Airport’s environmental impact questioned

It is no secret that Greece is having trouble enacting the European Union’s environmental policy – one need look no further than the gateway to the country: Athens’s Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport (AIA) at Spata. Behind the eco-friendly profile presented by the airport’s environment department (recycling programs, environment scholarships, playgrounds and parks), the reality is somewhat different. The airport’s management has been accused of breaking environmental laws, polluting the area’s surface and underground water and of noise pollution, all of which, according to recent scientific studies, are harming the residents of eastern Attica. AIA management is formally obliged to limit the airport’s environmental impact. The Greek state is obliged to ensure it does so, but apparently sees its role as doing no more than accepting delivery of the data it is presented with – and raising obstacles to media investigations – as well as refusing to cooperate with any other organizations, such as universities or prefectures. Reports by the Citizens’ Ombudsman and the relevant department at the Environment and Public Works Ministry were based on charges made by local residents and associations affected by the airport and who recently decided to join forces under a coordinating committee. They are asking the state to do the obvious – enforce the law and European Union directives on the environment in order to protect its own citizens. The airport’s management is governed by Law 2338/1995 that ratified the state’s contract with Hochtief (in which the Spanish group ACS has a 25 percent share), which, although it owns only 40 percent of shares in the airport (55 percent belong to the state and 5 percent to the Kopelouzos Group) is responsible for the running of the airport under a 30-year contract, which it is trying to extend another 10-15 years. The contract states that the firm’s environment department is responsible for controlling the airport’s effects on the surrounding area, with the supervision of the ministry. Meanwhile, one provision in the contract states that if the state restricts the operation of the airport, it must pay the firm compensation. The Transport Ministry’s Civil Aviation Service is responsible for flight safety, and for ensuring that takeoff and landing approach paths do not disturb the residents of surrounding areas. Traffic fumes It isn’t only the aircraft that pollute the atmosphere around airports but the heavy traffic moving to and from it, particularly at Spata where a large retail park has been established right at the airport itself. According to Vassiliki Smyrnioudi, head of the atmospheric quality department at the Department of Atmospheric Pollution and Noise Control at the Environment and Public Works Ministry, the airport management has done nothing about setting pollution meters around the airport as it is required to do. «They simply send us charts with pollution levels, which we cannot guarantee. In any case, more frequent measurements are required if we are to speak with any certainty,» she said. Attempts to get an official statement from the ministry on the issue proved fruitless, despite repeated efforts. Loud aircraft Areas in eastern Attica have suffered varying degrees of disturbance from airplanes taking off and landing, even in Vari, Voutzas, Mati and Nea Makri, which the authorities believed would not be affected and which are not on the list of areas receiving offset benefits. AIA has set up 10 fixed noise recorders and one mobile one in areas under flight paths. Following repeated complaints from residents, Nikos Vittis of the Citizens’ Ombudsman compiled a report in December 2006 that found, among other things, that noise reduction and takeoff and landing procedures were not always observed, resulting in heightened noise in certain residential areas. Some aircraft flew in non-approved paths in order to reduce flying time and save fuel and therefore their noise levels were not recorded. Noise recorders were not linked to radar, therefore noise levels could not be linked to particular flights. Meanwhile, the airport’s environmental effects study was based on another dating from 1981. These and other findings by experts, as well as lawsuits by locals, have had no effect on the Civil Aviation Service or the airport’s environment department. The former told the Citizens’ Ombudsman, for example, that «everything is being done legally.» The latter refused to set up new noise-measuring equipment at suggested points. Residents of Artemis have themselves paid for the services of an expert from the citizens’ group European Union against Aircraft Noise (UECNA) that operates under the auspices of the European Parliament and which installed two meters at Aghios Ioannis and Aghia Kyriaki. Waste water The airport was built in an area that has no sewer system, therefore the processed urban waste water from the airport’s treatment plant was to be used solely to irrigate the land within the airport premises after being tested daily for quality. Industrial waste was to be collected for processing. There were also provisions for a peripheral canal for channeling rainwater into the Erasinos River that flows into the sea at Vravrona and the Rafina watercourse, which has been classified as a landscape of natural beauty. When the airport was built, flooding occurred in the areas north and south of the airport that are mainly farmland, destroying crops. Eastern Attica prefectural councilor Christiana Frangou, along with local residents, began a long struggle that is still being waged. Analyses of water samples found they contained large quantities of nitrates and phosphorus. There is a dispute between the airport, the industry and the Athens Water and Sewerage Company (EYDAP) as to who is responsible. In July 2004 Citizens’ Ombudsman expert Sotiris Stasinos confirmed that environmental conditions were being systematically and chronically infringed. Waste was not being processed in an approved manner so that part of the toxic waste – including heavy metals, petroleum products and other dangerous substances – were being stored in plastic containers and firefighting reservoirs and then channeled into the waste management facility and, particularly after rain, would flow into storm water channels and onto vineyards, farmland and unsurfaced roads, overflowing onto paved roads. The relevant ministry authority confirmed these findings and fined the airport 430,000 euros in August 2005 for these violations. AIA then built a unit for the preliminary treatment of industrial waste and another for removing nitrates and phosphorus from the waste water as well as a network for surface irrigation. As a result, an appeals court reduced the fine to 90,000 euros. But when 5,000 cubic meters of water flooded into the Vourva area of Spata last September, AIA representatives hastened to reassure residents that this was a controlled release of clean water from firefighting reservoirs. From the May issue of Kathimerini’s supplement Eco.