The NCHZ chemical works in central Slovakia's Nováky is getting ready to make heavy investments into environmental clean-up as a result of toughening rules on air emissions.
photo: Courtesy NCHZ
"In the past the snow used to turn grey as soon as it hit the ground, but now it's brighter."
Nováky Mayor Dušan Šimka on the change that has hit Nováky since a clean-up began.
It's a contrast between environmental health and sickness that pleases neither local inhabitants nor the European Union, whose strict guidelines on air emissions standards are set to strike Nováky polluters in 2006.
The main sources of the stench are the Nováky power plant, owned by state electricity utility Slovenské elektrárne, and private chemical company Novácke chemické závody (NCHZ). But while the latter has pledged to invest in cleaner technology to avoid being shut down under EU-enforced pollution rules, the former has been given an exemption by the Slovak government to continue belching fumes until 2006, when it will be replaced by a privately owned generating station.
The different fates of the town's two main polluters illustrates one of the most difficult choices the Slovak government faces on its way to EU entry - whether to safeguard jobs, or risk EU anger by failing to comply with emissions standards.
The Nováky electricity plant, which will be paying lower pollution fines.
The Nováky electric plant uses mostly Slovak brown coal - the country's only natural fossil fuel resource - to power its production. Coal mining gives jobs in the Nováky area to 6,607 miners, in a region which has long relied on its mineral riches for wealth.
The problem is that brown coal is far more polluting than black coal, as it contains more sulphur, forcing the government to choose between supporting such production or risk adding to Slovakia's 20% unemployment rate just over a year before September 2002 elections.
To a large extent, parliament took the decision out of the government's hands this past April by amending an air emissions law that would have seen fines for polluters like Nováky climb to 16 times 1998 levels by 2006.
Legislators decided to move the goalposts by giving an exemption to companies - like Nováky - which use more than 30% Slovak brown coal in producing their energy. Under the new guidelines, Nováky will pay a set 1,560 Slovak crowns ($30) per tonne of sulphur dioxide it emits until 2006, whether or not it exceeds emissions limits set by the state. Firms which don't use so much brown coal to produce their energy, such as refiner Slovnaft or sugar refiner Juhocukor, will see their fines rise to 32,000 crowns per tonne, over 20 times what Nováky will pay.
Critics say that the Nováky plant, which now produces 30.25% of the nation's sulphur dioxide emissions (see chart this page), now has no reason to reduce its current infractions of pollution limits. According to the district environment department in Prievidza, the Nováky plant already exceeds the state-set sulphur per cubic metre limit of 1,700 milligrams and sends 9,000 milligrams per cubic metre into the environment.
Ivan Mojík, the head of the air protection department at the Ministry of Environment, said the new exception would give the Nováky plant little to fear from air pollution fines, and little incentive to improve its record. "They would be crazy if they didn't continue to pollute because it costs them less to produce electricity in their old generator blocks and pay existing fines than they would earn in modernising the blocks and paying lower fees. Until the end of 2006 they will naturally use their old blocks as much as they can - all legally," Mojík said.
"Several studies that we carried out showed that massive investments into modernising the [old] blocks would outreach profits," confirmed SE spokesperson Alena Melichárková.
The state-owned Nováky facility has four generator blocks. SE has already invested three billion crowns into modernising two blocks, and plans to run the other two at full throttle until taking them off line in 2005, before EU guidelines that could result in a shut-down take effect.
The loss of employment that such a decision might have caused was recently solved when the Swiss firm Advanced Power announced it would invest 300 million euro into building a privately-owned electricity plant in the area. The new facility will use modern environmental technologies for brown coal processing, cleaning up Nováky town, and also saving coal mining jobs (see story this page).
The solution was welcomed by Nováky Mayor Dušan Šimka, who said that Nováky's clean-up to date has already produced results. "It's very important for us to have an electricity plant that will finally begin investing into the environment," he said. "In the past the snow used to turn grey as soon as it hit the ground, but now it's brighter."
Private owners to pay
Bosses at Nováky town's other major polluter, NCHZ, were less chuffed with stiffening pollution guidelines and parliamentary exemptions, but promised to make the best of them.
The NCHZ factory, which was built during a period of industrialisation 60 years ago, provides jobs for 2,200 people, but faces shutdown in 2005 if it doesn't meet stringent solid waste guidelines. NCHZ was Slovakia's eighth biggest solid waste polluter in 1999, but unlike SE, is unable to compensate for a possible closure by switching production to another facility - its Nováky site is the only one it owns.
NCHZ, which recently started to turn a profit, intends to increase its investment into environmental technology and to adhere to EU rules, bearing in mind the consequences that disobedience could bring.
"We realise that we have to make these investments before the end of 2006. We neglected them in the past, and they now affect our very existence. Whether it's waste water, dumping or air pollution, we want to be cleaner," said Ladislav Kľačanský, the head of the environment department at NCHZ.
The company's environmental investments will total between 80 and 100 million crowns this year. A 41% stake in NCHZ, owned by the FNM national privatisation agency, will soon be privatised (see story this page); the firm expects its new shareholders to support the increased environmental spending.
For town residents, it matters little whether a clean-up results from government arm-twisting among private firms, or EU sanctions against state-owned polluters. It's enough that the environment gets a break.
Said Jaroslav Antal, the head of the regional Association of Fishermen: "The amount of heavy metals in the air is increasing, and the rivers are extremely polluted. The electricity plant has put filters in its chimneys, and NCHZ is starting to invest too, but the natural environment has been devastated. The fish around here are all floating belly-up, and the forest next to the electricity plant reminds me of a moonscape.
"It may already be too late."