How to deal with toxic pollution: That was the main theme of the IPEN Central and Eastern Europe Regional Meeting that took place in Prague in October, 2017. The three-day conference of regional non-governmental organizations discussed a common future approach for Central and Eastern Europe. The meeting included an excursion to Spolana – a chlorine factory which is the biggest contemporary polluter of the Czech Republic. This trip showed how difficult, though not impossible, it may be to resolve historical environmental burdens.
Right in the historical centre of the Czech capital, environmental activists shared their experience regarding crucial issues of soil, water and air contamination from toxic waste. The conference brought together almost 30 participants representing fifteen European countries. The main goal of the meeting was to enhance the cooperation of environmental NGOs in the region, based on IPEN’s 2020 Global Plan and strategy. Maria Ekström Johansson, IPEN’s Operations and Finance Director, presented this strategy on the first day.
The programme covered topics related to global conventions such as Basel (entered into force in 1992), Stockholm (entered into force in 2004), Rotterdam (entered into force in 2004), and Minamata (entered into force in 2017).
First meeting in thirteen years
“Hearing other people’s experience in dealing with toxic issues was truly inspirational,” said Jelena Marojević Galić from Green Home (Montenegro) about the meeting. “It is great to finally meet face-to-face and get to know the details of people’s projects,” she exclaimed.
Pawel Gluszynski (Poland), Jindřich Petrlík (Czech Republic), Ivaylo Hlebarov (Bulgaria), and Danita Zarichinova (Bulgaria) discussed the issue of waste incineration. Later, Gergely Simon described contaminated sites and hotspots in Hungary, such as the site in Budapest where 2,800 tons of hazardous waste were left leaking straight on the ground. Also, Eugeniy Lobanov and Jasminka Randelović introduced Belarusian and Serbian projects on chemicals in products, while Jitka Straková (Czech Republic) demonstrated the method of testing consumer products with an XRF device (X-ray spectrometer).
“It was great to see how many things are happening in the region, because sometimes we don’t get to see the hard work of other NGOs and I hope we will cooperate much closer in the future,” said Gergely Simon from the Hungarian Greenpeace.
Providing an external perspective and experience, experts from outside the region also attended the meeting. Abel Arkenbout from the Dutch NGO Toxico Watch, accompanied by his colleague, Kirsten Bouman, talked about a citizens’ control project over waste incineration emissions. Similarly, Manuel Fernandéz from the German Federation for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) presented the ToxFox application on chemicals in everyday products, and shared his experience working with manufacturers. The current development of brominated dioxins-related issues was introduced by Alan Watson (PIC, Wales, UK).
Because the presentation of environmental issues in simple and understandable ways is not always easy, the meeting agenda included presentations by storytelling experts, who shared their know-how about effectively appealing to the public, politicians and representatives of the chemical industry.
Time travelling with chlorine
Morning mist slowly uncovers a number of industrial facilities. Grey colour is almost all that can be seen. Just above the entrance of one of the buildings, a black and white, seemingly handwritten sign appears: Spolana. That was a sight the participants of the meeting experienced on the second day of their stay in Czech Republic.
The enormous chemical factory, located close to Neratovice, is about 25 kilometers north of Prague and spreads across more than 640 acres. On the spot, a “ghost town” is what pops into one’s head. Only about half of the facilities and buildings are used and in operation nowadays, providing a working place for no more than 700 employees.
During the time of communist Czechoslovakia, Spolana used to be one of the three exclusive suppliers of chemical substances for state agriculture and forestry industries. In the 1960s, the factory produced Trioxone (2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid), which was later used as an ingredient in the devastating chemical Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
The pollution from the chemical production of the factory received wider attention after floods in 2002. Dioxin and mercury contamination, which had exceeded the limits by a hundred times, required remediation, in order to decrease harm to the environment, human health of workers, and inhabitants of the region. Clean-up of the abandoned and contaminated facilities was different for each of the dilapidated buildings – two that had been used to produce pesticides, and one that was used for amalgam electrolysis were merely torn down and covered with concrete. This was very similar to what was done in Chernobyl and turns the area into a kind of sarcophagus. Yet the groundwater may be still contaminated by hazardous chemicals, even though it is isolated by an underground insulation wall. Another three old abandoned buildings were properly remediated by using chemical destruction of persistent organic chemicals such as dioxins or hexachlorobenzene. Base Catalyzed Decompisition (BCD) technology was used for their clean up. Cleaned soil was used to fill in the holes after remediation. All remediated sites are still monitored.
