Displaced by coal (part two)
A journey to Western Macedonia where the region’s villages are being wiped off the map by coal mining.
In the village of Mavropigi, next to the South Pediou mine, PPC bulldozers demolish houses and public buildings. The former mayor, Tasos Emmanuel, shows us the ruins of the church and the graves in the cemetery that were excavated a few weeks ago. It was a particularly painful process for former residents who had to relocate their loved ones to Ptolemaida Cemetery when they received notification that if the construction of the mine didn’t progress, the country’s electric supply for the summer would be affected.
“All of our childhood memories are here in landscapes that no longer exist. This whole area where the mine is now, used to be the forest near the village where we grew up as kids. It’s where we used to celebrate May Day, it’s where we played football. This village has lived on for thousands of years, it’s been through wars and in the end, it collapsed on the altar of development,” says Tasos Emmanuel.
As the former mayor explains, not all residents have left the village. An elderly couple refuse to leave their home and chose to live without electricity and water, as does a family of farmers. “They are two brothers, livestock farmers, and live here with their mother who is ill. They take care of their flock and their mother without electricity or water. They’re at an age that if they worked for PPC they would have already retired, but now, if they don’t work with their livestock, they have no alternative. You see growth and development came − but not for everyone.”
Nikos prepares to take the animals out to graze. “I have over three hundred goats and this is my only job. They belonged to my father, who passed away in 2009. Then there were fewer job opportunities, we’d go to the PPC contractors in search of work, but the jobs were not stable and we kept the animals,” he tells Solomon.
With the compensation money he received for the village relocation, he bought a house in a neighboring village so that he could store milk from his herd of goats. His life and work, however, remain in Mavropigi. “My mother is old and doesn’t want to leave. If we move her to the other village she will only die sooner, she will die of loneliness. Here at least I can take a break from working, and go check in on her. If she’s in the other village I won’t be able to do that. It’s hard work, I’m on my feet all day.”
Nikos and the rest of the former residents of Mavropigi are being called to return much of the compensation they received from PPC to leave the village. “We got 75 million and now they want 47% back,” Tasos Emmanuel argues, noting that the company violated the court ruling that set the temporary unit price and achieved a significant reduction in the Supreme Court.
PPC argues that this is the process that’s always been followed, but Tasos Emmanuel speaks of the inconsistency of business and the state against the residents of a village that had 1,039 voters in the last elections. “We didn’t choose when to leave. We left our homes because they were under threat – due to a crack that was caused by mine activity. A company spokesman had come to the village at the time these problems had occurred, and twelve company executives were indicted after the prosecutor got involved. Then we were told that because the courts had not yet decided on the compensations, that they themselves have assessed 50% and the remainder that we’d receive will be determined by the courts as a temporary unit price. So the residents got their money, hurriedly left the village and then the company appealed to the court to determine the final unit price. It should be noted that the executives were acquitted because they had paid the money. And residents who took the money and used it to buy new houses under pressure are now at risk of losing their property once again.”
Tasos’ family had houses and shops in the center of the village: “This land was my grandmother’s, inherited from her father, who had worked in America in 1900, and with the money he earned, he bought the land from Jamal Bey, a Turk who lived here. And now they buy it for 25 euro. On the altar of development. What kind of development is it once PPC is gone and in a few years the city’s population will be forced to shrink because residents won’t have jobs? Is this development? The pretense? Can you see how it looks? Is this what we are?“
The former mayor and accountant by profession speaks of PPC’s dominant position in the region and of occupying every position of authority in local government and the central political scene. “They’re able do this because they promise people eight-month contracts,” he said, pointing out that this constitutes a conflict of interest and he had reported it to the European Environment Commissioner. “How does a local governor also become director of expropriations at PPC? What is his position − to defend the interests of the people who elected him or to try to reduce the areas of expropriations? How does a business executive who is in charge of environmental compliance have the dual capacity of being an elected district councilor in charge of the environmental planning department, which oversees environmental compliance? One hand washes the other!”
