The world’s largest steel company, ArcelorMittal, operates a production line in Bosnia's Zenica town, where locals accuse the behemoth steelmaker of violating environmental rules and causing a serious health hazard.
As the bus pulls into Zenica, 69 kilometres north of Sarajevo, the nose tingles from a pungent smell. Minutes after several sneezes, the eyes continue to burn. As the narrow strip of habitation between two mountains, Zenica sits under a cloud of dust and effluents from a 125-year-old steel plant.
“Clothes washed and dried on the clothesline turn black,” Fikreta Mahmic, 57, told me while sipping coffee in her tiny home in Gradisce, on the mountain overlooking the massive steelworks.
Operated by the world’s largest steel company ArcelorMittal, the production centre has been accused of gravely affecting the air quality of the town with a population of 110,000 people. In December 2013, the hourly average level of sulphur dioxide (SO2) in the air was found to be 1,400 micrograms per cubic metre. The safe limit, as stipulated by the government of Bosnia, is 500. The concerns of Zenica’s residents have been largely ignored; a massive demonstration in December 2012 found some traction in the local media, but it wasn’t enough to push the steel-making giant into implementing measures to bring down pollution levels.
“Every second neighbour is sick. Every fourth neighbour has cancer. Every tenth neighbour is dead,” Samir Lemes told me in his office at the University of Zenica, where he is a professor at the Polytechnic Faculty.
The steelworks in Zenica had been set up 125 years ago. After World War II, the former Yugoslavia expanded its operations by importing machinery from Russia.
“But that technology was meant for wide open spaces like in Siberia, and not a valley like Zenica. This was the first time that the town began to get polluted,” Lemeš said. He has been involved with EkoForum, a grassroots movement that has been investigating and documenting every piece of information pertaining to the business of ArcelorMittal.
In 1954, even though the pollution was found to be high, the only measure adopted was taxation, and the revenue generated was directed towards afforestation and washing the streets at night. However, the secessionist war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence from Yugoslavia – which had left 100,000 people dead by 1995 – ended the production at the plant.
Then the Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) stepped in, acquiring 50 per cent of the ownership by repaying the bad loans that the country had accrued. “But the deal was merely political: the focus was on increasing the employment than on profits,” Lemes said.
A rising demand for steel by China, after it expanded its doors to foreign investment in 2002, led to some strategic changes of ownership.
“Laxmi Mittal came here, to this very building, to negotiate with our then Prime Minister Ahmet Hadzipasic, who was also a professor at this university. Mittal bought the stake owned by KIA, as well as a 42 percent stake that was in the hands of the Bosnian government,” Lemes said, adding that the privatisation agreement was marked ‘secret’ by the Bosnian government.
“But our sources have told us that the plan was to create 4,500 jobs, with a capital expenditure of $13.5 billion, and an additional investments of nearly $70 million in the following 10 years,” he added.
The steelworks employs 2,200 people today. Fikreta Mahmic’s father-in-law and brother-in-law worked there before the war. Her husband didn’t find a job there, nor have her two sons. Both she and her husband Nedzib suffer from several ailments, including bad lungs.
According to a 2011 report from the Cantonal Institute for Public Health, in the period between 2002 and 2011, tumours have become the second leading cause of death among residents, representing a striking 20 percent. One news report states that from 2007 onwards, the number of patients had increased by the hundreds each year, after full production was resumed by reactivating the old plants that had been turned off at the beginning of the war in 1992.
“Air pollution is the only topic discussed in the winters here, and even in spring.” Nedzib said.
The steelworks lie to the north of Zenica, and as the roads wind with the mountain slopes, few houses stand on the edges. The view from the Mahmic’s house is that of the steelworks. Their three children are married, unemployed, and live with their families. The couple survives on a monthly social security of 60 euros.