Currently, Spolana is a part of a Polish PKN Orlen Group, and has been pushed towards significant changes in the production of chlorine. So far, the factory has been using hazardous mercury cell electrolysis, which will continue only until the end of November 2017, due to the regulations of the Minamata Convention. The factory will then switch to a different way of PVC production by importing ethylenedichloride (EDC) and use the technology of membrane electrolysis in the chlor-alkali plant. The conversion is expected to be finished by December, 2021. The excursion to Spolana was highly appreciated by the regional meeting participants.
Arnika’s Toxics and Waste Programme has been serving as IPEN’s Regional Hub for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) since 2008. The CEE Region includes Albania, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia and Turkey.
Participants’ comments on the IPEN CEE Regional Meeting in Prague, 2017:
Bjanka Čuturilo (CEKOR, Serbia): "The meeting was very useful in sharing our experience, as well as for the possibility of future closer networking. Although I would like to discuss in detail the climate change or burning coal related issues and harmful health effects of hazardous chemicals. Also the possibility of joint action with the aim dof raising public awareness would be genuently useful, for example the event held on the same day in different countries."
Jelena Marojević Galić (Green Home, Montenegro): "Hearing other people’s experience in dealing with toxic issue was truly inspirational. It is great to finally meet face to face and get to know the details of their projects. The best part of this meeting for me personally was visiting Spolana factory, because in Montenegro we deal with similar old facilities which are no longer in operation. Also there is a governmental project for remediation of contaminated hotspot and the Czech solution may be an example for us in that way. Any kind of inspiration we can get here is helpful."
Eugeniy Lobanov (Centre for Environmental Solutions, Belarus): “It was very interesting to listen to various presentations from various countries. When it comes to chemical safety, the situation is quite similar even we all live in different political and economic conditions. Also, such scientifically deep presentations regarding for example fluorinated dioxins are very much needed in our campaigns. When it comes to Belarus, they are kind of a new topic – we lack basic research or even a discussion regarding this sort of pollution. Though there are no chlorine production plants such as Spolana, we have to deal with other similar huge enterprises build back in the days of USSR. But the open-minded approach of Spolana’s management is quite impressive and inspiring."
Gergely Simon (Greenpeace, Hungary): "Seeing Spolana was really amazing and interesting because there are currently chlor-alkali plants both in Slovakia and Hungary so that was an important field trip for us. Also it was great to see how many things are happening in the region, because sometimes we don’t get to see the hard work of other NGOs and I hope we will cooperate much closer in the future."
Complete list of presentations:
Jan Šamánek (Arnika, Czech Republic) – Short Introduction to IPEN
Maria Ekström Johansson (IPEN, Sweden) – IPEN 2020 Plan
Abel Arkenbout (Toxico Watch, Netherlands) – Environmental Sampling and Monitoring of POPs
Natalia Blyshchyk (Centre for Environmental Solutions, Belarus) – Pharmaceuticals in the Environment
Pawel Gluszynski (The Society for Earth, Poland) – Waste Incineration
Ivaylo Hlebarov & Danita Zarichinova (Za Zemiata, Bulgaria) - Zero Waste & Anti-Incineration Campaigns in Bulgaria
Eugeniy Lobanov (Centre for Environmental Solutions, Belarus) – Chemicals in Products: CES Campaigns in Belarus
Jindřich Petrlík (Arnika, Czech Republic) – Waste Incineration & Stockholm Convention
Jasminka Randelovic (ALHem, Serbia) – Serbian “Fight to Know” Campaign
Gergely Simon (Greenpeace, Hungary) – Toxic Heritage of Hungary
Jitka Straková (Arnika, Czech Republic) – Testing products with an XRF device
Alan Watson (Wales) – Brominated Dioxins
Manuel Fernández (BUND, Germany) – ToxFox Application