In Sofia, Bulgaria just like anywhere USA residents would like to think there environment was livable. They'd like to think their government would be interested in their health. They would like to think that major area industries cared about them.
That doesn't seem to be the case so they have taken to the streets of Sofia in protest.
The Kremikovtzi steel works currently the scene of a major labor battle is now also the target of environmental groups. The environmentalists and the workers are not necessarily in agreement on the issues.
The steel mill, until now owned by India’s Ispat (which has upset workers by refusing to infuse needed capital into the plant, while at the same time refusing to sell it off to interested buyers), is traditionally blamed for most of the smog layer that covers the Bulgarian capital.
Even the European Union has taken note of the situation there and in a January 17 letter announced it had decided to open yet another infringement proceeding against Bulgaria for failing to bring its biggest steel plant Kremikovtzi up to EU environmental standards.
The new infringement procedure comes in response to the complaint that Sofia mayor Boyko Borissov lodged with the European Union’s directorate general for environment in the summer last year about the high level of pollution from the Kremikovtzi steel mill in the suburbs of the city. “Our only wish is that Kremikovtzi cleans up its act. Should it fail to meet the environment requirements, it should be shut down,” mayor Borissov commented.
The mayor has repeatedly complained that the gross violation of the acceptable levels of pollution is systemic and has not abated despite the constant fines imposed on the steel mill. In particular, the amount of fine particles exceeds the maximum allowed by EU environmental and health standards by between three and six times daily.
Meanwhile, on January 31 a vast number of Kremikovtzi workers gathered at the square in front of Sofia's St Alexander Nevski cathedral to protest against the current management of the troubled steel mill.
Lyudmil Pavlov, chairman of the trade union at Kremikovtzi, claimed the management owed employees 11 million leva in unpaid wages since December 2007, with corresponding food stamps and other social payments also delayed.
The protesters held posters with slogans reading “Pramod Mittal does not create, but steals and destroys”, “Stop to the Kremikovtzi catastrophe”, “Stanishev, if you do not remove Pramod, we will remove you”, “The mayor is lying. Kremikovtzi is not the biggest Sofia polluter”, among others.
Vassil Yanachkov, of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (CITUB), asked the Prosecutor's Office to investigate owner Pramod Mittal's doings, Focus news agency reported. “We won't let Mittal play around with the fate of so many people,” he said.
The protesters took their rally to the Economy and Energy Ministry building, where an estimated 4000 people demanded a meeting with Economy and Energy Minister Petar Dimitrov before 10am.
Dimitrov agreed to see CITUB vice president Valentin Nikiforov, KT Podkrepa trade union president Konstantin Trenchev, along with other representatives of the two labour unions and of the Kremikovtzi workers.
He reiterated the Cabinet's commitment to keep Bulgaria's biggest steelworks working, even though Mittal refused to sell the mill, but was also unwilling to pump more funds into its operations. Dimitrov also said the Public Internal Financial Control Agency (PIFCA) should probe Kremikovzti's records to determine the steel mill's financial health.
Trade unions have accused the managers of Kremikovtzi of stripping assets worth 50 million euro over the past several weeks, including land and equipment that is of key importance for the continued operation of the steelworks,
Workers protests have continued.
The following is from the Sofia Echo.
Bulgarian “greens” want Kremikovtzi shut down
Bulgaria’s “green” politicians have lent their voices on February 25 to the calls to shut down Kremikovtzi steel works in the outskirts of Sofia.
Green Bulgaria, Green Party and the Green Alliance all participated in the “Kremikovtzi – the environmental consequences for the region” round table discussion at the Sofia Press club.
Scientific research regarding the impact of the steel mill on the environment should top the agenda, with the protests of the plant’s employees taking a back seat, Vassil Yotov from the Green Alliance said, opening the discussions.
“The electrical furnace works with scrap, there are no chimneys and everything goes out of the windows,” Yotov said. He added that some of Kremikovtzi’s furnaces worked during the night and on weekends, further boosting the steel mill’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Kremikovtzi’s equipment was outdated and no amount of upgrading and modernisation would make up for that, he argued. “The 320 million leva (earmarked for environmental programs) would hardly be enough to cover the costs,” he said.
The winds in the area spread the dust particles and pollution from Kremikovtzi all the way to Vitosha and Plana Mountains, causing allergies and lung diseases in Sofia and even some of its surrounding villages.
“The situation with the stored refuse bales and the pollution of the underground waters is another question and bordering on crime,” he said.
Although harmful emissions exceeded the accepted levels by more than 100 times in some cases, Yotov claimed, there was no real monitoring of pollution, causing various diseases, especially in children and teenagers throughout the region
He also lambasted the steel mill’s management for prolonging the agony of the company by selling of some of its assets, including its tailing pond, sold to Ukrainian businessman Konstantin Zhevago, who last month was in talks to buy Kremikovtzi.
Zhevago is actively extracting metals from the pond, while Kremikovtzi operated at a profit by ignoring payments to suppliers such as state railways BDZ and gas company Bulgargaz, as well as running late on paying wages.
The status quo was encouraged by the low pollution fine levied by the Government. Running at a monthly profit of 12 million euro, the 12 000 euro was petty change, according to Green Bulgaria chairman Boris Kassikov. “Any manager can pay such fine and put it in the company’s account,” he said.
The only way to deal with the situation was to fine the company once or twice and then, if no improvement was evident, it had to be shut down, as it would have been done in any other European country. He added that the mill’s management offered no guarantees that Kremikovtzi would stop polluting, even if the steelworks implemented its 232 million leva environmental plan.
Kremikovtzi had to be shut down, with the Government providing the funds to retrain its employees, Nikolai Mitev from Green Bulgaria said.
“Over the past 20 years Kremikovtzi has only been used for siphoning off money and stealing,” he said, dismissing the claims of Economy and Energy Minister Petar Dimitrov that Kremikovtzi was responsible for two per cent of Bulgaria’s gross domestic product.
“Even if true, this money cannot compensate for the damage to people’s health,” Mitev said. The lifespan of all residents of Kremikovzi or nearby Yana village, decreased by six months for each year living in the steel mill’s shadow, he added.
But he also criticised the plans to redevelop the area, advocated by realtors and Sofia city hall.
“The idea to build a new city with business parks here borders on abusing the trust of local people, because it would take more than 50-60 years to re-cultivate the area and make it liveable again,” Mitev said.
Valentina Kostova from the Green Party echoed his words, saying that anywhere else in Europe the environment and the quality of life were more important than the money that has been invested.
The construction of a business park on the premises of Kremikovtzi place could not take place before the area was re-cultivated, she added. “The Government has to stop justifying itself with (Indian owner Pramod) Mittal,” Kostova said.
But she stopped short of advocating the outright shutdown of the mill, saying some of its production processes were not as harmful for the environment and could continue with the appropriate safeguards in place.
“We propose that the politicians, at this time, overcome the pressure by the business and take into consideration elementary human logic – close down all harmful production cycles and leave the less detrimental ones,” Kostova said.
Meanwhile, more than 1000 Kremikovtzi employees gathered in front of the still mill’s main administrative building on the morning of February 25 to protest against new delays in the payment of their wages. They shouted “Salaries!” and booed new chief executive Guntupalli Jagannadham, who demanded the sacking of trade union activists that asked for a 25 per cent salary increase in 2008.