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Polluting the little water we have March 21, 2008

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Scientists say the uneven distribution of supply and the dumping of toxins are problems, not sufficiency

Half the country’s population and half its industries are concentrated in and around Athens and Thessaloniki but problems of water quality and quantity are by no means restricted to those areas.

Many other parts of the country are faced with drought and pollution and the story is much the same everywhere, nitrates from fertilizers used in farming, urban waste water channeled into cesspits, wells, rivers and lakes, the salination of underground water reserves in coastal areas and a fall in the level of the water table from over-drilling. The national water management and protection plan recently drafted by the National Technical University of Athens, Water Resources Department for the Environment and Public Works Ministry drew attention, among other things, to the lack of sufficient water measurements, both qualitative and quantitative, so the data available to experts is sparse and fragmented.

Yet the scientists who drafted the plan are fairly optimistic, not to say over-optimistic. They claim that Greece does not have a problem of water sufficiency, but of distribution.

In other words, northern and western areas of Greece have a surplus, eastern and southern areas a shortage. Most industries in Attica illegally dispose of their wastewater into the drainage network, the Kifissos River and other water courses. The Ano Liosia landfill site is also a source of water pollution, as is the disposal of urban wastewater in cesspits. Any agriculture still existing in the region also affects the ground water. Generally the deterioration of ground water means that it cannot be used to supply homes, and potential reserves are not enough even to meet irrigation needs.

In northern Greece, there are the same problems of nitrate pollution and excessive reliance on lake water. Western and Central Macedonia are believed to have sufficient supplies of water; any pollution is attributed to urban wastewater, farming and livestock breeding. Eastern Macedonia is considered to have abundant supplies of water; pollution is from nitrates used in farming.

In Thrace, there is a marginal sufficiency that depends to a great extent on Bulgaria, which manages the waters of the Nestos and Evros rivers. The eastern Peloponnese does not have sufficient water and the problem is getting worse. Eastern central Greece is facing similar problems, particularly in the summer. Western central Greece and Epirus have the most water in the country, and Crete too is still self-sufficient.

Anti-Pollution Exercise November 9, 2007

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Authorities react to mock fuel leak

Coast guard vessels and aircraft yesterday successfully conducted an exercise simulating the response to a possible fuel leak off the Bay of Elefsina under the supervision of the European Marine Safety Agency.

The exercise was undertaken as part of a bid to protect the Greek seas and coastline ahead of the construction of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline. “We want to be completely ready when the pipeline starts operating,” said Merchant Marine Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis. He said the exercise was an to “test our reflexes and improve our operational ability.”

Ministry fines river polluters November 8, 2007

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The Environment Ministry has fined 20 factories a total of 1.4 million euros for polluting the Asopos River, central Greece, after checks conducted by state inspection teams.

The industrial plants were found to be dumping untreated toxic waste in the heavily polluted river via drainage systems that have not been approved by local authorities.

Environment Minister Giorgos Souflias said yesterday that up to August this year, fines of 530,000 euros had been imposed on those found guilty of violating environmental laws. “After the completion of this procedure, total fines reaching 1.4 million euros have been imposed on 20 companies and the case files have been forwarded to the prosecutor for criminal proceedings,” added the Minister.

The Ministry stepped up checks of the Asopos after recent evidence that drinking water drawn from the river is heavily contaminated. Data from the General Chemical State Laboratory have shown higher-than-expected levels of carcinogenic depleted chromium in water samples taken from the river, a stretch of which is adjoined by one of the country’s largest industrial zones.

The Minister added that companies which refuse to pay the fines will be temporarily or permanently shut down. Ministry officials added that offenders have the right to appeal the decisions and may try to have the fines reduced. In a bid to avoid this in future, the Ministry plans to increase its powers to impose penalties through a legislative amendment. Yesterday’s decison to call in a prosecutor to investigate offenders also paves the way for locals to seek compensation from the factories responsible for pollution, sources added.

Penalties for polluting firms hiked October 19, 2007

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Maximum up to 2 million euros > Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias yesterday decided to quadruple the maximum fine imposed on firms found to be harming the environment, from 500,000 to 2 million euros.

Souflias announced the move following complications with a fine imposed on a quarrying firm allegedly operating illegally in Markopoulo, east of Athens. The court questioned the Minister’s right to impose a 1-million-euro fine on the quarry firm when the limit was 500,000 euros.

“We did what we had to in Markopoulo… now it is up to the Development Ministry and local prefectural authorities to close down the quarries,” Souflias said. The Minister also announced inspections of heavily polluted Lake Koroneia in northern Greece, as well as on the island of Milos where mining companies are allegedly operating illegally.

Of 25 firms near Lake Koroneia inspected over the last month, all were found guilty of environmental violations, Souflias said. Also, most of some 2,500 water bores in the region are believed to lack licenses while many Municipalities do not have an adequate waste disposal system. Inspections will be stringent and violators will face steep fines, Souflias said, adding that the number of state inspectors would be increased from 19 to 45.

The Minister stressed that central government had done its bit, saying the onus was now on local authorities. “It is not the job of the environmental inspectors and the Ministry to monitor everything,” he said. Responding to recent comments by Thessaloniki Prefect Panayiotis Psomiadis about alleged lack of funding, Souflias said he had recently approved 42 million euros for Psomiadis’s prefecture. “They can’t just wait for state cash, they need to take all the action they are entitled to by law,” Souflias added.

On Milos, where mining firms are being probed for alleged illegal activities, inspections have led to the imposition of 390,000 euros in fines. Questioned by reporters, Souflias did not rule out the possibility of inspections at a landfill in Fyli, western Athens, following a European Commission warning.

