The gaze of the people of Gacko has always been focused on the chimney of the thermal power plant. In the past, it was with hope, to make sure that it was operational, but today it is with apprehension. This is because the operation of the thermal power plant has been associated with tons of ash that it spews into the atmosphere for years. There is no accountability, and the fact that they were required to install bag filters by their environmental permit four years ago is not even mentioned. The management says that the most important thing is that it operates, and they ask the residents to be patient – for another two years.
Every person has the right to a healthy environment according to Article 3 of the Environmental Protection Law of Republika Srpska. In reality, this provision does not apply to the residents of Gacko. In their case, every person has to endure the ash just so the thermal power plant can operate. The fact that the residents of the municipality of Gacko are hostages is evidenced by the fact that the thermal power plant operates despite not complying with its environmental permit, which should be the first sign for the inspection to react.
However, that reaction has been absent for years.
Dragan Ostić, an assistant on the “Energy and Climate Change” project at the Center for the Environment in Banja Luka, explains what this says about the state we live in.
“For years, we have witnessed the decline of RiTE Gacko. The citizens have become accustomed to pleas for patience. They know that the promise of installing filters is a mere lie because they see with their own eyes the desperate state the company is in. The main culprit for the decline of RiTE is the way it operates, which is unprofessional, immoral, and unconcerned about anything outside its gates. The ash that covers the snow on the hills and mountains creates a post-apocalyptic scene”, believes Ostić.
He emphasizes that such things must be punished, as well as all other offences and crimes.
“When we exceed the allowed speed limit on the roads, we pay our fines promptly because we have endangered traffic safety. This fine serves as a warning and a lesson to act responsibly in the future. The problem with inspections and penalties related to environmental damage is that these penalties are nowhere near proportional to the damage caused by the perpetrator to the environment. We must never forget that our health depends largely on the quality of the environment. When the environment is threatened, our health is the first to suffer”, commented Ostić for “Direkt”.
It turns living nature into dead nature
The penalty for operating a plant without or contrary to the provisions of an environmental permit is, according to the Law on Environmental Protection, between one and ten thousand marks, which is a small sum for a company that, given the current price of electricity, generates revenue of several hundred million marks.
However, article 120 of the same law states that “if the damage caused to the environment cannot be remedied by appropriate measures, the person who caused the damage is responsible for compensation equal to the value of the destroyed property.”
As we have learned, the inspector has imposed a fine of 5,000 marks several times and formally justified its existence, which meant nothing for nature and the environment, for whose protection he is responsible and paid from the budget. Living nature continues to turn into dead nature. The view of the mine from the air is most reminiscent of an apocalyptic scene. A huge wound on the ground that is expanding. There has been practically no recultivation for the last seven years, and the soil that was supposed to cover the pit was not separated because it was easier and without additional cost to discard it with the tailings. It is difficult to estimate the damage to the environment and how much it costs. If we take into account that the lowest price of a cubic meter of earth on the market is five marks, we can freely talk about millions that have been thrown away with the tailings.
The environmental permit that RiTE possesses expires in June of this year. As for the situation on the ground, it could easily not exist. No one pays attention to the fact that in 2019, RiTE Gacko pledged to install bag filters during the capital overhaul and implement a measure related to reducing the emission of solid particles.
“Anyway, the most important thing is that it works, right?” says a local resident whose livelihood depends on the operation of this plant, unsure of himself. With a modest pension and a son burdened with debt and “assisted” by important people to work at the power plant, life in the ashes doesn’t seem like such a high price for his regular salary. And that is the prevailing attitude. That is why residents, especially employees, are complicit. If it stops, they are aware that the municipality’s budget, which currently amounts to 12 million, would be halved.
So they calmly accept the explanation that the management parrots that the “dusty” way of working is due to the exploitation of coal from the “peripheral zone,” or coal that is at a shallow depth and therefore contains a lot of impurities. They do not mention that the plan was to use that coal as a supplement if there was not enough coal from greater depths, nor do they say whether this giant would be in a much better position if the management made decisions based on expertise rather than party or personal considerations.
It is difficult to prove the extent of ignorance, unfavourable circumstances, and whether there is intent. But to an observer, it seems that everything has been to the detriment of the company and the environment. And as if the ash is not enough, a large amount of fuel oil was recently released into the river. The consumption of this fuel has skyrocketed because the coal that is used often cannot burn well and has insufficient calorific value. That is why it is “sprinkled” with fuel oil. This, of course, increases the cost of electricity production, but its price on the market is such that any expense is acceptable.
2,400 tons of coal for Serbia daily
That’s why it’s strange that, despite all the problems with coal, the management of RiTE has decided to sell the raw material. For months, trucks from multiple transport companies have been transporting coal from the shallow zone to Serbia. We still don’t have any official information, as the current acting director, Maksim Skoko, told us in an informal conversation that he had forwarded the inquiry to the relevant departments and that we would have all the information important to the public. However, we have been waiting for answers since February 28th. We asked who the contract was signed with, how many thousand tons were agreed upon, who the buyer is, and what the company’s calculation is.
What the residents of Gacko can see are dozens of trucks carrying coal along the already devastated road sections every day. Unofficially, we have learned that 60 trucks with 20 tons of coal each are sent from Gacko to Serbia daily. They claim that soon there will be 100 trucks. To an outsider, it all looks like a perfect example of looting the deposits.
Member of Parliament Nebojsa Vukanovic raised this issue at a parliamentary session. The authorities have not responded to him or the public as to why it is allowed to transport such a heavy load on roads that are possibly in the worst condition in the region, or whether it is true that some managers are benefiting from this arrangement. Vukanovic told “Direkt” that RiTE Gacko is treated as a source of funding for the ruling structure in RS.
“By now, hundreds of millions of marks have been withdrawn from it. No environmental standards are respected, nor is there any social responsibility. Nothing matters except to secure money from it. Those who run it are aware of pollution, but that is not important to them.”
According to Vukanovic, the lack of any reaction in Gacko is a consequence of the realization that there is a state of complete anarchy in society.
“In such a situation, people only look at what they can personally gain, to achieve some personal interest. They know that the pollution is enormous and are concerned, but there is no force that would encourage them to revolt”, says Vukanovic.
However, what citizens see with their own eyes is not reflected in the data. Pollution levels are mostly below the upper limits, and the measurement data published on the RiTE Gacko website indicate only sporadic exceedances. In February, three cases were recorded, and in January only one, and that was only in terms of the concentration of PM 10 particles. There were no exceedances of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide concentrations.
“The paper can put up with anything”, says MP Nebojša Vukanović, adding that this is one of the reasons why people do not trust institutions or official data.
“These data are like the RS parameters that claim we are the strongest, the best, the leaders in the region“, comments Vukanović.
We do not know what the Ministry of Spatial Planning, Construction and Ecology thinks about all this. They have not yet commented on this issue. We have been informed that the questions have been forwarded to the department that deals with environmental issues, but we have not received a response before the publication of the article.
If you ask the residents of the municipality of Gacko, there is no institution they would say is on their side or defending their public interests. Even the chief, who is a doctor by profession, turns a blind eye to this problem, as do councillors, both in power and opposition, inspectors, police officers, doctors, and ultimately all citizens. They remain silent and wait for it to pass.
There has been an increase in the number of people with respiratory illnesses, but no one can say with certainty that it is due to pollution. However, they recommend wearing masks in Gacko.