Another community that was evacuated urgently is Anargyri, a village 16 kilometers from Ptolemaida, next to the mine and the Amyntaiou Power Station. On June 10, 2017, Akis Pinopoulos left the village with his father’s truck full of clover from their farm. To reach his destination, he crossed the main road which passes by the Amyndaiou mine. When he returned, he was surprised to find that the road no longer existed. Earlier, the village president, Giorgos Tsimalidis, heard a deafening noise. “I looked down and saw the mine collapsing. I can’t describe how I felt. I’m a PPC employee, my job is there. On the one hand I could see the mountain and my workplace collapsing and on the other hand I look at my village, my home and think what will become of us?”
It was only by sheer luck that the landslide of 80 million cubic meters of soil did not claim any lives. The cliff that was created is only 300 meters away from the first houses in Anargyri. Today the cliff has been altered, with terraces added, but all the surrounding homes have been deemed unsafe and dangerous. The residents are temporarily staying in apartments in Ptolemaida that have been rented at the PPC’s expense, but the residents still pay property taxes on their ‘condemned’ homes in the village, while about twenty families remain in the village at their own risk. “It was good that they paid for their rent and those residents were able to leave the village. But there are twenty families still here, that cannot leave. Some of us have livestock here and are farmers. Even if half the village collapses, we can’t leave,” said Giorgos Pinopoulos.
“My home is in the red zone. I’m scared but where can I go? I have machinery, fields, sheep, Ptolemaida is 16 kilometers away, you have to drive back and forth all day long,” added Michalis Bitas.
Alexandra Amanatidou’s house is a few meters from the cliff. “In the winter I sit in Ptolemaida and am patient, waiting for summer so I can go to the village. There’s a huge crack in the house, it is unsafe, but what can I do? Should I leave paradise and only sit here in an apartment surrounded by four walls?” an elderly woman tells Solomon MAG. After the landslide, she also lost her husband. “With what happened, my husband died too. Stress and anxiety about how to get out, how to get to Ptolemaida. Do you know how much effort it took to build this house? We started out poor, we had no money, we did it through our own hard work, my husband was a carpenter. We also had 30 acres where the mine was built, we cultivated clovers, but they also expropriated those fields, they took them, and they didn’t even offer my son a job. He studied to be an electrician and is unemployed.”
Most buildings in Anargyri had cracks well before June 10, 2017 as the area was, at times, experiencing (smaller) tremors and soil shifting. Studies conducted by the PPC and the Ministry of the Environment showed that this was due to a multi-faceted and complex natural phenomenon that the company could not foresee.
A subsequent finding by the Ombudsman, however, points out that PPC had in its hands a 2010 study by the Institute of Geotechnical and Mining Research which concluded that in order not to enlarge the area already affected by the soil recession phenomena “no new drilling should be allowed, the existing drill areas should not be expanded.” As stated in the same document, the company did not send the findings of this study to the Ministry of the Environment and continued operating the mine without any precautionary measures and without approved environmental conditions.
At the village cafe, owner and former community president Vassilis Sotiropoulos explains the complex natural phenomenon in simple terms: “Our village is on a slope above a mine. What keeps it from collapsing? Soil and the underground water table. When you remove water, for mining purposes, what happens? Soil shifting, landslides. Some wanted to pass it off as a natural phenomenon but this is how mining works. Is it possible to dig 250 meters horizontally? Years ago they should have ‘lifted’ the village before expanding the mine.”
Giorgos Theodorides worked for 27 years at this mine. “It was full of cracks and no one cared if a piece broke off and I’d fall 25 meters,” he says to Solomon MAG. “For a whole year I kept telling them that things aren’t right. Where the landslide took place – every day they were filling it in with gravel to stabilize the ground and allow workers to pass. And here in the village, the streets were patched up to prevent cracks from appearing. They were lying to us – telling us PPC is not to blame, it’s a natural phenomenon. It is not a natural phenomenon; it is a landslide caused by PPC.”