When the children were still little, Mahmic had insisted to her husband that they move to her home village on the other end of Zenica. “But he would be a black sheep in his family, because men don’t move to live with the wife’s family. But who knows, maybe we would have had better health then,” she said, her head in one palm, resting on the table where she served coffee. They had heard of some resistance against ArcelorMittal, and one of their sons had joined in the protests too. “But it is our government that has to be concerned about us,” she said.
One of the banners at the protests organised by EkoForum read: “We survived the war. We will survive you as well.”
Comprising nearly 600 volunteer members, of which only 15 are the most active, EkoForum has been mobilising Zenica since 2009. An annual membership of six euros – not charged to students, retired people or the unemployed – is symbolic. Ancillary funds are sought from donors through projects on waste management and soil pollution. Meetings are held sporadically.
Books from floor to the ceiling take up most of Lemes’ office space. One wall bears a picture of his photographer father – “He didn’t like football at all; that’s why he could focus on getting good photographs” – as well as that of the Communist leader of former Yugoslavia, Marshall Tito. “Back then, we could be poor and yet get an education to be someone, and be happy. We were brave and there was a lower economic divide between the rich and the poor,” he explained.
In 1989, Lemes persuaded his father to buy him a computer. Today – the author of “only 16 books” and more than 60 scientific papers on computers – is the face of the movement against ArcelorMittal, maintaining every shred of detail of Zenica’s pollution levels.
Lemes found himself involved a defamation case when he questioned a master’s thesis that had indicated – using computer simulation – that the AM steelworks were contributing far less SO2 in the air than his figures showed. The suit was filed by two of his colleagues from the University of Zenica, who had evaluated the thesis; they were previously connected to ArcelorMittal, to draft its environmental permits in 2009. After three years, the court ruled in Lemes’ favour.
As per the country’s federal regulation, SO2 levels exceeding 500 micrograms per cubic meter for three days in a year should lead to the declaration of a state of alert, and appropriate measures to be taken. Lemes said that ArcelorMittal implemented some of those measures, perhaps by using less coal and natural gas, reducing production rate. They did this in December 2013, and the pollution dropped even without any wind, within hours. “By July 2015, while PM10 was found to be 192.06 microgram per cubic meter, the sulphur dioxide was seen to be zero, at all three monitoring stations! Something was wrong. We tried to get the municipality to get it working again, but nothing budged.”
Legal measures were sought. In September 2015, criminal charges were filed at the Zenica cantonal level prosecutor’s office against ArcelorMittal, and the ministry of environment and the inspection authority, both at federation level. Three years later, the charges against ArcelorMittal were dropped because clear intent to commit crime could not be found. The complaint against the two ministries have since been forwarded to the federal prosecutor. “There hasn’t been any legal action that we haven’t tried,” Lemes said.
However, Biju Nair, CEO of ArcelorMittal Zenica, denied that ArcelorMittal is not the only source of SO2 emissions in the area.
He wrote in an email, “Emissions from older cars, buses and trucks, domestic coal, wood and oil fires and other industrial activity also contribute. However, we acknowledge that currently we are one of the sources of SO2. The vast majority of such emissions from our facility comes from the old and highly inefficient coal-burning of the power plant boilers which is also used for city heating that we inherited as part of the factory. As there have been no other available source of heating for the city, we have reluctantly continued to operate this heating system on an entirely voluntary basis, although it is of no benefit to our business operations, and it attracts much criticism to ArcelorMittal for the pollution it produces.
Nair also wrote: "We have pressed the authorities for 10 years to find a long-term solution. Since they were unable to do so, we proposed a new joint venture project that will substitute the use of high sulphur coal with using of our internal gases in new gas boilers. This will dramatically reduce SO2 emissions from the winter of 2020/21.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s complex bureaucracy meant that ArcelorMittal had to begin its production in 2008 without an environmental permit, and so the company could not be penalised for not adhering to the norms of the Environmental Protection Act of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which stipulates that old and existing industries ought to bring down pollution levels in five years.
