The pollution caused by the chemical plant has become a hot topic in Târgu Mureș (Marosvásárhely). The protests, though, are in vain: the environmental license gives green light to pollution till the end of 2015. 

In Transylvania the skies are clear, but as we approach the city of Târgu Mureș on the E60 road, from Ungheni (Nyárádtő) already, a very thin, barely visible fog wraps everything up.

As we get closer to the city, the visibility progressively decreases and as we pass by the airport our eyes and noses become irritated by this weird fog, which is not even a real fog, but the smoke coming from the chimneys of the Azomureș Chemical Plant.

Given that it used to be a plant of strategic importance, in communist times it was not allowed to talk about the pollution it caused, even though the smoke coming from the chimneys could be easily seen from everywhere. The area of the plant covers 126 acres and is at 4 km distance from the city.

Good deal

The pollution caused by the chemical plant has become a hot topic. The public debate makes even more sense if we think about the huge profit the Swiss company makes. According to the Ministry of Finance, in 2014 alone the company made a net profit of 32 million euros and had a gross turnover of 380 million euros.

The argument that has been brought up way too often when defending the operation of the chemical plant, namely, that it provides work for many employees, has lately come under scrutiny. In 2013 the Swiss employer outsourced a series of activities and the number of Azomureș employees went from 2600 to 1600. Meanwhile, the number of inhabitants exposed to constant pollution is of 130,000.

But despite the pollution, authorities are unable to act: the environmental protection license issued in 2007 safeguards the operation of the chemical plant and thus, the pollution, right till the end of 2015. Another problem the authorities are facing is the insufficient amount of measurements and thus, they have a difficult time proving that the chemical plant has emission levels beyond the legal limit.

Combinatul pe Google Earth
The plant on Google Earth

Political actors made use of the situation for their own purposes

The political parties with the upcoming municipal elections took advantage of the turmoil caused by the mix of growing population discontent and the passivity of the environmental authorities. In the recent past DAHR declared that it would call for referendum on Azomureș. The mayor, Dorin Florea, started making threatening statements and not so long ago, the Minister of the Environment paid a visit to the city.

Following the fall of the communist regime, a Turkish company, Transworld Fertilizers Holding bought the plant in 1998 and a Swiss company, Ameropa Holding AG bought it in 2013 for 54 million euros.

The Hungarian and Romanian versions of this article:

Az Azomureş szennyez, a hatóságok csak füstölögnek

Azomureş poluează, autorităţile dau din umeri

The chemical plant gained important privileges

2007 is an important year in the chemical plant’s history: during the talks on EU accession, the company managed to reach a deadline extension for complying with the Directive on Integrated Pollution Prevention and Pollution Reduction (IPPC) until the 31st of December 2015.

The chemical plant still uses the technology of the’60s and 70’s and needs to do a great deal to improve its technological equipment in order to comply with the requirements. This basically means that the plant managed to reach an 8 year long extension for modernizing its technology.

It is not only the filters that need to be replaced: in order to comply with EU emission limits, most of the equipments need to be changed.

According to the 2007 environmental protection permit, Ameropa commits to comply with EU emission levels by the 1st of January 2016. The currently ongoing works rise up to an investment of 170 million euros.

There never was so much pollution

But besides the works, something else must be happening at the chemical plant. Our interviewees in Târgu Mureș told us that they never before had such penetrating ammonium smell than this year.

I grew up seeing the red star on the building of the Prefecture from my window and the chimneys of the plant at a distance. During communist times and in its aftermath, in the ’90s and 2000s pollution did not upset the locals. Who would have thought that 25 years after the regime change we would have a visibility educed to a kilometer or a kilometer and a half?” – asks Cristian Vântu, a friendly doctor in his forties.

A couple of years ago Vântu created a Facebook group for the locals protesting against the pollution. In the early days only a few of his friends joined, but later on many more became members only to stagnate at around 2500 members. But this year, in just two months time, from June to August, the number went up up to 10.000 members. They not only share links and photos, the various forms of protest take a better shape each time.

