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Getting brown and dirty

  • Written by  Nikolia Apostolou
  • Published in Energy
Ptolemaida power plant, one of seven power stations located near the lignite mines in West Macedonia Ptolemaida power plant, one of seven power stations located near the lignite mines in West Macedonia Nikos Pilos
01 Sep
Lignite, or brown coal, has powered the Greek economy for more than 60 years but also led to health and environmental problems. Nikolia Apostolou assesses the impact of plans to privatise the country’s mining industry

It’s almost 11pm on a winter’s night. Giorgos Papavasiliou and his brother Takis are taking a break in the small cabin of a ‘spreader’, an eight-storey-high machine used to move soil from which lignite – brown coal – will later be extracted. Both in their 50s, both fathers, they’ve been working in the open-pit lignite mines that belong to Greece’s state-owned Public Power Corporation (PPC) since they were 20.

Sipping some tsipouro, the local brandy, in order to keep the winter cold at bay, the pair discuss their worries. As part of Greece’s agreement with its international lenders, the government is planning to sell the PPC to private stakeholders. ‘Are we going to get a pension?’ they ask. ‘How much more will our salaries be lowered by the new owner?’

Despite the fluorescent light of the cabin, their faces and hands are dark, impregnated with coal dust. After 30 years on the job, they rarely bother to put on their helmets or masks, even though just a month ago, a colleague was killed by a piece of falling metal.

Talk eventually turns to their old workmate Kostas, who was diagnosed with lung cancer just a few months after retiring. Then, as the conversation peters out, Takis takes out a koulouri, a traditional bread, breaks off half for the gaunt-looking dog that has climbed up into the machine with them and shares the rest with his brother.



Greece has been dependent on brown coal for its electricity for more than 60 years. The country began to industrialise during the 1950s, much later than northern Europe and the USA, and supported the process with lignite, which was local, cheap and abundant. As hundreds of textile and lubricant factories sprang up, the stream of Greek men emigrating to Germany and elsewhere in Europe came to a halt and electricity consumption rose exponentially.

It continued to rise until the financial crisis hit in 2008. Today, many Greeks believe that cheap energy and energy autonomy are vital to the country’s economic renewal. This belief has bred an underlying hostility towards renewables – considered by many to be too expensive.

Feeding the demand for energy has forced the mines to expand. Where once there were ploughed fields and grazing cattle, vibrant villages with schools and churches, today there’s the largest open-pit lignite mine in the Balkans. The land has been flattened and is now populated by more than 1,000 trucks and a 225-kilometre conveyor belt that transfers brown coal 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to the nearby power plants.

These plants have made West Macedonia in the northwest of Greece the ‘energy heart’ of the country. Together, eight power plants generate nearly 56 per cent of the country’s electricity. They are fed by four lignite mines that cover an area of 60,000 hectares. In the past, 90 per cent of Greece’s electricity was covered by lignite combustion, but today, the proportion has fallen to roughly a half, as the country increasingly turns to renewable sources (renewable energy accounts for roughly 20 per cent of Greece’s energy consumption, three quarters of which comes from wind power; the country is also ranked fifth in the world for per capita installed photovoltaic capacity).

In order to receive the remaining bailout money from the so-called Troika – the International Monetary Fund, the EU and the European Central Bank – Greece has been told that it must privatise public utilities such as water, electricity and gas. Last year, the PPC was the second-largest company in Greece by revenue and the largest by workforce, with more than 21,800 employees; 49 per cent of its shares are already traded on the Athens Stock Exchange. This year, the PPC was split into three companies that will later be sold to private shareholders. ‘From what I understand, they are going to give away the best units of the business,’ says Yannis Ioakim, director of South Field, the biggest mine in the Balkans.
‘I would prefer if private funds participated in the company today, instead of cutting the company in pieces.’

With more than 350,000 households already without electricity, consumers worry that privatisation will raise prices, with an increase of up to 40 per cent already predicted for this year.

workerA worker cleans ash from a conveyor belt outside a power plant. Photo courtesy of Nikos Pilos


A few kilometres from the mine, two men are working at the energy production plant AIS Kardias. The air is so dust-choked that even though they’re sitting just two metres apart, there are moments when they can’t see each other. ‘I’ve been doing this for the past 15 years,’ says Thodoris Papadopulos, moving a white mask away from his face and shaking the broom he uses to sweep away ashes that have fallen off the conveyor belt that runs out of the plant.

West Macedonia is paying a hefty price for supplying electricity to the rest of the country. Lignite may be a relatively cheap fuel, but there are hidden costs, the burden of which falls on society rather than the producer. And after more than 60 years of lignite mining and combustion in West Macedonia, that burden is significant.

The tall, thin chimneys of the power plants in West Macedonia release smoke that the workers in the mine call ‘cancer’. The mining and transport of lignite also release tonnes of dust into the air, which is inhaled by the workers. On numerous occasions, the Ministry of Environment has fined the PPC for exceeding EU limits on air quality.

According to research released last year by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a European NGO, in 2009, the cost associated with dealing with respiratory and cardiovascular disease in Greece was around €1.5–4billion. Another study, carried out by the University of Stuttgart for Greenpeace, suggested that lignite operations are responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1,200 people in Greece each year.



Lignite is also a ‘dirty’ fuel when it comes to carbon emissions. It produces 0.36 kilograms of CO2 for every kilowatt-hour of energy it produces. By comparison, natural gas produces 0.2 kilograms per kWh.

