Life with clean air or life with polluters

More often than not the common good in Macedonia has been victim to special interests of small groups of people, who have trampled public interest with impunity, in order to enrich and empower themselves. No more was this true than during the past decade and previous government, which got its way whatever it set its sight on. A rare circumstance when it had to back off was the case of air pollution in Tetovo and wider Polog region, where the closing down of the biggest polluter, Jugohrom, was a rare victory of public resistance and perseverance over at that time an almighty government. It was also an indication of things to come, an example of what a spirited, outspoken and active citizenry could do. It is thus all the more concerning that the current government seems intent to continue where the previous one left off.

To briefly recapitulate the events of the past few years, the Polog region had for a long time been the most polluted in the country, occasionally even in the whole of Europe, even though it is blessed with most favorable natural conditions. As everyone living there knew, and as subsequent data showed, a huge part of the pollution was caused by a single polluter – Jugohrom factory. By law the factory was obliged to put up filters in its chimneys by 2014. Despite the fact that it worked with hefty profits it failed to meet the deadline, while the government kept giving it extension after extension of the deadline. Although a new law that required certain ecological standards was in place, it continued to behave as nothing had happened, because it was under no pressure to act otherwise.

As Polog kept getting polluted, and the government could care less, it was obvious that the only possible solution could come from citizen activism. The challenge was initially taken up by a small group of activists that came to be known as Ecoguerilla. Event after event they raised public awareness of the magnitude of pollution, no doubt helped by modern technology that through smartphone applications allowed anyone to check the level of pollution for themselves, at any given hour. In time public protests drew more and more people, until the ultimate one in Tetovo which drew unseen crowds for any ecological issue in Macedonia. This touched the parties in power where it could really hurt them – votes. And thus under intense public pressure the government had no choice but to order Jugohrom to comply with the law and shut down until such time as it installed filters with prescribed standards. Pollution by PM particles quickly fell down by 30% to 40%, proving once and for all that Jugohrom had indeed been the largest single polluter.

Recent events however showed that the new government wasted no time getting to the old ways of doing business in Macedonia. It seems that from the outset it made at best indecent proposals or at worst downright threats to ecological activists from Ecoguerilla, trying to strike an agreement to reopen Jugohrom ahead of time. To general dismay, their plan seems no different from what the previous government had tried to do, and in some ways it is even worse. Reasoning that Jugohrom is a big employer in the region, it proposes that it be allowed to restart work and install the necessary filters in parallel.

This proposal is plainly horrible and flawed. To begin with, Jugohrom should’ve had its filters in place a few years ago, and that’s what it should’ve been doing instead of trying to find ways to circumvent this requirement. If it was honestly worried about pollution and public health, as any socially responsible company should be, it would have immediately started to build the necessary filters, and it would have them in place by now, with the factory up and running. The very fact that it has kept delaying this, and that we are even discussing the possibility of building the filters in parallel today, shows that Jugohrom was never honest in the first place and should be treated with distrust even now. And the fact that the government seems to be a willing partner to this plan shows that it shouldn’t be trusted either.

Second, it is disgusting to abuse the sensible issue of unemployment, so as to enable someone to get by with polluting and endangering public health in order to make a profit. No matter how many people Jugohrom would employ, the number is miniscule compared to the more than 200.000 residents of Pollog region who will have to live with its toxins. For example data show that respiratory diseases in children almost doubled when Jugohrom was working without filters, and subsequently halved again when it was closed. Now the government’s argument seems to be that it’s OK to poison thousands of children, if that gets a few hundred people jobs. But if unemployment trumps all other concerns, we might as well allow any criminal activity to go on unpunished, as long as they employ people.

No matter what the government’s plans seem to be, I suspect that the people of Pollog will not easily let go of this hard-won victory from the previous regime. The only sensible thing to do now is go ahead with the initial plan. Jugohrom should not get special treatments and passbys, it should obey the law just like any other company and install the appropriate filters before it is allowed to resume work. Given that the government seems to have vested interests in its reopening, whether because it wants to lower unemployment or there is something shadier going on, it is not a fully trustworthy and impartial arbiter in this case. Therefore its word should not be accepted as final, and it should allow independent foreign experts to verify that ecological standards have been met. Otherwise we will know that the regime lives on with some new political faces, and same old oligarchs.

Robert Nesimi