“I feel sorry for all who have to stay here and be poisoned,” Dragan Novaković said in a post on his Facebook profile in late August. In that way he also informed his friends that he and his family were moving out of Bor.
Novaković had lived in the town for 15 years. He tells the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) that there was just one reason for the move – air pollution. He can’t remember the exact day when they decided to move, but he does remember horrible pollution.
“The pollution was so high that we couldn’t even open our windows. If you go outside, you breathe that polluted air, there was just no more point in thinking about staying there. (…) You know, you keep thinking something will happen again, it will happen, someone will notice it and it’ll stop – but I guess not.”
He says Bor is a nice town to live in, however when there is pollution “all that goes out the window.”
Most people have no alternative, nowhere to go, adds Novaković:
“They are where they are, getting poisoned, and what are they going to do. They have no way out.”
Official data confirm that Bor is among the most polluted places in Serbia – in 2019 the quality of air in this town was in category three, the worst one.
According to a Serbian Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) report, the cities and towns that were in the same category in 2019 were Kraljevo, Zaječar, Valjevo, Subotica, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Pančevo, Smederevo, Užice, Niš, Požarevac, and the municipalities of Kosjerić and Beočin. For most of them, that was not the first time.
That is why the Law on Air Protection envisages that these and other local self-government units which have constant air pollution or where the measures taken are not producing results make a so-called air quality plan (AQP). These plans ought to contain data on the source of pollution and a list of measures planned to reduce that pollution.
However, according to the data CINS gained access to, less than half of the cities and municipalities that were obliged to do so actually enacted these plans, while those that do have them did not see any improvement in 2019.
Just six cities have AQPs
Out of the 13 cities and municipalities that should have an AQP, seven do not, according to Ministry of Environmental Protection data. Belgrade, Novi Sad, Pančevo, Bor, Smederevo and Užice have adopted this plan, while Subotica, Niš, Sremska Mitrovica, Valjevo, Kraljevo, Kragujevac and Kikinda have informed the Ministry that they are in the process of making said plan.
All except Kikinda have in previous years been marked as cities and towns with excessively polluted air, meaning that they are legally obliged to put together an AQP.
Also obliged to do so is the Municipality of Kosjerić, which first ended up in category threein 2011. After improvements in 2013 and 2014 came years where there were insufficient data on air quality, and then, in 2018, Kosjerić returned to the worst, “purple zone,” where it remained in 2019. The municipality has not yet said whether it is in the process of making an AQP.
Zaječar, Požarevac and Beočin are not yet obliged to make an AQP, as they debuted on the most polluted list in 2019, in the SEPA annual air quality report.
Vesna Mitrović, head of the Department for Air and Ozone Layer Protection at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told CINS that even though local self-governments are legally obliged to create air quality plans, there is no clearly defined deadline by which they have to do it. In her words, conscience and the need for every local self-government unit to have the best possible quality of air are counted on.
“However, practice has shown that not everyone has the same awareness related to the quality of air, and so there are some local self-governments that immediately undertook and enacted plans and are implementing them and those that haven’t done that yet, even though they were obliged to do so, or are at some initial stage,” adds Mitrović.
She mentions, as a negative example, the City of Smederevo, which according to her made a very good AQP, which was approved by the Ministry, but which waited for two years to be adopted by the local bodies. After two warnings from the Ministry, it was adopted in March 2020, even though excessive air pollution was registered in the city back in 2011.
Despite Plans, Cities Still Excessively Polluted
The City of Novi Sad adopted an AQP for 2017–2021, which includes short-term measures. However, although in the first two years Novi Sad’s citizens enjoyed a period of clean to moderately polluted air, in 2019 their city ended up back on the list of most polluted cities, according to SEPA data.
Representatives of the City Administration for Environmental Protection said in a statement to CINS that the factors which had led to higher than permitted PM10 values during the winter months were unfavorable weather, individual heating units and stubble burning. They also explained that all the measures envisaged by the AQP had been implemented or their implementation had been initiated, that they planned to carry out long-term measures continuously year in, year out, and that they would put together special short-term measures.
Denizens of Bor are in a similar situation. Despite having an AQP since 2013, only in the period 2016–2018 did they breathe clean or slightly polluted air, judging by the SEPA data. In 2019 they re-entered category three, as the concentration of sulfur dioxide in downtown Bor was “dangerous to human health” 13 times, which CINS has reported on. Previously, the RTB Bor copper mining and smelting complex was privatized by Chinese Zijin Bor Copper, which was handed down a first-instance verdict for pollution in July 2020.
The same thing happened in the same measuring spot six times in the first 15 days of September.
Faster measures needed besides an AQP
Besides an AQP, the cities and municipalities at risk of having pollution levels higher than one or more concentrations hazardous to human health are also obliged to enact a short-term action plan, so that they react quickly and reduce pollution.