At the time of applying for permits, ArcelorMittal had promised to fulfil 200 projects towards bringing down the pollution. “But it was a game of numbers as the 182 steps they completed were smaller ones – like, making user guides for reconstructed power plant, and making warning signs on coke plant. More significant steps, like performing baseline study, and installation of dustless coke extraction machine have not yet been realised,” Lemes said.
According to Nair, ArcelorMittal has so far invested over 50 million euros ($57m) in projects targeted directly at reducing our environmental footprint, and that many of these projects had already been implemented, while others are in progress.
“When completed, the current projects will bring our total investment in ecological improvements to over 100 million euros ($114m). Our stated and clear objective from the outset has been to bring our emissions in line with all the relevant EU standards, and we are making big strides along that path,” he wrote in an email.
Even the public health data has not been made public. There is no comparative data available.
But Nair suggests to look in another direction. “Health Statistics Authority of Bosnia-Herzegovina indicates that smoking is a considerably higher risk factor for cancer than air pollution. This is a complex matter, and there is no credible evidence to link the city’s health issues with our operations.”
When it was time to sign the new permits, EkoForum lobbied the government, which led to the setting of deadlines to bring down pollution levels. But, Lemes said, of the 27 deadlines that were signed in the April 2017 agreement, only one has been met so far. “The experts had asked for penalties if the deadlines are not met with, but the government chose to ignore it.”
The government has a mistaken paranoia that such penalties would prompt ArcelorMittal to abandon the plant, and thus, impact the town’s employment, Lemes claims. “Ninety-five percent of the export from Zenica is because of ArcelorMittal: they export the steel, pay taxes, buy electricity, pay for the transportation through railways. ArcelorMittal is the biggest client for railways. They are not leaving.”
New EU directives state that dust emissions have to be lowered from 50 milligrams to 20. It gave five years for all industries to adopt this and the EU gave funds to industries as a contribution towards this. However, the limit in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s is still 50, while the actual emissions are up to 852 milligrams. Lemes said that ArcelorMittal only paid 2,250 euros in 2013. “Maybe people pay more as fines for speeding!”
According to BankWatch, a human rights group in central and eastern Europe that monitors public finance institutions, ArcelorMittal held more than 50 million surplus EU emissions allowances in 2008-2009 – worth up to 1 billion euros – which it received free of charge, and all of which it could sell to other companies or use itself until 2012. Despite repeated attempts, ArcelorMittal did not respond to our queries.
But would Zenica want the steelworks to be shut? “Never!” Lemes shouted back, saying that that has never been their aim. The only demand, he said, has been that the pollution levels should be brought down and that ArcelorMittal operate in Zenica by adhering to pollution norms.
“We don’t want to tell the butcher to stop killing; we only suggest that he does it in a hygienic manner,” he smiled.
And that’s where leveraging the government is key. The movement has seen some wins: the installation of monitoring stations, as well as leveraging the influence of the US Embassy to measure emissions. But it’s still not enough to protect Zenica’s air and its people.
After he finished high school, Nedzib extracted steel from the dumping site to make a living, extracting up to 150kg every day, and earned 50 BAM ($30) for it. “People have died falling into the pit but it kept so many of us alive,” he said.
Alen Marijanovic, a native of Zenica, is waiting to migrate to Germany. He took me to his favorite mountain, overlooking the steelworks. Our car crawled through Tetovo, a strip of disheveled houses with red roofs to our left. A red MK2 Golf stood outside, its engine revving loudly, as though asserting that it survived the war in the 90s. A grave with its white tombstones and their triangular edge pointing to the sky broke the monotony of the grey. A vast curtain of rust red steel, that’s a part of the steel works, accentuated the individual tombstones.
The purple sky was pierced with the evening azaan. Marijanovic said: “It all ends here.”
NOTE: This story has been updated with the responses from ArcelorMittal, which came in only after the story had been published.