Обоената вода со шестовалентен хром и други материи се влива во реката Вардар кај депонијата во Јегуновце; Фото: Мета.мк

Since the start of operation of Jugohrom industrial complex, in 1955, at Jegunovce in the northwest of now North Macedonia, little attention was paid to the protection of the environment, especially to the resulting pollution of the underground and the surface waters in this part of the Polog Region. The residue from the chromite ore processing and the slag from the ferroalloys production in Jugohrom was transferred to the industrial landfill, states the scientific study “The Influence of the HEK Jugohrom – Jegunovce’s landfill on the quality of surface and underground waters,” that was conducted by the Hydrometeorology Service 20 years ago.

 

The hexavalent chromium discharged into the Vardar River

Meta.mk went to the village of Jegunovce, almost halfway between Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, and the city of Tetovo as the bird flies, and visited the Jugohrom complex and the industrial landfill that was created during the decades of this giant’s operation. Around 850,000 tons of industrial waste lie in the landfill near the Jegunovce railway station, which covers an area of around 80,000 square meters. Among the chemical waste disposed, there are chromates of calcium, aluminum, and sodium.

The industrial zone in Jegunovce where the hexavalent chromium is stockpiled; Photo credit: Meta.mk

Still, what is most worrisome is the presence of around 7,500 tons of hexavalent chromium which is carcinogenic and dangerous for the people and the environment. Only 11,000 square meters of the area of the dump has been covered with a protective foil, which should stop the seeping of dangerous chemicals into the underground waters. The remaining surface of the dump is left unprotected and the consequences of this lack of caution can only be assumed.

The industrial landfill in Jegunovce is one of the environmental hot spots in our country. In order to control the drainage from the landfill, in 2003 a drainage system was built and the pump stations are capturing the drainage and the waters from the dump and are carrying them through pipes to the wastewater treatment plant within the Jugohrom’s yard.

Well, this would have been the desired situation, with the pollution from the waters from the landfill stopped altogether, but Meta.mk saw on the spot a liquid with characteristic yellow-orange and dark red color appears near the pumping station at the landfill, a liquid that is discharged directly into the Vardar River. We felt stench, while the plants that have come into contact with the colored water have been obviously dead for a very, very long time.

The colored water with the hexavalent chromium and other maters is discharged into the Vardar River near the dump in Jegunovce; Photo credit: Meta.mk

The locals from Jegunovce we spoke with told us that when the groundwater rises, the pumps cannot manage to collect all the water that is seeping out from the dump, so the polluted discharge drains directly into the Vardar River. The enormous mound 23 meters high has been fenced off to prevent entry of people and cattle, but still, the location doesn’t have video surveillance or a guard that would be warning people to keep off the dump.

 

The bitter experience of the local population

The people from Jegunovce and the surrounding villages told us that in the last 2 decades since the treatment plant was built, the wastewater that is draining from the landfill and the objects of the former industrial complex has been captured through a pipeline and is not visible. Still, the consequences of its presence scare them to hell even today.

Dragoljub Jovanovski from Jegunovce told us that in the past before the treatment plant was built, there were cases when the cattle would drink the polluted waters and soon die.

“After that we understood that the water is poisonous, but now it is diverted through a pipeline, it is hidden,” Jovanovski says.

Trpche Teofilovski, another local, says that Jegunovce has clean drinking water and that he has never heard of anyone having health problems due to the industrial landfill with hexavalent chromium. Still, he didn’t want to tell in detail how efficient the wastewater treatment plant of Jugohrom is.

He told us that around 20 years ago, the whole system for diverting the dangerous discharge from the landfill to the treatment plant was built, but he cant’t say anything about the capacity of the facility.

We also spoke with Jovica Jovanovski from the village of Jegunovce about the problem with the waste materials that are stockpiled in the industrial dump.

“The problem isn’t solved, and there isn’t anyone who will solve it. We should complain to the higher instances,” Jovanovski says grudgingly.

He explains that Jegunovce has clear drinking water, but that the situation with the water near the landfill is altogether different.

The inflow of the discharge from the landfill into the treatment plant; Photo credit: Meta.mk

The key question is what are the quantities of the discharge containing hexavalent chromium and where the water ends, but no one could provide a definite answer. Anyway, the alarming situation can be witnessed with the naked eye. One cannot expect detailed answers about the hazard from the workers at the treatment plant within the Jugohrom’s yard. And this is just because the complex hadn’t had an environmental team for 20 years. At the moment, only UHRM conducts analyses of the water of the Vardar River.

The treatment plant has been managed by the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning, but it isn’t working in full capacity. If once it operated in three 6-hour shifts, but now only for a few hours. Its capacity now is 60 cubic meters, unlike the situation once, when it processed up to 600 cubic meters of water daily.

The inflow of the discharge from the landfill into the treatment plant; Photo credit: Meta.mk

The discharge coming from the landfill’s drainage system has concentrations from 400 to 1,000 milligrams per liter of hexavalent chromium, while the wastewater from the plant’s well system has concentrations from 2 to 4 milligrams per liter.

