Investigative storiesEcologyEnergy

Coal combustion: In Kostolac every fourth day not for breathing

30 Apr 2018
Termoelektrana Kostolac B, foto: CINS
Coal-combusting thermal plants, the main source of air pollution in Serbia, have impact on the number of patients suffering from respiratory and cardiac diseases. Although emissions of harmful substances from Kostolac exceed the permitted limits by up to five times, Serbia continues to invest in unclean lignite as the source of energy

At about 9 p.m., while the second shift was digging coal from Kostolac, Goran Stević was seized by a choking fit. Suffering from asthma in the course of three previous years, this time he was admitted to hospital because of heart problems. He was soon subjected to a surgery and all four of his cardiac valves were replaced.

As an excavator operator employed with Serbian Electric Power Industry, Stević was for twenty years excavating waste rock and coal in the village of Drmno, in the east of Serbia, by the thermal power plant Kostolac. Before contracting serious illness in 2014, he was exposed to vapours of toxic substances such as carbon-dioxide and sulphur-dioxide at work.

“I first contracted chronic bronchitis, then bronchial asthma, and then this all affected my heart valves and I did not have any flow of venal and arterial blood; I had choking fits and could not live without an oxygen bottle”, explains Stević. “The environment at the mine site was polluted, this is a disaster”.

When he was granted disability retirement in July 2017, Stević was 39 years of age.

Before the heart valve surgery, Goran Stević was working as an excavator operator in the coal mine Drmno for 20 years.

Inhabitants of Braničevo District, which comprises Požarevac, Kostolac, and seven smaller municipalities, are becoming increasingly sick, as indicated in the 2016 Analysis of health status of the population of the District carried out by Public health institute Požarevac.

In 2016, as many as 29.4% of the population of the District were treated for respiratory diseases, which is far above the Republic average of 16.8%; according to the Analysis, this had also been the major issue in the previous ten years. Vascular diseases are the prevailing cause of death with 58.4% of the deceased in 2016 as compared to 51.7% at the Republic level.

Those who seek medical treatment in Kostolac mostly come for cardiac-vascular problems, while the number of patients with respiratory diseases is considerably lower, says doctor Borka Šutović, who manages the Kostolac branch of the Primary healthcare centre Požarevac. She adds that a large number of their patients are employees with Serbian Electric Power Industry (EPS).

Šutović explains that the operation of the thermal power plant affects health of the local population, but also mentions other factors which cause the diseases: smoking, allergies, and genetic predispositions.

According to EPS data on concentrations of harmful substances in the four settlements in the vicinity of Kostolac thermal power plant, in the period between June 2016 and February 2018, analyzed by Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS), permitted limit values for some substances were exceeded every fourth day on the average.

Thus, in the days when concentrations of sulphur-dioxide (SO2) and suspended particles PM10 were measured, values exceeding permitted limits were established as many as 118 times. The measurements were conducted by the Public health institute Požarevac and the Mining institute.

In most cases, on the occasion of 106 measurements, PM10 particle levels exceeded the permitted limit value – in October 2017 even up to 5.4 times. Among air polluting substances, these particles are most harmful for human health, as, when inhaled, they stay in the deepest parts of lungs and cause asthma and other respiratory and cardiac diseases. More than one third of such cases occurred in the village of Drmno.

Besides these particles, SO2 values were exceeded by several times; SO2 contributes to occurrence of acid rains, respiratory and cardiac diseases, with children, the elderly, asthmatic patients, and patients with chronic pulmonary diseases as the most vulnerable categories. In the course of 50 measurements, concentrations of heavy metals from PM10, arsenic and nickel, were above the annual average. Effects of arsenic are connected with tumors and cardiac diseases, while nickel may cause cancer and skin allergies.

Measurements of pollutants at the source of pollution, the thermal power plant, were carried out by experts from the Institute for nuclear sciences Vinča. In all of their three reports excessive emissions of PM10 and SO2 were established, with SO2 levels higher than the permitted by 10.5 to almost 15 times.

Goran Stević, lives in the vicinity of the lime disposal site in Drmno, and close to the coal mine with his wife and two daughters, aged six and eight. He fears for health of his children who, as he says, suffer from bronchitis.