Dirty coasts turnoff for Greeks October 16, 2007

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Industrial and household waste marring beaches of main cities, threatening crucial tourism revenue > A sign reading ‘Garbage dump’ was seen on the coast in Kalohori, near Thessaloniki, last month. Pollution, especially from industry, is marring much of Greece’s coastline, in some cases irreparably, experts say.

Greece is struggling to contain coastal pollution which threatens its renowned azure waters and golden coastlines, the main sources of its booming tourism industry.

“A few years ago, I swam here every day but the past two summers it is just too dirty, so I just play on the beach,” said 37-year-old Stavros Georgiadis, who plays racquetball on the beach of Alimos along the capital’s coast almost daily. “I don’t know if it is actually dirtier but it just looks filthier, more stuff floating on the water, I’m not going to swim in there.”

Most coastal cities, including the capital Athens, the northern port city of Thessaloniki and Patras in southwestern Greece, are said by the United Nations and the European Environment Agency to be major pollutants due to partly untreated industrial and household wastewater.

“Some areas in the bays of Athens and Thessaloniki are complete dead zones. For some, there is no chance of ever recovering,” Greenpeace Greece Director Nikos Haralambidis told Reuters.

In a joint report issued last year, the UN Environment Program and the European Environment Agency said the bay of Elefsina near Athens with about 1,000 industrial plants, including shipyards, iron and steel works and refineries, was polluted by heavy metals, among other things.

“On a scale of one to 10, I would rate their water quality somewhere in the middle,” the United Nations’ Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) coordinator Paul Mifsud told Reuters. He said while other areas of Greece may get a better rating, such as some of the islands or areas with lower population or industry accumulation, the cities’ waters are suffering from poorly treated urban and industrial wastewater.

The nearby Saronic Gulf washing the capital’s southern coastline is similarly polluted with industrial and primary treated wastewater from the city’s sewers. Many beaches have been declared off-limits for swimmers, including some along the Faliron coast some 5 kilometers from the city center.

Once known for a multitude of pristine beaches along its coast, Athens has seen many of them declared unfit for swimming as the city’s population and industrial activity grows in line with the country’s economic development in recent decades. Athens beaches are frequented mainly by local people: Tourists visit only briefly during stopovers in the capital on their way to the Aegean Islands.

Athens’s only sewage treatment plant has yet to operate fully despite repeated government pledges. It is currently not processing sewage through the full cycle, but drying and storing it until the facility is fully operational. The Environment Ministry did not return calls for comment on when the plant will be fully operating, removing chemicals and heavy metals from the processed sewage.

Greece is also staunchly backing its powerful shipping industry’s opposition to an EU directive against polluting ships. This position will grow in importance with the completion in 2009 of a Russian-Bulgarian-Greek oil pipeline that will run from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas to northeastern Greece. Larger oil tankers will criss-cross the Aegean than those that can currently sail through the narrow and congested Bosporus Strait, heightening the risk of oil spills and potential environmental disasters.

The government is beginning to encourage the construction of tens of thousands of holiday homes across the country, to tap into the foreign homeowners’ market that has served countries like Spain and Portugal well over the past years. Environmental groups warn these homes will put a further strain on the country’s water pollution and its coastline. With a third consecutive year of tourism growth since the Athens 2004 Olympics, Greece will host about 17 million foreigners this year. Tourism accounts for about 18 percent of Greece’s GDP and roughly one in five jobs.

With 40 percent of the Mediterranean’s 46,000-kilometer coastline already covered in concrete, action is necessary to manage the coastal zone, Mifsud said. Greece’s coastal holiday homes projects would need to be monitored closely, Mifsud said. “If this issue is not addressed, then that (40 percent) number will be more than 50 percent in 20 years,” Mifsud said. “Definitely there are solutions to these problems but it is a question of priority,” he said. “I would say I am hopeful and the signs are there that Greece wants to address environmental issues more actively.”

PPC plans to replace polluting energy plant October 10, 2007

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The Public Power Corporation (PPC) announced it will replace its heavily polluting power plant in Ptolemaida with a new “clean” unit with a capacity of 400 megawatts in the next few years.

At its meeting with local bodies, the utility’s administration also pledged to relocate the nearby villages of Pontokomi and Mavropigi, in the prefecture of Kozani, and to draft a strategic investment plan for the improvement of the environment by taking measures for the polluting mines.

Representatives of local authorities expressed their concern for the possibility of deindustrialization and rise of unemployment in the area if the recently published study by the company Booz Allen Hamilton is followed, concerning the reduction of lignite use for the production of electricity and the abandonment of certain plants.

The PPC President and CEO, Panayiotis Athanassopoulos, told the meeting that “PPC has to remain the flagship of energy,” adding that “the existence of a national energy entity is essential for the country.” He also argued that the company should have starting making major investments from 1990.

Some of the local representatives questioning Athanassopoulos said later he had not given them a clear answer as to which plants would close down according to PPC plans. However, it became obvious from the meeting and the statements by Athanassopoulos that PPC is planning by 2010-2011 to gradually close the plants at Ptolemaida that are part of the oldest and most polluting production unit in the area.

This summer, measurements found that the plant’s emissions were four to six times above permissible levels, while PPC believes the plant is near the end of its working life. When Athanassopoulos was asked about the fine imposed on PPC by the Environment Ministry for the plant, he offered his “great apologies for the pollution.”

The meeting further heard that the proportion of lignite used for energy production will decline from 62 percent today to 51 percent by 2016, although this is not related to the reserves in the Kozani-Ptolemaida basin, which could last until 2042. It was also decided to use local know-how and manpower for the creation of a natural gas unit by PPC in the future.