Power utility makes barren land bloom again

Eighteen years have passed since the first tree was planted in the main lignite extraction field at Ptolemaida in northern Greece. Since then, around an imaginary axis of Amyntaio-Ptolemaida-Kozani, a lunar landscape covering hundreds of hectares left behind by massive Public Power Corporation (PPC) machines digging out the precious energy-generating mineral has been turned into a small paradise. Where once no grass grew, now there are woods of pine, acacia, wildlife sanctuaries, fields of wheat and barley and orchards. Green barriers have sprung up between the mines and villages and small wetlands were reborn in what is now the biggest land reclamation project in the whole of Greece. PPC here is showing a softer, more environmental side. Its Land Reclamation Project is, according to the power utility, «a massive effort for the environment,» which is being spearheaded by the General Directorate of Lignite Mines in Western Macedonia, a little outside Ptolemaida, set amid the greenery that it caused to grow. Gaping wounds The Ptolemaida plain meets 50-60 percent of Greece’s energy needs and its six lignite-burning power units – producing 4,043 megawatts of power in total – work unceasingly. The South Field, North Field, Core Field and Main Field are linked by 250 kilometers of conveyor belts that feed the power stations with lignite. Tons of ash are belched into the sky from an energy-generating city that never sleeps. Gigantic earth-moving machines open trenches 120-200 meters deep that may be several kilometers long. For decades, from Achlada and Amyntaio in the Florina prefecture, to Ptolemaida, Aghios Dimitrios and Kozani, PPC has been expropriating cultivated fields, moving villages, leveling hills, raising others, wiping out road networks and carving out others, transforming the landscape and the morphology of the prefecture, as well as the whole socioeconomic fabric of the area. Each extraction field resembles nothing so much as a gaping wound. Planting Overall, PPC has expropriated 1,880 hectares in the area between Ptolemaida and Amyntaio, and, due to the existence of lignite beneath their land, it has moved the villages of Kardia, Haravgi and Exochi Kozanis. Two more – Kleitos and Komanos – are undergoing translocation. As the coal is extracted, mining leaves behind dust, spoil heaps and barren ore. This infertile material, together with lignite gasification ashes (residue left after the lignite is burnt) is transferred and deposited in specially selected sites. «Throughout the Ptolemaida plain, in the first years of heavy mining, areas were selected for spoil heaps, which were PPC’s job to manage,» Philippos Filios, assistant director of the Western Macedonia lignite center, told Kathimerini. «Since the 1980s, integrated schemes to reclaim these areas at the lignite mines have been implemented with plans, studies, inspections, programs and works.» It was 1986 when PPC began to reclaim the land that had been destroyed by mining. Today, a total expanse of 3,800 hectares has been restored, of which 2,700 hectares were turned into forest and 1,100 into agricultural land. Some 6 million trees were planted, including acacias, pines, poplars and some ornamental bushes in specially selected areas. Acacia in particular proved to be wonder-working tree in combating ash, as the leaves provide leaf mould for humus. PPC uses the «riper» method for plantation, which allows as many as 1,000 trees an hour to be planted. A method to transport root systems is also widely used; with it, an area acquires an impenetrable acacia forest within two to three years. According to Filios, 600,000 trees are planted every year. The power utility’s environment section also has fields experimentally planted with wheat in order to monitor the fertility of new soils. Today, large expanses are rented out to farmers in the area to cultivate wheat varieties. Output is sometimes greater than that of the surrounding area. Giving with one hand… At the same time, numerous other projects aimed at attracting visitors have now been completed. A few kilometers outside Ptolemaida, PPC has created an exhibition center (visited by 6,000 people annually from Greece and abroad), an open-air theater, a model forestry park with plant species from the area, and a greenhouse with hydroponically cultivated crops, using the heat method (in collaboration with the National Agricultural Research Foundation and the Technical College [TEI] of Florina). The last-mentioned was set up in order to study the possibility of greenhouse cultivation, with encouraging results. Also in the area are a train history park, the church of Aghia Varvara, a mining school, a model orchard and an artificial wetland, next to the Kozani-Ptolemaida national road. The wetland is, in fact, destined to become an educational training park. To enrich the fauna, the West Macedonia lignite center has created a small animal sanctuary (for rabbits, pheasants, partridges and the like). PPC executives declare themselves satisfied with the work done so far on land reclamation these past few years. But «more could be done,» said Roulis Kokelidis, a former Kozani deputy and currently a professor in Italy. He has busied himself with the question of land reclamation, having suggested in the past a national environmental park in the Kozani prefecture that would use the land reclaimed by PPC. While, however, PPC is carrying out a huge restoration project, it shows a tendency to regard reclaimed land as its own particular preserve. The destruction of large swathes of forest on restored land to create passages for machinery and conveyor belts cannot be explained otherwise. Locals are also restricted in their use of and access to the area. The power utility retorts that it has submitted proposals to the Region of Western Macedonia for the creation of an energy park on reclaimed land – which would inform visitors on renewable energy sources.