Smoke and dust choke the air around some of Europe’s dirtiest power plants, contributing to thousands of annual deaths.

“Some mornings I can’t inhale because of the strong smell. Sometimes it seems that everything around us is full of dust – dust we know comes from digging in the coal mine!”

This is how a young man from Novaci, a village in the southern part of North Macedonia, describes life next door to MEC Bitola, the combined lignite mine and power station that produces up to 80 percent of the electricity used in the country. Here, electricity is produced in the cheapest, but at the same time dirtiest way, by burning lignite – the lowest quality coal.

Time-lapse video of MEC Bitola and the coal mine.

According to a report by the Brussels-based environmental organization HEAL, MEC Bitola is among the biggest polluters in Europe, pouring out more than 31,000 metric tons of SO2 (sulfur dioxide) per year and 2,491 tons of coarse particles, designated PM10, which can lodge deep in the lungs. Emitting up to seven tons of PM10 particles daily, the plant is one of the 10 most polluting power stations in Europe, HEAL says.

On paper, electricity is relatively cheap in this country. The production of such cheap power comes at a high price, however – one calculated in the number of lives lost and number of people made sick.

Thick fog drapes the landscape around Novaci and the Bitola power plant.

The houses of the 1,200 inhabitants of Novaci, 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from Bitola, are low, making the tallest objects around easily visible – the chimneys of MEC Bitola. On the day of our visit, they were working at full steam.

We tried to talk to the inhabitants about the pollution and what life is like with a coal mine and a power station on their doorstep. People look away as soon as they learn that we are reporters. Pollution is obviously a sore subject they avoid.

We explain that the camera is not turned on, but they wave us away or bow their heads, letting us know that they do not want to talk about this in public.

“None of the locals will talk to you about MEC Bitola or the pollution. Half of the municipality of Novaci, even in Bitola, live off the combine. You do not bite the hand that feeds you,” one of the locals explains, reminding us not to reveal his identity.

The people here can remember the fog and dust going back to their childhoods, and the source of this pollution is not a secret to them. However, they say that in the past there were many more trees that shielded them from the dust coming from the opencast mine. On the day we filmed there, dust flew on gusts of wind. After an hour in Novaci, the taste of dust filled our mouths.

“A lot of the time, the air is just full of smoke and dust. Most of the time the dust is fine, and you can see it on the shelves. You clean them one day, and the next day everything is the same – dust builds up on the furniture again,” says a young resident of Novaci.

At the end of the village stands the abandoned building of the old clinic. There are no people or houses around. The scene is like something out of a movie – the smoke from the power plant chimneys, the deserted building, and the silence might evoke the TV series Chernobyl. The silence is broken only by the occasional truck leaving the premises of the plant. We drive around the mine to the end of the road, and then we continue on foot to see for ourselves that the coal mining is going full blast. Although the excavators are far away, their huge size makes them easily visible, except when the wind blows and the view is clouded by the high-rising dust.

Acid and Heavy Metal

A short drive from Novaci, in Bitola, we meet with the activist Dragan Veljanov from the air-quality watchdog group Zemi Zdiv (“Take a Breath”). He is a vocal advocate for a healthier environment, and for him MEC Bitola stands in the way of that goal.

About 240 residents of Bitola, a city of 75,000, die every year from cancer, he says, yet nothing is done to change the situation.

The mine and power plant complex produces pollution in two ways, Veljanov says: direct emissions from the plant, and from its landfill. The Environment Ministry issues reports on the levels of such toxic compounds as nitric oxide, cadmium, and mercury, but, he says, it does not make measurements in the Bitola region.

According to a local cancer-patient support association,Jasmin, cancer rates in the Bitola region vary, and it is unclear if MEC Bitola is the main contributor to air pollution. Lung cancer and sarcoma are rising, but there are fewer cases of breast and cervical cancer, thanks in part to successful treatments. However, more young people and children are being diagnosed with cancers, the association cautions.

Filters to Be Installed

In March last year, the North Macedonian government announced a tender for the procurement and installation of new electrostatic filters at MEC Bitola. The investment is estimated at 20.4 million euros ($24.2 million). Manufactured in 1979, the existing electrostatic filters were rebuilt and modernized after 1989.

“The modernization of the entire system will see dust exhaust reduced from the existing standard of 100 milligrams per normal cubic meter to under 20 milligrams, which is the European standard and will contribute to significantly greater protection of the environment,” says Dragan Minovski, the director of North Macedonia’s state-owned electricity utility, ELEM.

The plant director, Vasko Kovachevski, says upgrading the filters in the station’s three blocks is crucial for protecting the environment in Bitola and nearby areas.

“We believe that this thorough reconstruction of the electrostatic filter system, combined with proper treatment of the ash emitted in the production process, the spraying of fields [to remove ash dust], and quality excavation and transport of coal and everything else needed to meet environmental standards, will have a strong impact on a better environment and improved air quality,” Kovachevski says.

