Фото: Бојан Блажевски

In the past several decades, the villages of Tabanovce, Lojane and Vaksince in the Kumanovo region have been continuously poisoned by arsenic and other toxic elements that had been dispersed on two locations near the border of North Macedonia with Serbia.

At the first location, in the proximity of the Tabanovce Railway Station there is an illegal dump with hundreds of tons of tailings from the now closed chromium and antimony mine Lojane. It ceased operation in 1979.

The illegal dump with these hazardous chemicals in Tabanovce is in close proximity of the Refugee Camp and the houses of the residents, but also of the location where in future the joint railway border crossing between Macedonia and Serbia will be built.

A team of Meta.mk and Portalb.mk’s journalists visited the location in Tabanovce and noticed how hazardous the site is. The location where the arsenic and other dangerous chemicals are scattered around is not fenced-off and there aren’t any warnings for the local residents and passers-by that any prolonged stay on this location is hazardous to people’s health.

Smelter once functioned at the location in Tabanovce, but the facility had been completely demolished. On the spot, one can now see scattered empty bottles, thrashed clothing and food remains, which indicates that in near past people were hiding in this location, probably migrants, waiting to cross the border with Serbia illegaly.

When we approached the dangerous chemical deposits to record them, strong stench from the metals and the various chemicals struck us. After 15 minutes of walking around, heavy headache appeared just from the walking around, even though everyone wore protective masks.

Near this dump in Tabanovce, the local residents are planting their crops. Close to the hazardous spot there is a river and the stench of arsenic can be felt by the passengers at the railway station that is in close proximity and by the refugees located in the camp.

From Tabanovce we headed to the village of Lojane, where a mine for chromium, antimony and arsenic functioned in the past. The abandoned facilities of the Lojane mine are an ideal location to shoot a horror movie. In the stripped building without doors and windows, one can notice food leftovers, clothes and bottles, which indicates that people had been staying over at this location not long ago.

The abandoned Lojane mine; Photo: Bojan Blaževski

The deposits in Lojane contain 15,000 tons of arsenic sulfide, the material being scattered around the former plant. Above the mine, we noticed sheep and cows grazing, although the soil, water and air around the former mine are heavily contaminated with the dangerous metals.

From the ruins of mine’s plant, one can hear the ring bell of the Rilindja Elementary School. The pupils are leaving for their homes in the village of Loyane. Every day they are endangered by the scattered arsenic and other compounds in the deposited tailings, since the school is located at a 100 m distance from the toxic hot spot.

The elementary school is located 100 m from the arsenic tailings; Photo Bojan Blaževski

Similarly Tabanovce, we entered the Lojane mine without any problems, since the location isn’t fenced off. There aren’t any warning signs, not even around the plot with the deposits to warn that even the smell, not to mention playing on spot or consuming even the smallest quantities of these chemicals, can cause serious sickness or death both to the children and the adults.

The bulldozer in the mine’s yard, the only proof that there might be any type of activity at this location; Photo Bojan Blaževski

In the Lojane mine’s yard, we found a bulldozer, but there was no one around to ask whether it is supposed to be used for cleanup of the deposits.

 

The institutions pass the buck

The local residents, the local authorities and the state are all aware that the deposits and the dangerous dump have to be cleaned up from the arsenic and the other metals.

The Ministry of Economy said for Meta.mk that in August 2014 an agreement was signed between the Government and Kaltun Madencilik DOO Skopje for the exploitation of the mineral resources at Loyane. This company also signed a concession agreement for the location and on the 6th of February 2018, a permit for the exploitation of the hazardous materials from Loyane was granted.

„According to the Law on Mineral Resources, with the request for an exploitation permit, the concessionaire has submitted a Decision for the approval of an analysis for the protection of the environment, issued by the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning, the Administration of Environment No. 11-2714/3 dated 27th of June 2016“, informs the Ministry of Economy.

We didn’t receive any precise answer why these hazardous chemicals weren’t removed from Loyane, but the ministry informed us that the concession agreement with the company is valid until the 25th of August 2024.

The Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning stated for Portalb.mk that in North Macedonia there is no landfill for hazardous waste where the tailings from Tabanovce and Loyane could be deposited.

“According to the Article 54 of the Law on Mineral Resources after the exploitation permit for technogenic minerals is issued,the concessionaire is obliged to start with the exploitation of the mineral resources within two years,” explained briefly the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning, which further directed us to contact the Ministry of Economy for more details.

We wouldn’t delve into whether the concessionaire was able throughout the years to remove the hazardous materials from the location and in what quantities, but from the situation at the locations that we witnessed, it is obvious there are enormous quantities of arsenic and other chemicals that are scattered – both in Loyane and in Tabanovce.

Regarding the dangers of polluting the water, soil, air and the complete produce in this part of the Kumanovo region, Meta.mk, we also sent questions to the State Environmental Inspectorate.

Even those plants that manadeg to grow are completely contaminated; Photo: Bojan Blaževski

The Inspectorate stated that it has conducted inspections both at the Loyane mine and the Tabanovce dump in September this year, and that previously these types of inspections and supervision were conducted periodically at both locations. The Inspectorate cleary stateed there is no guard service there.