As these risks have been established since 2007, Law 3937 of 2011 provided for the relocation of the village by splitting the relevant cost between the state and PPC. However, the 2017 law that imposed the forced expropriation of the village transferred the expense entirely to the Greek state. This means that residents are likely to receive less money as compensation from the 42 million euro currently in the Western Macedonia Region’s fund for this purpose.
“I moved into this house in 1991. It had a basement, a stable for the animals, storerooms, it’s been a generation – for 50 years a family has been living here comfortably. Who will compensate us for this? Our fields are gone and our money is too,” says Michalis Bitas.
The Amyntaiou mine is currently not fully functioning. According to a former worker there, Giorgos Theodorides, production has been limited to a few thousand cubic meters of lignite per day, compared to the millions it once produced.
An adjacent Amyntaiou mine, (one of Europe’s highest pollution-emitting mines), has received an atypical life span of 14,500 hours of total use, and functions mainly during the winter months for purposes of heating, while environmental organizations Green Tank and ClientEarth have appealed to the Council of State calling for the immediate halting of its operation. For Anargyri residents, however, whose primary job provider has been PPC for many years, limiting the company’s activities is a double-edged sword.
“There is nothing worse than working in a mine. Visibility is at 10 meters because of the dust. Few people come out of the mine healthy. I’ve done two heart surgeries, I have hypertension due to stress and I am 56 years old,” Giorgios Theodoridis describes and adds, “This is where the so-called ‘small’ mine was. Coal burned and the whole village was breathing it all in. Young people – 16, 20, 30 years old – have died from this thing.”
When asked what the young people in the area do today, Giorgos tells about his own family. “I have four kids, three of them electricians, nobody works anywhere. My daughter managed to get three eight-month contracts, as an operator on one of the big machines. It’s been six years since anyone’s been in there. They have ruined us and our children have no jobs, they work at cafés or taverns to make a day’s wage. You see, the area relied solely on PPC. And in turn, the stores and shops in the area were patronized by people earning PPC salaries. Do you know of any farmers who are able to spend any money? The only people who had money to spend were the PPC workers.”
Today, the inhabitants are turning to farming again, but the expropriation of 17,000 acres of land for the needs of the mine and the impact of the mining activity itself on the remaining land has created difficulties.
Giorgos Pinopoulos introduced himself as one of the “clean” farmers of the village: “The financial crisis made us all search for something new. There was not a single tree in the plains here. Now people have planted peach trees, another farmer planted blueberries, another guy produces honey and sells it abroad, my son has planted walnut trees. And even if you get a job at PPC, the money is no longer enough. My son works for 1,000 euro, while in the past they earned 2,500. If this mine hadn’t opened, our village would have lived off the land. I was making good money off the land from 1979 until 1988. From then on, no more water, the land and the fields were gone. At seven meters we used to find water and now they’re drilling 250 meters to find it.”
The community president, who works at the water drainage mine, explains to Solomon MAG that the water is pumped out of the mine, using pumps that are installed on the periphery. The water is pumped into a central canal which leads to Lake Petron and from there to Lake Vergoritida. “After PPC drills to drain the water in the mine so as to be able to extract the coal, why doesn’t it give us the water for our fields?” Giorgos wonders. “Is it because it’s costly? Now we’re the ones who are bearing the cost.”
Moses, an employee of PPC for over 30 years, still works on the fields he inherited from his father. “Since 1973 my father and his brother had a livestock farm with 250 cows and 2,000 acres of land. In 1993, things weren’t going well for him. Luckily, he was hired by PPC and he got a pension too. My main job is at the mine. I go back and forth to Ptolemaida. Otherwise I can’t make ends meet.”
