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An Ancient Greek River Stinks With Tragedy Of Modern Industrial Pollution

Name the color, name the odor: Local factories have long been dumping all kinds of pollutants into the river north of Athens. Will the arrival of legendary American activist Erin Brockovich make a difference?

Greece has so much to protect from pollution (eviagreece.com)
Greece has so much to protect from pollution (eviagreece.com)
Alain Salles

BOEOTIA - A mini cascade flows onto some flowers and roses before the Asopus River, just below, swallows it up. The scenery could just as well be of a perfectly preserved rustic countryside, if it weren't for the unrelenting, nauseating odor. Just above is a chicken slaughterhouse, and just like most of the businesses in this industrial zone 50 kilometers north of Athens, it dumps its sullied waters into the local water system. A little further down, instead of the smell of chicken feces, the area reeks of ammonia.

At 80-kilometers long, the Asopus is a relatively short river. It eventually empties into the Euripus Strait, an arm of the Aegean Sea next to the island of Euboea. In antiquity, it was a river god, the child of Oceanus and of Thetys. Today, it's the worst kind of modern waterway, polluted by metals dumped by surrounding businesses, turning it red, purple, or black, just like the colors of smoke rising from the factories.

Crisscrossed by mostly underground canals that direct the factory waste waters toward the river, this zone was illegally developed during the military junta (1967-1974) after orders that the country's industry be decentralized. Some of the businesses left Attica, the region around Athens, for neighboring Boeotia in Oinofyta, without any sort of planning. In order to promote development, a decree was issued, which had not been repealed until 2010, authorizing factories to dump their waste into the Asopus River.

The pollution of the river had been denounced before, but the matter gained much more local attention after it was revealed in 2007 that the ground water had traces of dangerous and sometimes carcinogenic substances: hexavalent chromium, cobalt, nickel, magnesium, and arsenic.

The American activist Erin Brockovich—played by Julia Roberts in the movie—who rose to prominence by obtaining damages for victims of hexavalent chromium-polluted water, has launched an international petition about the situation in Asopus. The International Federation for Human Rights sent a July 8 complaint to the Committee on Social Rights at the Council of Europe concerning the health effects of the pollution on nearby inhabitants.

A local priest and his father

Father Iannis Ikonomidis is no Julia Roberts, but he is nevertheless an increasingly public figure. He has become familiar with every nook and cranny of this troubled industrial zone. In the middle of the countryside, hundreds of metallurgical, chemical, and military material businesses coexist alongside fields and crops. Littered throughout this rustic countryside are pieces of airplanes, left by the National Defense Company, considered one of the main polluters.

Ikonomidis arrived in Oinofyta at the age of 10, after a leather manufacturer hired his father as an electrician. "He would come back home completely black. His eyes and his teeth were the only whiteness left, as if he had come out of a mine," the priest recalls.

Father Ikonomidis' activism began in 2000 when he met a chemist working in a household products factory. The business had noticed the quality and efficiency of their products diminishing. The chemist found the culprit: polluted water. "I realized that this water, which was not good for our household appliances, was also the water we were drinking," the priest explains. This is the same water that is used to irrigate the crops, which is then sold in the markets and supermarkets. Indeed, Greek consumers are now avoiding products coming from Boeotia.

During the summer, the bed of the river is generally dry, except when it rains. It is, however, filled with rather clear water when the water company releases it from a nearby lake. "When the company does this, the factories take advantage of it and dump their liquid waste," explains Margarita Karavassili, the special secretary for the environment, energy, and inspection at the Ministry of the Environment.

The inspectors, who are just 40 in number for a country besieged by environmental problems, have played a crucial role in submitting evidence supporting the presence of hexavalent chromium in the Asopus River. Their reports have resulted in financial penalties—and even criminal proceedings—against certain companies.

But for the lawyer Iannis Ktistakis, in charge of the claim for the Hellenic League of Human Rights, a real fix is still elusive: "It's a typical Greek history: we make a lot of noise, but nothing happens."

Read the original article in French

Photo - eviagreece.com

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