At the end of a workweek, employees of Zijin, formerly RTB Bor, were met with an unpleasant surprise at the doors of the administrative building – their fellow citizens were whistling and booing them, shouting, “Boo! You’ve betrayed the town!” Backed by the inhabitants or nearby small towns and villages, as well as by political activists, on November 15, 2019 a number of Bor citizens protested months’ worth of pollution coming from the mining complex. With the message, “Our health or your profit,” and with masks on their faces, they asked the Chinese investor to reduce the volume of production and thereby the air pollution that was suffocating them.
“Sulfur dioxide directly damages the airways,” Dr. Dragica Radošević told the gathering. Heavy metals, such as arsenic, are even more dangerous as they can lead to malignant tumors, she explained.
Katarina Vasković, a participant of the protest rally, complained to the media in attendance that living in Bor was like being in a quarantine.
“Our children live in a quarantine, we can take them outside only if we estimate that there isn’t that much smoke. (…) Every other child in the neighborhood has gotten an asthma inhaler,” says Vasković.
The demonstrators supported the speakers for two hours straight.
However, on the day of the rally Bor was not polluted. The air did not cause scratching in the throat or made the eyes water, as the denizens of Bor usually claim, so there was no need to stay indoors. The citizens explain the clean air by the reduction of Zijin’s production of cooper and precious metals – precisely because of the protest and the TV cameras.
The data the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) obtained confirm that on the day of the rally there was no excessive pollution, nor in the following five days, but then it returned – on a level above what the Law on Air Protection allows.
A week after the protest rally, environmental protection inspector Emila Tošić toured Zijin and found that during those two days, on November 21 and 22, sulfur dioxide levels were as much as up to 4.6 times higher than legally permitted. In some hours, the amount of SO2 in the air was 8.3 times higher than allowed, reads the inspector’s report. SO2 is a pungent-smelling gas that leads to frequent coughing and irritation of the pharynx. It causes respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and harms children, the elderly and people suffering from chronic pulmonary diseases the most.
Pollution was measured just a five minutes’ walk away from the gates of the mining complex, at a station in the city park maintained by the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA).
The smelter and sulfuric acid plant within the Smelter and Copper Refinery branch are among the weakest links of the complex. They are the most frequent sites toured by inspectors checking air pollution. Announced as a “miracle” that will ensure both clean air and a higher profit, the new smelter was inaugurated in 2014. It melts ore to obtain copper, which is why SO2 is created. To get another product instead of pollution, processing turns SO2 into sulfuric acid. In that way, only slightly polluted air should be coming out of the chimneys. However, in reality that’s not always the case.
The inspectorate checked Zijin in January 2020, too, and registered the same omissions, shows the documentation CINS had access to.
A proceeding is under way before the Commercial Court in Zaječar against Zijin and the deputy manager of the Smelter and Copper Refinery branch which caused the problem, Boban Todorović, for releasing hazardous substances into the air and for the company’s failure to do anything to reduce pollution. They are accused of an economic offense that carries a fine of between 1.5 million and three million dinars, while the court may also hand down a sentence proportional to the damage done.
Nataša Đereg of the Center for Ecology and Sustainable Development (CEKOR) NGO believes that such penalties do not help:
“Our fines are ridiculous – of course it pays for all polluters to continue polluting, especially such large facilities, to pay the fine and carry on. A fine is not a measure, stopping production would be [the right] penalty.”
Former manager of the Smelter and Copper Refinery branch, Paun Janković, says in an interview with CINS that halting production is not in the interest of the majority owner – currently Chinese state-owned Zijin International Finance Company Limited (63%), while the Serbian government is the second biggest co-owner with 36.9%. Stopping operation means less revenue, but it can play a part in solving the problem, he explains:
“There are technical solutions – to urgently eliminate the causes of this bad emission. To stop production, as necessary, for a week, for two weeks, to mechanically repair what needs [to be repaired] and then go back to normal.”
Gallery of photographs from the protest rally against air pollution in Bor on November 15, 2019; photo: CINS
Zijin’s Earlier Omissions
This is not the first time Zijin, previously RTB Bor, has not adhered to the rules. Since the privatization of the mining complex, in December 2018, inspector Tošić detected various omissions at least five times.
Back in April 2019, the inspector ordered the company to take measures against air pollution that poses a threat to human life and health and to the environment, as it had released excessive amounts of SO2, show the reports CINS had access to. At the time, Zijin explained in a note to the Ministry of Environmental Protection that a power outage had caused the pollution.
However, another inspection conducted several months later, in August, revealed one more omission – Zijin did not have a system for wet dust removal during the transportation of tailings at the Bor mine, whereby it also jeopardized human health and the environment. Zijin was ordered to solve the problem, and the company later told the Ministry that a dust suppression system had been installed and that a test run was under way.
