Sunday, February 8, 2009

Pollution preferable to unemployment for Romanian town

COPSA MICA, Romania (AFP) — For the residents of Copsa Mica, a tiny town in central Romania, the closure of its local smelting plant is a worse catastrophe than having a reputation as the most polluted place in Europe.

"I know the plant was a threat to our health, but at least people had a job," said Diana Roman, a 22-year-old woman who sells potatoes and carrots on the market square of Copsa Mica, which has a population of 5,500 and is situated 250 kilometres (155 miles) northwest of Bucharest.

Roman's husband is one of the 820 workers being laid off -- out of a total workforce of 1,050 -- at the Sometra smelting plant, Copsa Mica's biggest employer.

At the end of January, its Greek owners, Mytilineos Holdings, announced a temporary suspension of production plus a drastic reduction of the workforce in face of "extremely adverse" conditions on the international metals market.

While Mytilineos suggested that Sometra might reopen if the situation improved, local authorities believe the plant will remain closed for good.

For Copsa Mica's mayor, Tudor Mihalache, the news came like a thunderbolt: the closure will deprive the town's coffers of a vital 60,000 dollars (47,000 euros) annually in taxes and donations.

"The smelter used to pay for running water, public lighting, emergency care and Christmas gifts for children, plus a re-forestation programme," he said.

"But it seems this chapter is over now and people will have to look for jobs elsewhere."

Mihalache acknowledged the heavy pollution caused by Sometra, making the air "unbreathable", despite investments to curb the emissions of sulphur dioxide and heavy metals such as lead, zinc and cadmium.

Indeed, for decades, Sometra and carbon-black producer Carbosin, which was shut down in 1992, had been belching out heavy metals and soot, earning Copsa Mica a reputation as Europe's most polluted town.

But Copsa Mica has cleaned up its act in recent years, thanks to the closure of Carbosin and investment in emission-reducing technology.

Mytilineos says it has invested 30 million euros in boosting production and curbing pollution, including the construction of the 325-metre (1,000-foot) smokestack.

Nevertheless, the smell of sulphur dioxide is unmistakable in the area around the plant.

Even a local non-governmental organisation, Dianthus, which had previously called for the plant's closure, said it was now more concerned about unemployment.

"From an environmental point of view it's a good thing, but socially it will create a lot of problems," said coordinator Feri Tedlas.

Those being made redundant will receive a lump sum of six months' pay or around 1,400 dollars in all.

"But what will we do when that money is gone?" asks Maricel Getner, a 47-year-old father of five.

When Carbosin was shut down, some of its 1,500-strong workforce were taken on at Sometra. Others returned to their native towns and villages, and many took advantage of early retirement schemes.

But if Sometra shuts down for good, there will be no other industry left in Copsa Mica.

"Pollutant or not, the smelter has kept us and our families alive," said one worker in his thirties.

Ioan Pipig, 72, says he is one of the lucky few pensioners to reach such a ripe old age after retiring from the plant.

"Most people die within four or five years. The lead they had been inhaling kills them," he said.

There also appears to be a connection between the heavy pollution and an increased number of children with handicaps in Copsa Mica.

Adriana Morariu, an expert with the local environment protection agency (APM), said: "Sulphur dioxide mainly affects the lungs. But heavy metal inhalation is the most dangerous because it can cause severe diseases. In children it causes rickets and delays growth."

Morariu said that conditions in Copsa Mica had improved. And air pollution has even become "insignificant" after the shutdown of most operations last week.

Nevertheless, "soil pollution will linger for about 40 or 50 years," she told AFP.

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