A more organized protest against pollution

Each professional focuses on a special issue. A petition was sent to Karmenu Vella, the EU Commissioner for Environmental Policy – and, as far as we know, the European Environmental Agency is already investigating.

Another petition has been sent to the Ministry of Environmental Protection and on the 13th of August a protest was held in front of the Prefecture. The local population has also become very active: the Environmental Guard in Târgu Mureş was notified 160 times this year. This is an extremely high number.

But the members of the group have different views on what should be done with the Azomureș chemical plant. And, as a consequence, the protests are also quite uncoordinated. When the different members or leaders do not agree on certain issues, they start acting on their own.

Fumul ce iese din hornurile combinatului se oglindeşte în apa iazului batal (apa din iaz a fost nu demult drenată). Foto: Kósa István
Photo: Kósa István

Stop the pollution!

I don’t think anyone has the right to ask for shutting the plant down” says Vântu, then adds: „we can ask authorities to limit the harm done to the environment. They should stop the pollution. It’s up to them to decide whether this means closing it down or not. I have no problem with the leaders of the plant, but I do have problems with the authorities who are funded with my tax money.

They should guarantee that no harm is done to my health and should make sure that we all enjoy a proper quality of life. But according to the logic of business making, the possibilities that are available out there will be used to their advantage. And of course, if nobody stops them, they will carry on with the pollution. The chemical plant does not have strategic importance, as many claim. Instead, it is a private business and it has to respect rights and has to fulfil obligations. The authorities need to act and need to step up and say that this cannot go on like this” – says the doctor, who does not make his case based on the the harmful health effects.

I have the right not only to live in a healthy environment, but also to live in one that pleases me, that looks nice. Nobody can take the blue sky and the view away from me” – he says on a terrace in the city centre, then adds that he is a libertarian and he doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist, nor a leftist.

Giving green light to pollution

The source of all evil is the environmental protection license issued in 2007. This license sets limits that are simply outrageous. And even though Azomureș has emission levels that are beyond the limit, there is nothing I can do about it” – says Annamária Székely, the director of the Environmental Protection Guard in Mureş County.

On the inspector general’s packed desk we find the 120 page long license with important parts underlined in bright yellow. But she doesn’t really need to open the document: Székely knows it by heart already.

Let’s focus on the technical details

If we want to understand why it is so difficult to act against the pollution of Azomureș, we need to understand the difference between two basic notions. The first is emission – the amount of pollution coming from the chimneys. The second is immission – the concentration of pollution in the air.

The environmental protection license contains a chart with the emission levels for each chimney, broken down to components. All the limits, added up, represent the total limit with which Azomureș can still operate. For instance, for ammonium (NH3) this level is of 780 milligramms/normal cubic meters.

These levels, despite being very high, are not illegal: when the accession contract was negotiated, the EU agreed to these levels. The agreed emission levels are exceeded only when the chemical plant malfunctions, stops due to maintenance works and is restarted. But the exceeded limits are part of the normal technological processes and thus, are unavoidable. The environmental protection license stresses that the emissions occurring under these circumstances cannot be prevented.

The fines are given based on an old standard

Thus, there is no legal basis for fines for the high emission levels. But the situation is different with imission levels, the concentration of pollutants in the air. Even though ammonium is not categorized as pollutant by the 104/2011 law on air quality, there is an old standard (STAS 12574/1987) which sets a maximum of 0.300 milligramms of ammonium per cubic meter for each measurement set at every half an hour. But the document has no provisions for sanctions.

This license could not be issued today in its actual form” – the inspector general concludes. „If at the fence of the factory the limit is set to 0.300, then, under normal circumstances the limit at the chimneys could not have been set at 780 milligramms. Given that the emmission levels are not beyond the limit, there is nothing I can do about the high immission levels.”

