Pioneers of the steel industry believed that they could not find any better spot for constructing steelworks. River Bosna had enough water for cooling the machinery down; and iron ore and coal mines with limestone quarries were present in the neighbourhood. Their decision turned out to be very wrong given that the deep valley of Zenica works as a bowl holding all smoke and dust from the chimneys. The citizens´ struggle for fresh air is not easy as they stand against the global number one steel producer owned by one of the richest people in the world. It owns 30 factories in Europe and 33 in the rest of the world and its wealth is larger than the cumulative budget of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
ArcelorMittal corporation came to Zenica in 2004 with the intention to restart integrated steel production in privatised steelworks that were damaged and closed down during the Bosnian war.
As a result, some citizens regained their working places, but the most distinctive impact was that the level of air pollution has risen extremely in 2008, immediately after the integral production was restarted.
Doctors, engineers, professors and other shocked citizens responded by establishing Eko forum Zenica – the most influential environmental civic association in town. They started with gathering information and participating in official negotiations and decision making procedures.
The corporation had to obtain a series of 13 new environmental permits and develop an activity plan to protect the environment. ArcelorMittal representatives promised that by 2012, the Zenica factory will follow the best environmental techniques and EU standards. Citizens actively participated and submitted dozens of comments to all documents, published for consultation in 2009.
Although the company was obliged to get necessary evironmental permits till the end of 2008, Federal Ministry of Environment and Tourism, surprised by number of comments and depth of controversy, prolonged the deadline till 2011. Thus, the steelworks won several years of production without having valid environment permits, deliberately emitting tons of dust and chemicals. Environmental Inspection could not prosecute the polluter, as there were no binding limits set up on paper. Fatal level of pollution forced the people to hold
demonstrations. More than 10 thousand gathered in the city centre and marched to the headquarters of ArcelorMittal in December 2012. They demanded to respect the same rules as applied in the EU countries, as the corporation originally promised.
Weaker law, more pollution
Both steelworks and the town are located in a deep valley of river Bosna. In adverse climatic conditions, all the smoke from the chimneys of the factory is strongly felt on the streets. During temperature inversions, common levels of the fine particles of dust in Zenica air are 30 fold higher than in the centre of London. This is very dangerous for the inhabitants, mainly for children. The rules and laws for environment and health protection vary from country to country, so do ArcelorMittal's obligations and behaviour. The levels of environmental pollution in Bosnia and Herzegovina would never be acceptable in Belgium or Germany.
In December 2014, 5 out of 9 environmental permits for ArcelorMittal steelworks expired, but the authorities did not take any measures. Ministry for Environment did not initiate new permitting procedure; Environmental Inspection did not impose any fines.
Eko forum and representatives of local communities from Zenica have therefore filed criminal charges against the company for environmental pollution, but also against the officials for inaction. In late 2015, the Ministry of Environment renewed environmental permit for only one department, but even this permit has become the subject of litigation, because public has not been included in the process of renewal. In early 2016, when also all the remaining environmental permits have expired, the company has applied for a new permit comprising all the departments into one. This time, the Ministry showed a positive gesture by including representatives of the city council and Eko forum into the comittee for evaluating the application.
Although Zenica ArcelorMittal is far from following EU standards, determination of the citizens to lead battles on the legal field is a source of hope that the steel sky above Zenica will soon brighten.
"We observe an evident increase in respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases in our area, but the chronical impact of pollution is much more dangerous. Also, the accumulation phenomena plays its role, when heavy metals, dioxins and other harmful chemicals gradually store in the human body and slowly poison us. Because we permanently breathe dirty air, degenerative changes and malignant illnesses appear. Moreover, we also pass these serious diseases to the future generations. It is important to realize that the fight for the environment for is a fight for our health."
Harun Drljević, medical doctor, Eko forum Zenica