People and Pollution of Copsa Mica, Romania

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archvies
22 July 2005

By Dr. Eric Udelhofen

pen5Historical Causes of Pollution in Copsa Mica

Industrial units began appearing in the Copsa Mica area in 1935, but rapid development did not occur until the forced industrialization of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Pollution in Copsa Mica was almost entirely caused by two factories; Carbosin produced carbon black for dies and tires from 1936 until 1993, and SOMETRA is a non-ferrous metallurgical smelter that is still operational.

In 1947, Romania became a Soviet satellite, and nationalization of industry followed soon after. Stalinist-type industrialization goals focused on heavy industry and short-term production quotas. This “industrial megalomania” was characteristic of nearly all of the Soviet satellites. From 1965 on, party and state leadership were monopolized by Nicolae Ceausescu, supposedly the

“most absurd of all the totalitarian governments of this century’s Europe, featuring a personality cult of pathological dimensions, led to distortions in the economy, the degradation of the social and moral life, (and) the isolation of the country from the international community.”

Ceausescu is also blamed for the pervasive and widespread environmental degradation that left many parts of Romania in situations of ecological disaster by the end of his reign. During Ceausescu’s rule, industrial units were situated in such a way as to concentrate pollution from industry in a few small areas, leaving the rest of the country relatively pristine. Copsa Mica had the misfortune of being designated as one of these locations, in spite of the fact that the orographical and meteorological positioning of Copsa Mica is not favorable for polluting industries. Short smokestacks kept pollution from spreading over a large area, and farmers were forced to sell only at Copsa Mica markets in order to restrict the spread of toxins through food vectors, but early workers acknowledged the risk, and were compensated with higher wages. Only under Ceausescu did the plants fall to disrepair, exposing the workers to higher levels of toxicity as the government was retreating more and more behind a veil of secrecy.


The plant at Copsa Mica was part of Ceausescu’s drive to drag Romania into a major industrial role. Plants fell to disrepair under Ceausescu who, unwilling to take on more foreign debt, refused to replace failing parts and filters, causing plant managers to sacrifice worker health and safety as well as environmental concerns in the interest of meeting short-term production quotas. Lead levels in Copsa Mica factories sometimes reached levels that were 1,000 times the allowable international limits. Pollution statistics and consequences were state secrets under the communist regime, and this secrecy prevented both international intervention and local knowledge of the extent of the exposure of residents to toxins. Ceausescu’s police state became increasingly oppressive, particularly in the 1980s, before he was finally overthrown and executed in late 1989.

Revolution ended the communist era in Romania in 1989, when the National Salvation Front dismantled communist institutions and promoted free elections as well as a market economy. In 1991, the new Constitution of Romania passed, containing democratic provisions that conformed to European standards, and the new government pursued large-scale industrial privatization as well as returning land to historical heirs. Romania’s new leaders were eager to show their environmental sensitivity to an international community newly alerted to the appalling ecological state of affairs behind the iron curtain. After 1989, the Romanian government enacted regulations and set up the Ministry of Waters, Forest and Environmental Protection. The environmental strategy of 1991 and 1992 identified 14 environmental “hot spots,” one of which, of course, was Copsa Mica. Because of governmental changes, though, the Environmental Strategy and the National Environmental Action Program were not approved until 1995, at which time more widespread and intensive measures were taken to alleviate pollution, especially within the “hot spots.”

These efforts, along with the passage of the New Environmental Framework Law and the draft Law on Water and Forestry Code, were large steps in the right direction towards improving environmental conditions in Romania. In Copsa Mica, the carbon black plant Carbosin was shut down in 1993, and the lead and zinc smelting factory, SOMETRA, was opened to international industrial safety experts from the U.N., who upgraded some of the equipment, installed new filters, brought long-needed spare parts, and set up emissions monitors.

This was part of a United Nations Industrial Development Organization project that allotted $211,112 to ameliorate some of the environmental damages that previous mistakes had concentrated on the Copsa Mica area, as well as limit future pollution. The projects that the Romanian government deemed a priority for Copsa Mica were: equipment modernization at the nonferrous metallurgical plant SOMETRA, gradual increasing of SO2 recovery at SOMETRA, and afforestation. Indeed, the period of 1990 through 1994 saw a large reduction in emissions as compared to 1989, mostly caused by cutbacks in production; however, some of the reduction can be attributed to technology improvements and pollution reduction efforts.