The ammonium levels that are measured in the area close to the factory depend greatly on weather conditions. In the best case scenario, emmissions rise upwards, or the wind blows them away. But if the wind blows towards the city, or there is no wind and the air pressure is high, then the pollutants weigh down on the city.

They make their own measurements

In the environmental license it is stipulated that the factory has to adapt its operation to weather conditions. We asked about it at Azomureș, but we did not receive any answers from Ovidiu Maior, the spokesperson of the factory.

In order to answer the set of questions that were sent to us on the 25th of August, we need to collect so much data that it will take up several working days” – he said, when we made a phone call asking about when we would receive the answers to our set of questions.

According to the Environmental Protection Guard, the factory is eager to adjust the emissions to the weather conditions. The results of the measurements made every half an hour prove it as well: in only less than 2% of the cases are emissions over the limit. This is not a bad result – the inspector general concluded.

The environmental protection license obliges the plant to measure its level of emmission and immission, too, but also provides them with the possibility of making their own measurements. The license also makes clear that the measuring devices need to be calibrated once a year.

Given that they have an accredited lab, I have to accept the data presented to me by Azomureș at face value, I cannot question their validity” – said Annamária Székely, when we asked weather the factory can alter the values, given that the measurements are not made by an independent authority.

This year the fines rose up to 56,000 euros

The 1987 standard is the only tool that authorities have for giving out fines for high immission levels. „At the beginning the factory appealed to the fines, but after having lost several cases in a row, they realized they have to pay” – said the inspector general.

The total amount of the fines for 2010-2014 is 755,000 lei (175,000 euros). This year the plant was given 4 fines, the total amount being of 250,000 lei (56,000 euros). But this most certainly is just pocket money for the factory.

Autospeciala cumpărată de APM Mureş, parcată lângă Hotel President. Foto: Sipos Zoltán
The vehicle of Environmental Protection Agency in the parking of Hotel President. Photo: Sipos Zoltán

A thin layer of dust covers the vehicle of the Environmental Protection Agency Mureș left in the parking area of Hotel President, carrying equipment that measures immission levels. We can say without doubt, that it was not used for a long time: even the tires are flat. „The Environmental Protection Agency identified the place in the vicinity of the plant as the location where the highest ammonium concentration can be measured”– explains Székely.

It is also the place where we have access to electrical power” – Dănuţ Ştefănescu adds a practical reason regarding the placement of the car. The director of the EPA Mureș gives the impression of a typical official who is worn out by his work.

Will everything change from next year?

The 1st of January 2016 will be the beginning of a new era” – Ştefănescu adds when we ask about the new environmental permit that will be issued by EPA Mureș. The chemical plant needs to reduce emissions by half or by a third in order to comply with EU and national legislation. „It will a be a thick document package” – he gesticulates.

He also agrees that it is difficult to do anything about pollution, until the current permit expires. Only in August, the agency’s car measured 151 times ammonium concentration levels that were over the limit – the data was handed over to the Environmental Protection Guard by EPA.

This 0.300 milligramm limit is a 1987 standard and ammonium is not even categorized in EU nor national legislation as pollutant” – says the director of the Environmental Protection Guard, when we ask him weather the 151 cases of exceeded limits equals 151 fines.

But what is also problematic is that according to the environmental permit at shut down and restart the emission levels are not taken into account. „A 10 minutes long shut down at the chimneys, in cases of high atmospheric pressure can easily influence 5 to 6 immission measurements that take place every half an hour.”

If the emission is legal – and in case of shut down and restart it certainly is – then there is nothing we can do about immissions” – says Székely, then adds: „ we could fine them if during the normal operation the emission levels would exceed legal limits, which is not the case. Based on immission levels only, I think we could not suspend the chemical plant’s operation license”.

The paragraph that vanished

Naming which authority which could suspend the environmental license of the chemical plant is an endless subject. Nonetheless, the permit clearly states that the authority which issued the license – in this case the EPA Mureș – can take the decisions of closing the plant down if the permit requirements are not fulfilled.

