Uroš Macerl

2017 Goldman Prize Recipient
Europe

  • Slovenia
  • Toxic & Nuclear Contamination

Uroš Macerl, an organic farmer from Slovenia, successfully stopped a cement kiln from co-incinerating petcoke with hazardous industrial waste by rallying legal support from fellow Eko Krog activists and leveraging his status as the only citizen allowed to challenge the plant’s permits.

Trading one bad solution for another

For decades, air pollution from local manufacturing operations had been settling over the narrow valleys in central Slovenia’s historically industrial towns. Dangerous emissions affected local farmers, forests, wildlife, and people. Cancer rates in the region outpaced the rest of the country; children who live here are twice as likely to suffer from chronic respiratory illnesses.

In recent years, the European Union introduced carbon incentives to industries replacing coal with so-called clean green sources such as medical waste, old tires, and other industrial residue. In a perverse scheme that traded one bad solution for another, manufacturers began converting old industrial plants to power them with these alternative fuels.

Among these companies was Lafarge Cement, which in 2003, took over a 130-year-old cement plant in Trbovlje and began burning petcoke, a byproduct of oil refining that burns extremely hot—and incredibly dirty. Cement production is a highly polluting process; this industry alone is responsible for nearly 5 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Lafarge received strong support from the local government. The company promised jobs and denied that its emissions would harm residents. Its assertions were soon met with skepticism by citizens who had suffered enough from rampant pollution. Among them were members of Eko Krog, a local environmental group organized by volunteers.

A refusal to accept injustice

Uroš Macerl, 48, is the president of Eko Krog and an organic farmer whose family farm sits on the outskirts of the Lafarge plant. He grew up on the farm, which belonged to his grandfather, and spent a lot of time playing and working outside. He remembers seeing the snow often turn black from coal dust and pollution within a day or two after falling on the ground. The tap water at home also came out of the faucet black.

Many farmers suffered huge losses as industrial pollution wiped out the three most vital elements of their livelihood: clean air, soil, and water. When he was 23 years old, Macerl took over his family’s farm but gave up the fields and orchards when air pollution made growing crops impossible. He has since been raising sheep instead.

Unwilling to accept the injustice to his community, Macerl began organizing farmers, residents, and local groups to collect air quality data that showed a dramatic increase in dangerous pollutants since Lafarge had begun burning petcoke. He presented the data to the media, as well as local and national authorities. But his arguments fell on deaf ears as job creation was prioritized at the expense of air quality and people’s health—a strange rationale given that Lafarge had actually cut jobs.

Dramatic improvements in air quality

After enduring years of pollution from the cement plant, Macerl came to a breakthrough in 2009 when Lafarge applied for an environmental permit to co-incinerate hazardous industrial waste with petcoke. The company claimed that only areas within 500 meters of the main chimney stack would be affected by the emissions. By coincidence, part of Macerl’s property fell within the pollution zone outlined in Lafarge’s plans, granting him legal standing to challenge the permit application.

The Slovenian government rubberstamped the permit, and Lafarge began incinerating over 100 tons of hazardous industrial waste on a daily basis. Macerl filed and won a lawsuit that canceled the permit, but Lafarge continued to burn petcoke and waste. Noting the Slovenian authorities’ failure to enforce the court ruling, Eko Krog and Macerl informed the European Union.

As the case made its way through the European Commission, Macerl rallied community opposition while simultaneously managing his farm. As president of Eko Krog, he kept the community updated on the legal proceedings while organizing protests in Trbovlje and the capital.

The European Commission sided with Macerl. And when Lafarge continued its operations, the commission requested that Slovenia be brought before the European Court of Justice for its failure to enforce EU pollution standards. The national authorities finally ordered Lafarge to halt production, and the company complied in March 2015.

Since the plant’s shutdown, the region has seen visible improvements in air quality. Spruce trees are once again growing on Macerl’s farm, and migrating birds that hadn’t been seen in decades have returned. The number of days with dangerous pollution levels have dropped to about 50 a year, down from 160 at the height of Lafarge’s operations. Lafarge continues its attempts to restart co-incinerating petcoke and waste, but faces formidable opposition in Macerl, Eko Krog members, and a community determined to protect its health and environment.

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