Moses has three children, a 17-year old son who studies music – he calls him an “artist” – a daughter who wants to study law, and another daughter who, as he says, doesn’t like school so much. “I tell them to do what they love and I’m here for them. I don’t know what will happen now that PPC is downsizing. Ptolemaida and Kozani still have money because people there are getting good pensions. But kids are being sent to university and only finding jobs as waiters. Ten years ago when I was working at the Ptolemaida mine, I remember we went on strike against receiving natural gas. It was a big mistake for the area. But only now people realize it. Back then we said if natural gas comes, what will happen to the mines? Now we realize that was wrong.”
The exploitation of coal in Western Macedonia ensured Greece’s energy independence, which was critical in the post-war era and contributed significantly to the development of the local and national economy.
At the same time, however, the dependence on this fossil fuel has deprived the region of the development of other productive sectors and reshaped the political, social and economic fabric of the region around the once powerful PPC.
The drilling and burning of coal at the power plants has devastating consequences for people and the environment, which have never been included in any feasibility study. If, for example, the cost could have somehow been calculated beforehand – the cost of destroying the aquifer or how the residents’ health issues would affect the public health system – then perhaps we could talk ‘in figures’ about the cost of lignite kilowatt-hours being unprofitable long before the carbon dioxide emission tax was imposed by the tightening of European legislation.
“With current electricity generation and these levels of carbon dioxide emissions tax, PPC is no longer in favor of coal production,” company executives told Solomon MAG, adding that if it is kept for national needs, the state should support it and not burden it. “But beyond national needs there are also the needs of the areas where PPC operates,” they added, “If PPC disappears from Western Macedonia tomorrow, there is no commercial activity that can make up for the lost jobs and income. A whole region will be plunged into poverty and unemployment. In our view there is no greater contamination of the environment than by that of poverty and unemployment.”
“Coal production is one step closer to its final end,” said Stavros Mavrogenis, WWF Greece’s Climate and Energy Policy Officer. “The resulting dilemma is whether the transition to the post-lignite era will be violent or fair for the workers and the local community of Western Macedonia. A region that has been sacrificed in recent decades on the country’s altar of electricity and has every right to strive to avoid economic hardship and social stagnation.” Stavros Mavrogenis underlined two studies carried out by WWF which suggest that there are 12 viable alternative economic activities that can help lead ‘coal villages’ into the post-lignite era, while opening up a whole new energy path for the entire country.
Lefteris Ioannidis, when he took over as mayor of Kozani in 2015, assembled an informal group of associates from scientists and other stakeholders in the area who dealt with the issue of equitable transition. At the end of his term, he makes an account: “We have begun contacts with the European Union to see what is happening there, as the issue of transition is not Greek but European. So today we have a statutory National Transition Fund which is estimated at 30 million euro annually for the region of Western Macedonia and Megalopolis. It must, of course, grow and expand by 2030, while a fair transition should be one of the pillars of the new NSRF (Corporate Pact for Development Framework). In any case, further steps have been taken. Western Macedonia is a pilot region on the Coal Platform’s initiative to have a contract with the World Bank, which is drawing up a plan for the future. And I find it very important that we raised the issue of transition to a national issue. The coal was mined and burned to support the country’s development over the last 50 years. So transition is a national issue and therefore it is dealt with in many parts of Europe.”
Mr. Ioannidis points out that in similar cases in Europe, the respective PPCs had control and responsibility for the restoration of the region and played a key role in consulting local communities about what the future would hold. “Here we do not know what the future of PPC will be. And I am convinced that if the new government has to save PPC, it must also save the region, these things must go together,” he says.
For their part, PPC executives in Western Macedonia interviewed by Solomon MAG expressed the company’s intention to support the area as much as possible. “We have the land and knowhow so the previous administration took initiatives on herbs and therapeutic plants which is the best investment to make at this time. PPC is willing to show people that this alternative exists, the problem is that few are interested in pursuing it. PPC has been involved in the coal platform for a long time, supporting the fair transition to the post-lignite era.”
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