As the employees at the treatment plant explain, in order to clean the hexavalent chromium from the landfill, these two types of water are collected in a pool, they are mixed together, and the concentrations are decreased up to 60 or 80 milligrams per liter.

At the stations for reduction and neutralization, the hexavalent chromium becomes trivalent chromium, which isn’t considered dangerous for the environment and its Ph value is balancing between 6 and 7. The processed water should pass through a separator and be discharged into the Bistrica River. However, the separator is out of order at the moment, and therefore the processed water now ends in the rivers with the sludge.

Tens of millions of EUR will be necessary for remediation of the soil

In 2020, the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning had three public procurements for the restoration of the water treatment station for the reduction of the hexavalent chromium at Jugohrom, for purchasing new reservoirs for the water treatment plant, system maintenance, and remote control.

The waste water treatment plant at Jugohrom; Photo credit: Meta.mk

The Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning stated for Meta.mk that the treatment plant at the Jugohrom plant is owned by Jugohrom ALZAR DPTU company, while the landfill is owned by the Government of the Republic of North Macedonia.

On basis of the purchase agreement for the industrial complex, in 2003, an agreement was signed between SILMAK/EKOMAK (HEK JUGOHROM AD Jegunovce) and the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning, which defines the responsibilities for the treatment plant.

According to the agreement, EKOMAK/SILMAK has taken the responsibility for the treatment plant’s ongoing maintenance. The ongoing maintenance denotes servicing and interventions necessary for the mechanical functioning of the plant’s existing equipment in its then configuration and efficiency.

The ministry has taken the obligation to cover all the expenses for the treatment plant’s continuous work, including the purchase of all necessary products for the process, chemicals, and reagents as well as providing salaries and expenses for the workers. Since 2016, since Jugohrom seized working, all of the company’s obligations were overtaken by the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning.

This ministry also stated that last year they did the purchase of a basic project for the repair of the separator in the treatment plant and at the moment, the preparations are underway for producingtechnical specification for publishing a public procurement for a project of reconstructing the separator.

“At the same, the technical specification is being prepared for the public procurement for maintenance of the equipment both at the treatment plant and the pumping station at the landfill and the SCADA system for 2022. The procurements are planned for the end of February 2022,” said the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning.

The manager of the DPTU Jugohrom ALZA, Vasko Skenderovski stated for Meta.mk that the company is obliged to have the employees at the treatment plant on its payroll, even though the assets for their salaries are refunded by the ministry. Also, this ministry is purchasing the chemicals necessary for the station’s operations.

Skenderovski says that the plant has no authority at all either over the landfill, where the old waste with the hexavalent chromium is stockpiled. It is outside the complex’s yard and is in very bad condition. The stockpiles there are not only leftovers from the plant’s operations, such as slag consisting of ferrosilicon and ferrochrome, but there is also a lot of construction waste and other types of waste.

The toxic materials across the landfill, very near the Vardar River. Photo: Meta.mk

The depositing of the waste wasn’t conducted systematically, and therefore it is uncertain whether some of it can be used as secondary raw material and in what quantities.

“Jugohrom is a separate legal entity which apart from not having any authorizations, doesn’t see any financial logic to enter in the process of cleaning this landfill. It would only create an additional expense and we have no interest whatsoever,” said Skenderovski.

The Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning explains that a long-term solution would be to remediate the industrial landfill. One of the options is to relocate the waste i.e. remediation of the landfill.

“We have companies that are interested in extraction of useful mineral raw materials and a remediation, but we still haven’t got a company with the experience that is encompassing all aspects of managing dangerous waste of this type,” said the Ministry.

In 2007, a feasibility study for remediation of the landfill was conducted, and then it was determined that over €20 million would be required. However, looking backward, these expenses are a lot bigger since the study was prepared in accordance with the prices valid then.

 

Jegunovce will be declared a contaminated area?

The Ministry stated that the adoption of the amendments and additions to the Law on the Environment is currently in procedure at the parliament, in order to allow formal identification of the contaminated areas on the territory of North Macedonia. However, new enactments are introduced that will set the process of dealing with a contaminated area. When the area is identified formally, it will be declared as contaminated by the Government and a Plan for managing a contaminated area should be prepared for Jegunovce, that must  include remediation of the area.

The industrial landfill at Jegunovce. Photo: Meta.mk

Meta.mk tried to contact Municipality of Jegunovce and its mayor Dime Kostadinovski. We asked them what steps the local self-government might take in order to decrease the danger of polluting the water, soil, and air in Jegunovce from the hexavalent chromium and other waste materials. We received no answers from the local authorities.

Otherwise, the local population, together with the expert studies that we consulted, agree that the wastewater treatment plant should be put into use as soon as possible and prevent the drainage of toxic waters from the landfill into the river Vardar. At the same time, a long-term solution for the people and the whole living environment would be to clean the landfill at Jegunovce of the dangerous materials and to remove the whole waste from the location.
Authors: Sanja Naumovska

Bojan Blaževski