A short-term action plan can be an integral part of an AQP or a separate document, and is made for the purpose of planning and implementing urgent measures which can quickly lead to improved air quality.
“If we have an emergency situation, in the sense of very high pollution, it is a measure that will be applicable at that moment. It cannot be implemented in the long term and for that reason those short-term measures are focused, i.e. unfold in relation to the area of transportation, related to the area of industry and construction, i.e. building,” Vesna Mitrović explains.
Užice is the only city with a short-term action plan as a separate document, whereas Belgrade, Pančevo, Novi Sad and Smederevo have short-term measures included in their AQPs. Novi Bečej, Beočin, Kladovo, Kruševac, Bor, Kraljevo, Sombor and Kragujevac are currently in the process of making these plans.
Unlike Novi Sad, Bor has not yet adopted a short-term action plan that is to define concrete measures in cases of exceeded pollution limits. And while Ministry officials say they were not satisfied with the draft of the plan, which was why they sent numerous objections to the local authorities, the Bor administration did not answer CINS’ questions about why the quality of air in the town deteriorated in 2019 and what stage the making of the short-term action plan is in.
In 2019, air quality was in category three in other cities and towns with a long-term AQP as well.
Ognjan Pantić of the Belgrade Open School (BOS) warns that it is questionable whether the air in Bor and Novi Sad really was in category one in previous years. CINS reported earlier that certain cities and towns had been marked as unpolluted due to insufficient data from monitoring stations.
Pantić says that, if we looked at what the plans that have been made contain, a flaw could be found in each one because there are no detailed data on emissions, sources of pollution and concretized measures.
“In some of those plans, some measures are only listed without it being clear who is supposed to implement them, during what period of time and whether some funds have been earmarked for that,” Pantić adds.
Another problem, in his opinion, is that the plans are not carried out or they are abided by but do not produce results, because they do not target the sectors which are the primary sources of pollution.
Vesna Mitrović recalls that the law states that every local self-government should implement measures depending on its financial capacity because “every measure requires some financial backing.”
While Pantić says that the implementation of measures is not sufficiently monitored, Ministry officials say that every spring they ask local self-governments what they have done in the past year.
No Benefits from the Measures if the Budget Is Empty
Užice is the only city with both an AQP and a short-term action plan. According to the head of the city’s Department for Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development, Svetlana Drakul, for them making an AQP was not merely a legal obligation but a necessity, and they started implementing the measures even before the plan was officially adopted.
Užice has been monitoring air quality for 20 years now, but due to its geographic position it has been struggling with pollution for a long time, specifically with an excessive number of suspended PM10 particles.
When the level of pollution gets too high, measures from the short-term action plan are implemented, explains Drakul, even though it is “very difficult” to manage air pollution in the short term in Užice, unlike in cities and towns where the cause of pollution is industry:
“One cannot prohibit people from using heating, one cannot stop traffic.”
A specific measure that proved to be effective, in her words, was the city administration’s decision for all public boiler rooms which can use natural gas to do so, instead of the bad alternative – fuel oil – from November 15 to February 15. In addition to that, Užice is co-financing energy efficiency projects on individual houses, such as installation of thermal insulation and window and boiler replacement.
Nonetheless, she points out that there is no benefit from the measures unless the money for their implementation has been secured:
“A city may enact [an AQP], but if the budget is empty, then I don’t know what can be done.”
Also, some measures cannot be implemented by cities and towns independently. Užice’s long-term plan also includes the construction of a beltway. However, that is a matter of a state road and the city administration can only initiate such a measure.
The EU warns about the lack of plans
In its progress reports pertaining to Serbia, specifically in the portion related to the environment and climate change, the European Commission has been monitoring air quality for years. The Commission has on several occasions noted that only certain cities and towns with excessive air pollution have AQPs in place, and pointed out that the others should make them, too. In the last report for 2019, published in early October, the Commission says that even though Serbia’s laws are harmonized with the principles of the European Union, their implementation and the implementation of air quality plans should be expedited. The Commission also stresses as a priority the solving of pollution caused by the Thermal Power Plant Kostolac B, which CINS reported on earlier.
Ministry official Vesna Mitrović says that a local self-government cannot do everything on its own (such as shutting down the polluting facility in a particular factory, journalist’s note), but rather has to create a mechanism in which it will coordinate all the actors, such as inspectors and polluters, which will result in improvement. Only an inspector has the right to stop an action for a certain period of time, if there is no other way to reduce pollution:
“Is it reloading and loading, is it the boiler room, you first have to find out who is causing it and to stop that action until it is proven otherwise. An inspector issues a decision, the process of using a particular fuel is suspended, until it is proven that the limit value did not meet the regulation on limit values.”