Gulf of Corinth polluted by aluminium plant waste

For decades the Gulf of Corinth has been the receptacle for huge quantities of waste from the Aluminium of Greece (formerly Pechiney) plant. A red sludge enriched with heavy metals has covered a large sector of Antikyra Bay and parts of the rest of the gulf as well. As concern mounts over the extent and effects of this pollutant, the firm has announced that by the end of 2006 it will stop this practice. The question remains whether that will be enough or whether the waters will need to be cleaned. Recently, five fishermen’s associations from the area, with the support of 102 other groups (environmental, professional and cultural) and several parliamentary deputies from the prefectures of Corinthia and Arcadia, called on the prime minister to take immediate action to stop the gulf from becoming a dead sea. «Fishing reserves have decreased to dangerous levels. Much is to blame, but we believe that the chief culprit is Aluminium of Greece. Our catches have been greatly reduced over the last six to seven years. Sometimes our nets are weighed down with sludge,» said fisherman Lefteris Karakatsanis. On the other hand, the mayor of Antikyra claims the bay is «completely clean,» and that there are no problems with the local fishing industry, a claim which reflected conflicting interests. The aluminium plant, at Aspra Spitia in the prefecture of Viotia, began pumping bauxite sludge out into the Bay of Antikyra in the early 1960s. Every year, about 680,000 tons are deposited in the bay, about three times the annual amount of natural sediments brought down by rivers flowing in to the gulf. The firm is not violating the law, since it actually has a permit to do this; even so, this does not make it acceptable practice, particularly since the Gulf of Corinth is an almost enclosed body of water, where ecosystems are at risk of sustaining irreparable damage. The firm claims the dumping is international practice that is slowly being abandoned. Meanwhile, Aluminium of Greece is a firm that has received state benefits in the form of subsidies for the enormous amounts of electrical power it consumes (about 5 percent of total nationwide consumption). If the company chose to dispose of its waste on land, this would increase production costs by no more than 2-3 percent. Surveys The Marine Geology Laboratory at Patras University has been studying the problem for 20 years, partly funded by Aluminium of Greece. According to Professor Giorgos Papatheodorou, in the middle of the 1990s, the red sludge had spread widely throughout the gulf. «It covered 16 square kilometers on the bed of the Bay of Antikyra and 277 square kilometers on the bed of the main basin of the Gulf of Corinth,» he said. The firm has responded with a study by the Hellenic Marine Research Center, to which it has assigned the job of monitoring the seabed. Dimitris Sakellariou, a researcher at the center, said the latest measurements show the extent of the red sludge at about 6 square kilometers in the Bay of Antikyra, and in the main gulf from the Bay of Itea and toward the south at the end of the deepest point, although he said the coverage was not uniform. The consequences are first of all mechanical, in that the sludge compresses the seabed. As for the chemical composition of the sludge, the firm’s head of quality, safety and the environment, Dimitris Boufounos, said the sludge is 14-20 percent aluminium, 40-45 percent iron oxide, 5-7 percent titanium oxide and 10 percent calcium oxide, chromium (0.2 percent) and lead (0.1 percent), among other chemicals. Boufounos claims that this kind of waste is not considered dangerous. Yet Papatheodorou points to chemical analyses that show the sludge contains high concentrations of iron, titanium and chromium oxides as well as nickel, cobalt and lead. Lead and chromium These findings were confirmed by the Environment and Public Works Ministry in a recent circular (February 23, 2005) to local groups saying that heightened concentrations of lead were found at several stations. Professor Christos Katsaros, of the Agricultural University, says that an international bibliography has recorded the movement of heavy metals from seaweed into the food chain. In 1991, Paraskevi Malea presented a thesis on the Bay of Antikyra noting much higher percentages of lead, cadmium and clay in the flora of the seabed. Sakellariou, however, gave reassurances. “According to analyses of sediments and waters and toxicology analyses of mussels and fish, the red sludge does not appear to be toxic; on the contrary, it behaves as inert matter. It is certainly richer in heavy metals, but that doesn’t mean it is toxic,» he said. It is clear that further independent studies are required. In the meantime, it would seem that the sooner the red sludge is stopped from entering the waters of the gulf, the better.