Monday, 15 February 2010

The Asopos tragedy

Athens News
Friday 12.2.2010

The Asopos tragedy

A HISTORIC press conference took place in Oinofyta, northern Attica, on February 8, when Environment Minister Tina Birbili sat shoulder to shoulder with Margarita Karavasili and Andreas Andreadakis, her special secretaries for environmental audits and water, to address the tragedy that is the Asopos River.

In 1969 the junta designated the Asopos an industrial zone and, 10 years later, municipalities took the decision to allow treated waste to be dumped into its waters. The inherent flaws in these two laws, coupled with the low level of compliance by industry, have made the Asopos one of the most polluted rivers in Greece today.

If we are to believe the ministry, the insufficient legal safeguards are due to change within two months. Consequently, the environmental impact of every industrial operator in the region is to be re-evaluated.

Karavasili said all environmental audits between 2007 and 2009 focused only on paperwork, things like operating permits. Critically, though, actual industrial production procedures, volume of waste produced, waste management and where industries obtained their water were all left unaudited.

As a consequence, boreholes have been used for both pumping water and dumping industrial waste, contaminating the water table as far as northern Thiva.

“From now on,” Karavasili promised, “the audits will focus on the real production flow diagrams and not only on the paperwork.”

Andreadakis added that “a new legal limit for chromium VI - the carcinogenic compound found in Hinkley, California [and made famous by Erin Brockovich] - will soon be established, surpassing the current EU legislation”.

In our lab, high levels of heavy metals have been detected in food tubers (carrots, onions and potatoes) from the area. Since this food is distributed across the country, the Asopos problem is, by definition, a national one.

The February 8 press conference showed that, at last, an administration has accepted that there is a problem and is putting forward a plan to manage this water-and-food crisis.

The timetable, budget and clearly defined objectives still have not been made clear. However, Birbili’s pledges and those of her colleagues are to be welcomed.

They may yet turn out to be the deus ex machina of the Asopos tragedy.

*Yannis Zabetakis is an assistant professor of food chemistry and lead auditor in the chemistry department at the University of Athens.

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