Fluoride Action Network

Tarnished Aluminum Plant (but a Shiny Future?)

Source: The New York Times | Special to The New York Times
Posted on October 24th, 1994
Industry type: Aluminum Industry

ZIAR NAD HRONOM, Slovakia — Rudolf Camaj doesn’t quite know whether to trust the stories that one day the aluminum plant here will be so clean there might be an outdoor swimming pool for the workers. “It is almost unbelievable to us that the old factory will be replaced by a new factory that won’t be harming the environment,” said Mr. Camaj, a 39-year-old fire-safety worker who has toiled inside the smelters among the noxious fumes since he was 16.

He remembers that when he was a small boy an entire village nearby had to be emptied when people became sick and buildings ruined. That was just six years after the plant opened in the late 1950’s. He has seen the grass shrivel up, the animals die and the trees wither. Even so, Mr. Camaj said, people were grateful for the plant because it provided jobs. Instead of closing the Stalin-era dinosaur, as has been the case with many plants that supplied material for the weapons industry in the Warsaw Pact countries, efforts are being made to convert it into something like a purist’s dream of a 21st-century factory. Plans are under way to have the ZSNP plant meet the toughest environmental standards, though the problems at the works make it seem like an unlikely experiment in environmental and financial reform.

The plant is in the worst possible place — a valley surrounded by two mountain ranges that trap the fumes. When experts from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development visited to work out a rehabilitation plan, they were “shocked by the occupational conditions,” said Timothy Murphy, an environmental manager at the bank. The health record of the workers is bleak: chronic poisoning from overexposure to fluorides, and a high incidence of lung cancer and respiratory diseases.

An orange haze tints the sky. A huge heap of brown mud covering nearly 100 acres and composed of eight million tons of waste soars above the factory, dwarfing some of the buildings. In Western Europe, such waste was often dumped into the sea; in the Ziar valley it just piled up and now threatens the ground-water supply from the Hron River, a tributary of the Danube.

Of all the heavily polluted countries in the former Eastern bloc, Slovakia has one of the worst records. Much of the metallurgical and chemical industry was built in the eastern half of the old nation of Czechoslovakia.

Before the split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the Prague Government wanted to close the plant.

But there were arguments in favor of trying to pump in Western money to keep it alive through modernization. From the Slovak point of view, there was the need for jobs: the site was originally chosen in 1953 to provide industrial jobs in an agricultural region. Some 5,500 people work here today, down from 7,000 in 1989.

But beyond jobs, Slovaks could point to environmental efforts, however meager, that had been tried just before the collapse of Communism. While those efforts may have had only minimal impact at the plant, a nascent environmental movement in the late 1980’s was the haven of Slovak dissidents.

“In the 1980’s, the managers were interested in change,” said Dr. Eleonora Fabianova, director of the Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology at nearby Banska Bystrica. By 1988, she said, the health hazards were recognized to the extent that shifts were cut from eight hours to six and workers were given an extra week of vacation.

The Slovaks also made a fairly persuasive financial argument. Work had already begun on a new, environmentally sound smelter to replace the two smelters that spewed poison into the air. And there was a good chance that the Ziar valley plant could become a big seller on the world market in light of dwindling competition.

“In other ex-Communist countries, aluminum production has been pretty much stopped,” said Richard Kafka, the technical manager at the plant, who has welcomed a parade of foreign experts in the last several years. “It’s stopped in Poland and Hungary, reduced by 50 percent in Romania; in East Germany two aluminum factories were closed and there’s only a small and obsolete plant in Ukraine.” Even in Austria, the main aluminum plant was closed, he said, because of obsolete technology.

“We are in the middle of all these graveyards,” he said. “We will be a modern, ecologically sound factory.”

To achieve this, financial backing is coming from the European Bank, which says it has set stiff environmental standards for the plant, including esthetic improvements like planting grass on the immovable mountain of brown mud.

Much of the new technology is being provided by Norway, which is where Mr. Camaj’s idyllic image of pristine water comes in.

“We’ve been told about a swimming pool and beach near a new factory in Norway,” he said. “We’ll see if it is true here.”