The inspections were conducted on the 12th and 14th of September at both locations. The State Environmental Inspectorate’s conclusion was that the waste tailings contain a high concentration of arsenic and pose a great danger for people’s health and for the environment. After the inspection was conducted, the Inspectorate sent a notification to the Ministry of Environment for the necessity of a clean up of the tailings dump at Tabanovce.

What one can see within the Loyane mine’s yard can also be read in Loyane Mine Feasibility Study, that was produce in 2007. The study determines the source of the contamination, specifies and quantifies the polluters, determines the pollution zones and the risk caused by contamination.

Various technologies for closure, cleaning and remediation and the necessary assets for the remediation are listed in the Feasibility study… But on the spot, during the period 2008-2010, only the project  “Sustainable Remediation and Management of the Pollution at Buchim and Loyane” was implemented. Regarding Loyane, as part of the project, a recultivation of part of the old tailings dump near the elementary school in the village of Loyane was conducted because of the urgent need to decrease the danger for children’s health.

The Lipkovo Municipality, which includes the village of Loyane, informed Portalb.mk that they are a rural municipality and because of the small financial capacity, it cannot completely clean the arsenic and the other ore.

“There were various initiatives on part of the Ministry of Economy for shutting down the mine, but obviously because of the high costs, these initiatives were abandoned,” said Erkan Arifi, the mayor of Lipkovo, for Portalb.mk.

In order to ease the life of the residents of Loyane, Lipkovo Municipality builds water pipeline system, with the main feed pipe from the Glazhnja Reservoir already laid through the village Lipkovo to Lojane, as is the other feed from the village of Slupchane to the village of Opae, and from the village of Lipkovo to the village of Nikushtak. The building of the secondary water pipeline sysytem in the villages of the Lipkovo Municipality has already been started and the final goal is to allow the people in the village of Loyane to get drinking water that is not contaminated with arsenic and other poisons.

“In the past, there was a project with foreign organizations for cleaning the arsenic and the other ores on the territory of this municipality, but unfortunately, the area wasn’t completely cleaned because the project was costly. Back then, the Ministry of Environment financedthe cleaning of the arsenic and the other ore and trees were planted,” Mayor Arifi explains.

He also said that Lipkovo Municipality has been discussing the problem with the central authorities, and they as local authorities are completely open for cooperation with the state authorities, the concessionaire and the environmental associations in the country and abroad.

 

The local citizens are waiting for the promises to be fullfiled

Meta.mk and Portalb’s team talked with people from Loyane. We met one of them, as he was performing agricultural activities.

He said that the arsenic is mostly present in the villages of Loyane and Vaksince, and the people have problems with the drinking water. Most of the houses still use well water, but this water is very bad since the whole location is contaminated with arsenic and other metals.

“When it comes to agriculture, we grow crops, but we cannot get the desired yield, as 100 hectares of land from here to Tabanovce are destroyed by the arsenic. The land is destroyed and nothing grows. This is very bad for the crops. The authorities have been giving promises for the past 20-30 years, but they do nothing. We were promised that the process will start, but these are just promises,” said our interlocutor who wished to remain unanimous.

At the village’s center, we met Azir Aziri, who was eager to talk about the burning issue that the people from this region have.

He said that they used to draw water from the river, but three people got poisoned by arsenic. The water itself smells of arsenic.

“I passed the news to the people from the village and I told them not to use the water from the river or around the river. As I was told by the locals, there is a part that isn’t used since it is full of arsenic. I have heard from the elders about premature deaths of locals from cancer because of the life near the water,” said Azir Aziri.

He told us about the problems that the locals have who had been paying up to €4,000 – €5,000 to dig out a well with drinking water and they had dug up to 80 meters deep in order to find clean drinking water.

The scattered arsenic in Loyane mine. Photo: Bojan Blazhevski

The people of Loyane are angry and disappointed with the institutions from which they are requesting to start working on solving this life-threatening problem.

The Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning said that in the past year they have started making amendments to the Law on Environment, with the goal to allow a formal identification of the contaminated areas in the country. At the same time, new enactments will be introduced that will help set the managing the contaminated area i.e. a legal basis will be formed for adopting a methodology for identifying a certain area as contaminated.

This law is in the phase of adoption at the Republic of North Macedonia’s Parliament and then the Government can declare a certain area as contaminated and adopt a Plan for managing a contaminated area. When this procedure passes, the same Plan would include remediation that would at least alleviate the problem with the pollution.

For the soil remediation, in 2007 it was determined with a feasibility study that it would take at least US$ 3.4 million. Since then, the ore had beens spread around by the wind, the water is being drunk, the agricultural plants are being planted and eaten and there is control over these issues, but no one is reacting.

The Ministry of Environment explained that the feasibility study will have to be revised, and it is likely that the remediation of the terrain will take far more financial assets than what was determined in 2007. At the same time, these assets will not include the assets necessary for the dislocation of the hazardous materials from Tabanovce and Loyane.

While the institutions say that an integrated approach is necessary, including the inclusion of more institutions for solving the problem, the people of Loyane and Tabanovce state they are fed up with the promises. They are demanding urgent action that will help stop the silent death of the people from the surrounding villages.

Authors: Bojan Blaževski, Teuta Buci