Psyttaleia: The politics of the sewage stockpile and a problem with still no solution in sight

The Athens Water and Sewerage Company (EYDAP), which manages the waste treatment center on the islet of Psyttaleia, off Piraeus’s southwestern suburbs, refused us permission to visit the islet, saying that, as an industrial area, access was restricted «EYDAP is not happy about the situation but the problem is that the state of affairs on the island does not reflect well on EYDAP and that is why we don’t even allow the state television station to come and film there,» we were told by EYDAP’s press office. No doubt the 300,000 tons of treated sewage stockpiled on the island is not a pleasant sight, nor a pleasant odor, for the mainland residents just across the short stretch of water. Nor has it done anything for the quality of the water in the Saronic Gulf, which just a few years ago had begun to clear. EYDAP might claim that the wastewater is not toxic and there is no risk of it contaminating the sea, but it once claimed just the opposite to the Council of State in an attempt to overturn a ruling by the Attica Prefecture’s Association of Municipalities (ESDKNA) banning the transport of the treated waste to the Ano Liosia landfill. The problem is due to the political mistakes and inaction on the part of all governments since 1981; waste treatment projects for the capital were begun among much fanfare but no solution has been found for what to do with the treated waste. Instead of reaping profits, the waste is costing taxpayers more and more. Even if a drying plant planned for the islet begins operations by March, as Environment and Public Works Minister Giorgos Souflias has promised, the problem will continue for some time due to the huge amount already accumulated. Almost as soon as Andreas Papandreou took office in 1981, the first discussions began about a major project that would radically change Athens’s image. The construction of a waste treatment plant for the city’s wastewater – which until then had run out to the sea as a red river from Akrokeramo between Keratsini and Drapetsona to flow into the Saronic Gulf – was a challenge for a nation with a budding European identity. A series of processes would transform the «manure of the Augean stables» into useful products that could be sold for profit. The islet of Psyttaleia, then the site of the navy prison, was chosen. Work began in 1984, but those in charge of the project were not blessed with foresight, as it turned out, not even as far as the self-evident fact that the 500 tons of waste treated every day would have to be disposed of. The first suggestion was to compost the sludge at the Ano Liosia plant or at an abandoned quarry. The next suggestion was for aerobic processing followed by transport by ship, at first to Sudan and later to Germany, where today small quantities are being sent at great cost. As a result, ever since the Ano Liosia landfill stopped taking the sludge in September 2005, huge quantities have been piling up (illegally) on the small islet. According to data from the prefecture of Piraeus, there are about 300,000 tons of it. The picture presented certainly does not do justice to either EYDAP or the politicians. And while the Piraeus Prefecture keeps attacking and issuing threats, it has never carried out an environmental survey; the siting of the waste treatment plant on Psyttaleia was illegal from the start. As the islet is very small and there are no areas provided for storing the sludge, the authorities have filled in a small gulf at the southeastern end of the islet behind the chapel of Aghios Alexandros, creating basins of clay soil to take the sludge. Over time, these basins have filled to capacity and have been unified so as to utilize the space between them, thereby raising their levels. In the few remaining open spaces on the islet are piles of thousands of bags of sludge (just a small percentage of the total) waiting to be loaded onto ships for the Rhine, where all trace of them disappears. Part of the remaining waste is supposed to be «neutralized» with lime, a method that was unsuccessfully tried at Ano Liosia. With every day that passes, 500 more tons of sewage arrive on the island, 15,000 tons a month, 180,000 tons a year. Instead of resulting in the projected profits of 15 euros a ton, the cost when transported to Ano Liosia, the cost is now 130 euros a ton, paid to the ships that transport it to Germany.