In November 2019, CINS requested an interview with Zijin on the subject of air pollution, to which the company replied with a press release. The release read that by the end of the year the company would have a total of five dust dispersion machines that neutralize SO2. The documentation CINS gained access to shows that up until that moment out of the two purchased machines one had already been in use for about two months, but the pollution data reveal that it had no significant impact on the reduction of sulfur dioxide – in October, the number of days with more SO2 in the air was only slightly smaller.
Zijin is announcing other investments, too – a dust and exhaust fumes collection facility, and by 2021 the construction of an additional facility that would enable “the emission of gases to always and completely be in line with the prescribed standards.”
Zijin in Court for Inherited Problems as Well
The citizens of Bor are not happy with their communication with the Ministry, because it does not give them answers as to the measures taken to reduce air pollution.
A recording of a telephone conversation between Saša Stanković, activist and chairman of the district chapter of the Dveri (Doors) movement, and Aleksandar Blagojević, a Ministry inspection sector official, which the Bor activists in October 2019 posted on the Facebook page 1 Out of the 5 Million Bor, left the impression that inspectors do not even carry out on-site visits, but rather notify Zijin of pollution over the phone as part of regular procedure.
Blagojević explained that an inspector “calls the company up and points out that hourly values have been exceeded and that they need to reduce the volume of prod uction or put more fresh raw material than slag.” He also underlined that the City of Bor was legally obliged to enact a Short-Term Action Plan that would determine when Zijin should halt production for a few hours or days.
Ljiljana Lekić from the City of Bor environmental protection office; photo: CINS
City officials told CINS that the Short-Term Action Plan had nothing to do with the work of the state inspectorate.
“It’s well known how inspectors work. (…) When any kind of accident happens, an inspector conducts an on-site visit to see what is going on, puts together minutes, measures are taken unrelated to the Short-Term Action Plan. We will see when we have enacted the Plan, how much we will be able to affect the company’s operation,” Ljiljana Lekić from the City of Bor environmental protection office told CINS.
She explained that they had already begun making the Plan and that the process involved representatives of local environmental associations, including those that were organizing the protests. Nonetheless, Lekić says the plan will only provide guidelines for solving the problem.
Toplica Marijanović, once a deputy director for environmental protection at RTB, says that the action plan is not binding, and so not even an inspector can ask the polluter to implement it.
“That is an effort of the Ministry, i.e. the government to shift all the responsibility for the state of air quality to the local self-government unit, while the local self-government unit has neither the jurisdiction nor the capacity to react in any way in the industrial and mining facilities to which the authorities issue operating permits,” says Marijanović.
Meanwhile, the citizens of Bor are still appealing for a solution to the pollution problem. SEPA has issued a warning that January 24 and 26 were hazardous to human health due to high SO2 levels at two measuring sites.
While Aleksandar Milikić, the mayor of Bor and an official of the Serbian Progressive Party, is saying that the pressure is political because the protests are led by Alliance for Serbia member and an associate of Dragan Đilas, Irena Živković, she and three other activists, including Saša Stanković from Dveri, in late November pressed charges against Zijin Bor Copper CEO Long Yi, the Bor mayor, and Environmental Protection Minister Goran Trivan, for air pollution.
The Ministry did not answer CINS’ questions about control of the local self-government unit regarding the enactment of the Short-Term Action Plan, nor whether it will be able to order Zijin to stop production.
New Owner – New Pollution
According to regulations, SO2 can be exceeded at a single measuring site for just three days in a year. That rule has not been abided by for years. The measuring station in the city park, not far from the mining complex, in 2014 detected unpermitted SO2 pollution for five months on average, while by 2018 the number of days dropped to 13, and then with the Chinese investor jumped to 40, according to SEPA data.
The findings of the Mining and Metallurgy Institute Bor for 2018 are not encouraging. Year-over-year, there were higher than allowed levels of SO2 and harmful PM10 particles, which most often cause vascular and respiratory diseases. There was 24 times more arsenic than allowed in Bor. Pollution in many places in Serbia is above legally permitted levels, which CINS reported on earlier.
The high levels of pollutants affect the health of Bor citizens.
Roughly two thirds of preschoolers and a half of children under the age of 18, who sought medical assistance in the period between 2014 and 2018, had respiratory problems. They most frequently suffered from pharyngitis and tonsillitis, according to the data on the state of health of Bor’s citizens, published by the Timok Public Health Institute in Zaječar.
These two types of inflammation are the second most frequent disease in adults, with nine cases per 100 citizens.
Although dominant, these diseases saw a slight downward trend in the observed five-year period, in parallel with the decline in production at the complex and lower air pollution.
After RTB Bor was privatized, pollution went up again.