The second category of citizens, according to Mr. Giannopoulos, are those who were against the project, but after the Council of State’s decision they feel that they don’t have the power to do anything about it. The third category is those who view the project favorably, as they believe that they will somehow benefit by the project. “They have approached landowners in the area, and have vowed to rent their land to install high-voltage towers; they have also approached local shepherds and have assured them that they will receive animal feed and jobs,” Mr. Giannopoulos said, citing residents’ own testimonies. For its part, ELLAKTOR says that the investment will reach 100 million euro and there will be multiple benefits to the local community. “It is expected to make a significant contribution to the local community, boosting employment but also contributing significantly to the local economy,” says Ms. Andreadis.
If it has a negative or irreversible impact on the biodiversity of an area then our position is not to proceed with a project. But the burden of proof has to be on those who are opposed
Solomon MAG also spoke to the CEO of the Hellenic Wind Energy Association HWEA/ELETAEN, Panagiotis Papastamatiou, who due to his position cannot comment on specific projects. “Our approach is that such a project is, in principle, environmentally friendly as it contributes to combating climate change. If it has a negative or irreversible impact on the biodiversity of an area then our position is not to proceed with a project. But the burden of proof has to be on those who are opposed, “explains Mr. Papastamatiou.
Although renewable energy production, such as wind, contributes to combating climate change in an effort to reduce coal dependence, as Mr. Papastamatiou said, environmental impacts must be balanced and a serious national strategy must be in place. In this way, Greece could produce “cleaner” energy and at the same time be responsible for maintaining its natural environment − contrary to the European Commission, which currently shows more interest in the subject in relation to domestic corporations and the political leaders involved.