For the activist Veljanov, the biggest problem and sore point is the apparent lack of concern about heavy metals.

“It is somewhat illogical, in the presence of such a combine and with the production of electricity, not to measure heavy metals here in this area,” he says.

On the positive side, there are plans to install desulfurization equipment.

“This, however, is also a major, large-scale project that requires big investments,” Veljanov says.

“The installation of electrostatic filters will be done block by block and that will reduce emissions drastically, but there is another problem – the landfill,” he adds. The ash ends up there.

“There is a study showing that this ash is borderline radioactive, which is also a serious problem. This ash also spreads over the largest grain-growing region in Macedonia – Pelagonia – which provides food for all of us.”

The wall MEC Bitola plans to build around the landfill will not significantly reduce the hazards, he argues.

“The wall will extend only a meter above the landfill, and in an open space such as this it will absolutely not prevent any spread of the dust when the wind blows,” he says.

Kosovo’s High Price for Cheap Electricity

Monitoring particulates in the air has recently also become a habit of the citizens of Pristina, a city near some of the biggest polluters in Europe – thermal power stations Kosovo A and Kosovo B. Kosovo B alone emits about 6,300 tons of PM 10 particles per year, and the two power stations cause annual air pollution equal to the CO2 emissions of 4 million cars.

Drone video of Kosovo A and Kosovo B in Obilic.

“The two lignite power stations produce about 95 percent of Kosovo’s electricity, and they are quite old,” says Granit Gashi from the non-governmental organization Gaia Kosovo. “This is particularly true of Kosovo A, which was supposed to be decommissioned in 2013. It is interesting that although Kosovo B is newer and 80 million euros were invested to reduce the emission of harmful particles by up to 40 percent, so far it has been a bigger polluter than Kosovo A.”

Other pollution sources add to the city’s bad air, particularly during the winter.

“Pristina is like a pool of death considering the closeness of the two power stations, the booming construction industry, and the great number of cars,” Gashi says.

Besfort Kosova, a researcher at the Balkan Green Foundation, says emissions from the two plants are particularly harmful for residents of outlying towns such as Kosovo Pole, Lipljan, and Obilic, where the complex is located.

The coal-burning power stations at Obilic often pollute the air in nearby Pristina, Kosovo’s capital.

“The coal power stations also pollute surface and ground waters, because ash is disposed of in a lake, from where it is released into the Sitnica River,” Kosova adds.

“Electricity losses should be limited, because 27 percent of energy is lost in the distribution network. Another important measure is installing electrostatic filters for the Kosovo A power station, closing Kosovo B, and banning the use of coal for heating residential premises,” he says.

According to World Bank analyses, air pollution in the capital of Kosovo (population: around 200,000) is on par with that in much bigger cities such as Beijing, Mumbai, and New Delhi (all range from 18-22 million inhabitants).

“The estimated economic cost associated with mortality from exposure to air pollution in Kosovo is in the range of $160–$310 million, equivalent to 2.5 percent–4.7 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016,” a 2019 World Bank air-quality monitoring report states.

The same document estimates that additional healthcare expenses amounted to $240 million in 2016.

The World Bank’s prognosis of the costs of air pollution in North Macedonia is even more dramatic. Its report estimates that 1,600 people die prematurely as a result of exposure to PM 2.5 particles every year, and mortality-related economic costs are calculated at between $500 million and $900 million, or from 5.2 to 8.5 percent of GDP.

The World Bank reports cite power stations MEC Bitola, Kosovo A, and Kosovo B as significant pollution sources in the region.

What causes even greater concern for Kosovo citizens is the government’s plan to build a new 500 MW-capacity power station near Pristina, at the same time developing a new lignite mine, at a total cost of more than $2 billion. Kosovo is fifth in the world in terms of lignite (brown coal) reserves, or in other words, the country can provide uninterrupted production of electricity for the next 1,500 years from this resource.

Obilic and Bitola are not the only Balkan hotspots where power stations are silently killing the population. Just 16 power stations in the Western Balkans emit more SO2 pollution than 250 power stations in the EU, according to HEAL. There is no alternative for North Macedonia and Kosovo for now, and in the next two decades the two countries will remain dependent on coal.

Their citizens will continue to pay a high price for the production of cheap electricity.

This article first ran on Vidi Vaka, a video production and new media initiative in North Macedonia. Vidi Vaka has won awards from the Council of Media Ethics and from the Macedonian Anti-Poverty Platform.

Author: Aleksandar Manasiev; photos: Sinisha Ilijeski; drone photography: Pece Zdravkovski, Aleksandar Vajdevski, Moments Media; editing:  Sinisha Ilijeski, Aneta Cvetkovska. Translated by Aleksandar Stojcev.