“There is dust, there are allergies, they get tired, they breathe hardly, they are always sick, I spend more time at doctors’ than at home (…) The air is heavy, in the morning we can hardly breathe because of the ash disposal site, these are all heavy, polluted fumes”, explains Stević. “Because of my surgery, I take six different drugs in the morning, six in the evening, and two at noon”.

Those who live will tell the story

The thermal power plant Kostolac is the second in Serbia by its size, providing about 17% of the total necessary power to the population. Since the end of the 1980s, it has been operating using coal from the mines in the vicinity of the thermal power plant. One of the mines encircles the village of Drmno, which is why its inhabitants are faced with significant issues.

When the weather is windy, the situation is difficult. The inhabitants of Drmno the CINS journalist interviewed said that on such days it is hard to see anything in Kostolac, and that they stay in their houses while coal dust and ash falls on their crops. They alsocomplain about everyday pollution, saying they cannot breathe or live normally. Noise caused by work of engines presents another issue. Their houses are cracked because water is drained from the mine which causes soil settlement, while disposal of waste rock causes strong vibrations. Many have moved, while others request EPS to relocate them.

“Life here is difficult”, says Goran Stević. “Those who live will tell the story.”

Growing disease and mortality rates

The 2016 Analysis of health status of the population of Braničevo district, which includes Drmno and Kostolac, composed by Public health institute Požarevac, indicates to the growing issue in this area. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of patients grew by 13.4%, with patients with respiratory diseases as the most numerous, while vascular diseases presented the major cause of death.

Out of the total number of patients recorded at primary health centres in 2016, as many as 29.4% suffered from respiratory diseases, while 11.51% patients suffered from vascular diseases (high blood pressure, cardiac arrest, angina pectoris, etc.).

Data from the 2016 Healthcare-statistical Yearbook of the Republic of Serbia, published by the Public health institute of Serbia “Dr Milan Jovanović Batut”, indicates that respiratory diseases occur considerably less frequently at the Republic level, with 16.8% individuals treated, while 18.5% patients were treated in primary healthcare centers throughout Serbia for vascular diseases.

As many as 25% of children up to six years of age in Braničevo district suffered from throat and tonsil infections; following this group, almost 19% suffered from infections of upper respiratory tract. Same as in the previous years, children of school age (7-18 years of age) are faced most issues with respiratory organs; thus, in 2016, every second child was treated from such problems.

The Healthcare-statistical Yearbook indicates that the number of the deceased due to pulmonary diseases throughout Serbia is on the rise.

According to his statement, other mine workers also suffered from health problems, but they did not complain because they did not want to lose their jobs.

EPS and the company branch – Thermal power plant and mines Kostolac – did not accept to talk to the CINS journalist, having also failed to reply to the questions filed prior to the publishing of this story.

This company is obliged to conduct air quality measurements at the source of pollution, i.e. smoke stack of the thermal power plant. However, on the occasion of filing an earlier set of data to CINS, EPS stated that their data on harmful emissions is not valid, because they do not have approval of the Ministry of environmental protection for continuous measurements. When asked why they did not issue approval to EPS, the Ministry stated that the company filed a request for approval in October 2014, but that the request was rejected because EPS did not even submit all the necessary documents within the subsequently determined deadline.

As it does not conduct valid independent measurements, EPS is obliged to commission periodical measurements at the source of pollution twice a year; in 2016 and 2017, these measurements were conducted by the Institute for nuclear sciences Vinča. Besides, quality of ambiance air is monitored in the impact sphere of Kostolac thermal power plant; so far, it has been measured in the four nearby settlements by the Public health institute Požarevac and the Mining institute.

The Institute from Vinča measured the quality of air in May and December 2016, as well as in November 2017. The Public health institute and Mining institute measured pollution in eight places in the vicinity of the thermal power plant for a certain number of days each month; SO2, soot, and precipitating substances containing heavy metals were measured in four places, while concentrations of PM 10 particles and metals within them – nickel, arsenic, cadmium, and lead in the remaining four places.