For more than two decades, compared to its production, PPC has had the highest level of carbon emissions among EU countries, reaching as much as 984 kilograms of CO2 per MWh in 2007; the average for Europe at this time was 373 kilograms of CO2 per MWh.

In West Macedonia, a new 660MW unit called Ptolemaida-5 is scheduled to be built by 2020 at a cost of €1.4billion. The European Investment Bank has withdrawn funding from the project because of its high CO2 emissions, but the German-government-owned development bank KfW, which has a large portfolio of green investments in Germany, is planning to invest half of the money needed. ‘You might wonder why the KfW ignores the environmental issues that it promotes so heavily in Germany,’ says Michalis Prodromou of WWF Greece, which has started a petition against the new plant. ‘What’s happening here is that Germany and France are creating an oligopoly in the European energy market by buying plants and units from smaller countries.’

According to Prodromou, the new unit will eventually oblige Greece to pay €90million more in annual emission allowances by 2020.

excavatorAn industrial excavator digs into a mountaintop full of brown coal. The machine is operated by four men around the clock 365 days a year. Photo courtesy of Nikos Pilos



Giorgos Papavasiliou used to live in Charavgi, one of the largest villages in the region. It boasted a doctor’s office, a toy shop, two small supermarkets, two barber shops and a small duvet factory – an unusual level of prosperity for a Greek village in the 1970s.

For a week every August, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary would be celebrated in Charavgi with festivities that attracted people from all of the nearby villages. The streets filled with vendors, souvlaki stands and music. There was even a small amusement park for the children.

Sadly, those days are long gone. Charavgi was built above a huge lignite deposit and now all that remains of the thriving village are a few crumbling buildings. The silence is interrupted only by the constant whir of the conveyor belt that moves lignite through the ruins.

‘This is my old neighbourhood,’ Papavasiliou says as we drive through Charavgi. It has been 35 years since he and his family were forced to move, and as he looks out on the destruction, tears well up in his eyes. ‘This is where my knees first bled [from falling over]. That’s my house. That’s where I first played soccer – in that field.’

When a government official arrived to evict Charavgi’s residents, the villagers formed barricades with burning tires in the hope of blocking him from handing out eviction notices. ‘I was 16 or 17, and I remember, the riot police came,’ Papavasiliou says. ‘It was a good fight. There was a lot of crying because of the tear gas and a lot of beatings. Our heads, hands and legs were all bleeding, but in the end, they won. The state always wins.’

Papavasiliou and his fellow villagers weren’t just fighting for their homes, they were fighting to avoid becoming refugees for a second time. At the end of the First World War, a mutual population exchange took place between Greece and Turkey. Thousands of Greeks from eastern Thrace and Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea in Turkey, resettled in West Macedonia. In the same wave of refugees, Papavasiliou’s family relocated to Charavgi.

Recently, the management of the PPC informed residents of Mavropigi, a village on the mine’s southwestern periphery, that they had ten days to move out, even though they have yet to be compensated for the loss of their property and a new village hasn’t been prepared for them. When it was time for Papavasiliou’s family to move, the same problems had occurred. ‘The new village the PPC was obliged to prepare for us wasn’t ready,’ he says. ‘It also took a long time until they gave us the compensation money, so people got loans and started leaving.

‘The mine was next to the village and there were three or four blasts daily [in order to break through the ground and reach the lignite],’ he continues. ‘No-one could live here. The houses started cracking and people got scared. People got frustrated and many left for the nearby cities, where they bought apartments.’

As family and friends moved away, the village’s social structure broke down. Papavasiliou now lives in the village of Kili, where he and his father are the only people from Charavgi. ‘The ties that existed in this village have broken,’ says Papavasiliou. ‘Of course, now life is even more difficult. One cousin lives in Thessaloniki, another is here. So we don’t meet.’



Most people who live in western Macedonia have little option but to work for the PPC. The company’s presence appears to have crowded out other sectors. As a result, the region has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the EU (72.5 per cent) and the fifth highest rate of general unemployment (29.9 per cent).

With the proposed sale looming, many PPC workers are concerned about their jobs. ‘We’re almost at the edge of the country, in the northwest and we produce a public utility,’ says Yannis Ioakim. ‘But most people feel that Greece is only Athens. They don’t acknowledge that because of this operation, they have the ability to have electricity just by flicking a switch.’

The common feeling among workers at the mines is that before privatisation, the company was deliberately left understaffed so that it could be sold at a much lower price. Many of the excavators haven’t operated for years because of the lack of manpower. The mine requires 1,580 workers to operate properly; it currently has 900 permanent staff and 300 more on contract.

‘Now we’re in a deteriorating situation,’ Ioakim says. ‘Of course, there are more deposits, but whether they will be exploited depends on political decisions in the energy sector. There have been political decisions in favour of renewable energy even though it’s more expensive, or in favour of natural gas [which has to be imported]. There’s intense competition and big economic interests.’

Many PPC employees are worried that the new owner will fire them and then rehire them on lower salaries, or could even simply hire different employees altogether. ‘Even if they’re right to fire us, the worst thing is going to be that the next people they hire will be young men who will work for €500 and not the €1,800 I get today,’ says Giorgos Papavasiliou.

‘But what are you going to do?’ he continues. ‘There’s nothing else. You have to buy milk for your child. If you have no other job, you’ll have to come to the mine for €600. And you’ll die here, you’ll leave your bones here, because the conditions are dangerous here.’

This story was published in the September 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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