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Greece’s Dirty Secret

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The sun could barely be seen in the sky while driving through the outskirts of Ptolemaida, a city 500 kilometres northwest Athens. The thick dust suspended in the atmosphere doesn’t allow you to see far but Kostas could even drive here blindfolded. He is born and raised in Ptolemaida.

“My father died of cancer when I was 12,” he says. Kostas works as a guard for the Greek Public Power Corporation (PPC) as well as his father did. “Four other men from his shift lost their lives from cancer.”

Kostas’ father was one of the many workers of PPC, the state run electric power company, who die prematurely every year due to the pollution caused by the coal mining in Ptolemaida, Western Macedonia region in Greece.

Despite the strict EU regulations on coal and the declining profits that the industry faces, Greece has just made the biggest investment of €1.75bn for the construction of two new plants in the area of Ptolemaida. Surprisingly, this decision was imposed on Greece by its EU lenders.

The post-apocalyptic landscape of Ptolemaida is composed of a sprawling black mine which spans 625 square miles and includes a few deserted villages. Ptolemaida’s mine is the the biggest in the Balkans and responsible for the 30% of the country’s electricity production.

Greece along with Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic accounts for over a third of the world’s coal production. However, coal is among the worst sources of toxic air pollutants globally. In 2012 alone, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that 7 million people died as a result of exposure to air pollution. In Europe, each death attributable to such exposure occurs prematurely by an estimated 11 years. This is the result of the activity of 280 plants currently operating in the continent. Burning coal creates toxic particles of fine dust that not only contaminate areas in which the plant is situated but it travels hundreds of kilometres to also pollute neighboring countries. According to Greenpeace’s Silent Killers report, coal combustion causes more than 1,200 premature deaths in Greece.

The Deputy Regional Health Manager for Western Macedonia in a letter to the Greek Ministry of Heath mentioned that seven out of ten deaths in ​​Ptolemaida are due to cancer or thromboembolic disease (stroke, stroke, pulmonary embolism). Cancer cases have risen by 16 percent since 1950, and the number is increasing at geometric rates, currently standing at 30.5 percent. Life expectancy in the region has been shrinking.

At the same time PPC and its partners has created 10,000 jobs for the residents of Western Macedonia region where unemployment during the financial crisis was the highest in Greece. For more than 60 years the local community is been deployed in the power production industry neglecting all other economic activities. The privatization of PPC as part of Greece’s bailout deal as well as EU’s coal phase out led the local community to economic decline and deadlock. Many, like Kostas, sacrifice their health for as little as 680 euros per month while others have had to give up lands and houses which were engulfed by the expanding mines. Since 1976, more than 4,000 inhabitants of five different villages that sat on coal reserves have been internally displaced.

Half-demolished houses, a few hungry stray dogs, dilapidated churches: this is what Mavropigi looks like today—a ghost city. In 2010 the first excavation took place just 800 meters from the first houses of the village. Some have left the village terrified and the school closed permanently. Apart from the exploitation of the field, life and property were threatened.

Aristokratis and his wife are two of the 10 last residents of Mavropigi. Even though PPC have officially relocated Mavropigi’s residents few of them still living in the village which is now few steps away from the mine and despite the fact that there is no running water anymore. “I have my wife and my dogs here. I don’t want to live anywhere else, this is my only home.” he says.