Between April and August 2017 there were no measurements, as EPS had not conducted a public procurement procedure in a timely manner.

Measurements of the Institute in Vinča indicated to exceeded limit concentrations of PM10 and SO2 each time.

Pollution around the thermal power plant was, among others, measuredin two places in the village of Drmno. In the course of 614 days, as many as 44 cases of violation of the permitted level of SO2 and PM10 were recorded, sometimes up to by 2.4 times more than permitted. The largest number of measurements – 484 – was conducted by the Drmno outpatient clinic, where issues were the least numerous, while at the measuring site P.D. Georad, where permitted PM10 were exceeded much more frequently, the concentrations were measured in the course of 130 days, or eight days a month on the average.

The issue with SO2 is to be solved by the commissioning of the desulphurization system which was constructed in summer 2017. According to the last report of the Institute in Vinča, the system did not start operating by November of the same year.

EPS did not reply to CINS whether desulphurization started and when.

Although desulphurization is to regulate levels of SO2 and mercury which gets precipitated in soil and water as a result of coal combustion, this process slightly increases the amount of emissions of carbon-dioxide (CO2) which harms the atmosphere and affects climate changes.

Expensive and slow loan implementation

In 2011, Serbia took a loan of more than €224 million from the Chinese Exim bank on behalf of EPS, for the purpose of revitalization and minimization of SO2 emissions from the existing blocks of Kostolac B. The loan was to be used by mid- 2017, but the deadline was extended till the end of 2018. For this delay, EPS has paid more than €4.2 million of commitment fees for non-withdrawn funds.

The fee is accounted for besides regular interest and mostly depends on the amount of loan and dynamics after which the money is used. If the loan is not used in a timely manner, the amount of commitment fee is also larger.

Serbia took another loan from Exim bank. For construction of the third block of thermal power plant Kostolac B and extension of Drmno coal mine, which will additionally increase environmental pollution and affect human health.

In December 2014, Serbian Government took a loan of somewhat less than €487 million from the Chinese state bank, while execution of the loan – and the debt repayment – was on EPS. The state guaranteed the loan repayment with the budget of the Republic of Serbia; in case of dispute, it got committed to observe Chinese laws, while a Chinese company was selected as the main contractor, as indicated by an earlier investigation conducted by CINS.

Those who seek treatment in Kostolac mostly suffer from cardio-vascular diseases, says doctor Borka Šutović, head of the Kostolac branch of the Primary healthcare center Požarevac

The project was to be ended in May 2022; however, as EPS has been delayed with the operation from the very beginning, it had to pay the Chinese bank €3.1 million of commitment fee. This means that EPS paid €7.3 million of commitment fees for the two loans relating to Kostolac.

Besides Kostolac, Serbia also operates thermal power plants Nikola Tesla (TENT) in Obrenovac, which generate more than 50% of electric power and which comprise the major power producers in Southeast Europe. With 3,286 MW of power, these thermal power plants are by more than three times more powerful than those in Kostolac, also emitting harmful gasses.

CINS investigation indicates that construction of the desulphurization plant in TENT, for which the amount of €226 million was borrowed from Japanese International Cooperation Agency, is also delayed. The plant was to start operating in June 2018, but the currently planned deadline with completion of the works is 2022. Commitment fee was paid in this case too – somewhat more than €449,000 by 31 March 2018.

Inhabitants of areas in the vicinity of the thermal power plants are those who suffer the most due to slow implementation of projects which should decrease emissions of harmful gasses.

Bojan Dimitrijević lives in the vicinity of the coal crushing site for the thermal plant Kostolac B. In the course of his conversation with CINS journalists, there is the sound of engines – coal is being transported from the mine to the crushing plant.

“Life in Drmno is quite poor. Especially when it comes to dust, polluted air”, says Dimitrijević.

In 2015, he felt pain in his chest, caused by pneumonia. He says that when he told the doctor he was from Drmno, she said that it comes “from that dirt”.

“And they say no more. Absolutely nothing more. It is as it is. When we get sick, we go to the hospital in Požarevac, and everybody says we come from a place which is so much polluted”, says Dimitrijević.


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