Are the 151 cases of exceeded ammonium emission levels sufficient to take measures? – we ask the director of EPA. „ I don’t know, the Environmental Protection Guard did not issue such a request” – said Ştefănescu. „Why can't you act on your own?” – we ask. „And what kind of measures should I suggest? Tell me” – he replies.

But what is even more interesting is that a paragraph on the terms for closing down a polluting plant simply disappeared when EPA modified the chemical plant’s environmental permit in 2014.

The paragraph with the number 10.1.7, can be used as a lever for authorities to intervene in cases of emissions that were beyond the limit, was simply erased. This also explains the confusing numbering of the rest of the paragraphs. Dănuţ Ştefănescu has his signature on this permit as well.

According to EPA, the paragraph is redundant, because the preamble of the permit states clearly that if provisions of the permit are not respected, it permit can be suspended, or redrawn.

Combinatul Azomureş. Foto: Kósa István,
Photo: Kósa István,

The dust, the noxes are more harmful

Of all particles ammonium is probably the least harmful to health. Ammonium is at the center of attention because of the strong, pungent odour that is so striking even from a great distance. The dust and the noxes are way more damaging to the human health, but they are almost never measured.

The Environmental Protection Ministry has two stations that can measure air quality but we found out that they don’t always work. According to Ştefănescu, the stations do not measure dust concentration, nor the concentration of noxes and nobody knows when they will be fixed. What is strange though, is that we found data on measurements on the Ministry’s website. But it is not clear weather the values are current enough.

Even if the stations were operating, it would be very hard to make an argument using this data. Even though in the city and its neighbouring areas the chemical plant is still the biggest pollutant, is not the only one emitting dust and noxes. Even if it were used as an argument against the plant, the intervention of the authorities could be attacked easily in court.

As in a Kafka novel

It’s like a Kafka novel, it stings your eyes, you can’t see the city properly and then you are told that measurements show nothing outstanding” – says Cristian Vântu.

The doctor-activist does not understand what is the point of talking about measurements when above the city of Târgu Mures there is a gigantic cloud, the city is foggy, grey and you can’t even see the hill one and a half kilometres away.

Many people tell me, but Miss, the fog is quite visible” – replies the Environmental Protection Guard’s inspector general and continues: „But what should I write into the protocol, how should I quantify it? I felt my nose would fell off, it was so smelly. Until we find a way to quantify it, our hands are tied. Besides, EPA send us the measurements and if they don’t send us data with levels beyond the limit, there is nothing we can do.”

Doctors won’t give statements

Pollution is a hot topic and so is the topic of the effects pollutants have on the health. But we know even less about it. During our field trips we heard several rumours – we were told about mystical cancer cases and about doctors who suggested their patients with acute respiratory problems to leave the city.

We could not check any of the rumours. We tried to contact several doctors living in the city in order to talk about the health effects of the chemical plant – but nobody wanted to do the interview.

It is easy to understand the caution of the doctors: they would not make statements that are difficult to prove scientifically or that cannot be proved at all.

No statistics

The Agency for Public Health Mureș has no statistical data on the effects the plant has on health, despite the fact that it has been operating for 50 years already. What we know for sure, is that in 2015, 1900 persons were diagnosed with cancer and this number shows an increase if compared to the previous years.

We also heard that a couple of years ago the University of Medicine in Târgu Mureș and the Azomureș chemical plant collaborated for a research on the health effects of the chemical plant, but we have no information about the results.

We were also curious about the most common illnesses of the employees, the people most affected by the chemical plant. As a reply to our request, the Occupational Safety and Health Department Mureș sent us statistics containing very little information on the results of the research conducted at Azomureș.

We don’t know what stands behind the numbers: a former occupational health and safety doctor said that employees don’t have severe health issues as we might assume.

Those who take care of themselves, don’t have health problems” – said the doctor, but he refused to tell us more.

Zoltán Sipos, translation: Etelka Tamás-Blaha

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