The Extent of the Problem

The emissions from the two factories contributed to make Copsa Mica one of Europe’s most polluted cities in the 1990s. Carbosin was responsible for the most visible and hence most easily remedied pollution within the Copsa Mica area. When Carbosin was running at full strength during the waning years of Ceausescu’s reign, the outdated machinery would lose or release seven tons of carbon soot per six-hour shift. Emissions from Carbosin left soot everywhere, and though it has been closed for a dozen years, and a large-scale decontamination effort has been made, its impacts are still visible in many places.

Pollutants from SOMETRA, the non-ferrous metalworking smelter, are less visible but more harmful and insidious than those of Carbosin. SOMETRA is largely responsible for some of the most appalling health problems of Copsa Mica’s population due to its emissions of lead, zinc and cadmium. Of these three pollutants, cadmium has the highest toxicity, and exists in pasture topsoil of the surrounding area at a mean content of 2.3 times the maximum allowable limit. The ingestion of this low-quality, toxic forage has led to a deterioration of livestock’s health condition, especially cattle and horses, contributing significantly to the high rate of morbidity and mortality among animals in the Copsa Mica area.

More important, though, are the direct impacts on human health, which include: widespread lung disease, impotence, a life expectancy that is 6 years below the national averag (in 2001) of 71, the highest infant mortality rate in Europe, lead poisoning, reduced lung function, and neurobehavioral problems.

Where is Copsa Mica now?

Between 1993 and 2001, concentrations of all major pollutants decreased significantly, but Copsa Mica remains extremely polluted. In the Tarnava Mare river, downstream from Copsa Mica, “even with the considerable decrease that was noticed over the last decade, the lead concentration remains more than twice the maximum admitted value (MAV), zinc almost ten times, cadmium is close to MAV, and copper is about half of MAV.”

Sheep once black with soot are white again, and houses reveal their true color hidden by Carbosin’s emissions, but insidious pollutants are expected to contaminate the soil and food chain for thirty years to come. Health officials advise against eating livestock or vegetables and drinking the water or milk, as these are vectors for the heavy metal pollutants that are still present at toxic levels in the soil. According to Roger Thurlow, Copsa Mica’s recovery is only skin deep, and due to waning political will and international intervention, residents are now responsible for their own health. Measures such as requiring workers to change into clean clothing before leaving work, washing hands before smoking (the lead on worker’s hands is more dangerous than the cigarette itself), boiling water, and mopping floors have, along with a drop in the level of poisonous emissions, caused quick improvements in health in the mid- to late 1990s.

Doctors noticed that the number of severe cases of lead poisoning declined steadily from the yearly high of 130 in the 1980s, as were lead-related cases of encephalitis, twitchy hands, and lameness. However, once the relatively painless measures of the early nineties had been implemented, and the town was no longer blackened by carbon soot, government enthusiasm faltered. The smelter still lacks crucial emission control technology, and health problems persist among residents; the year 2000 saw 77 cases of lead poisoning; locals die on average six years earlier than their countrymen; children lag behind in learning; there is a higher incidence of rickets and asthma; lead-related impotence is prevalent; and alcoholism and depression linger.

What’s more, cleanup efforts caused widespread unemployment; 1,700 lost work with the shutdown of Carbosin in 1993, and new technology allowed SOMETRA to lay off 2,400 workers throughout the mid-nineties. Now, the city is just plain poor, and many of the workers look to their previous hazardous jobs longingly. The city’s infrastructure is still outdated, as evidenced by a recent outbreak of dysentery and diarrhea caused by problems with the water network, which is controlled by SOMETRA.

In many ways, Copsa Mica is a microcosm of Romania with regard to environmental issues. The 1999 and 2000 European Commission’s regular reports criticized the Romanian government for its failure to enact policies and take action to protect the environment. According to Jon Thompson, “Leaders [in Eastern Europe] are walking a tightrope between spending money to clean up the environment and keeping their floundering economies afloat.”

In Romania, compliance and enforcement of pollution regulations are limited by a multitude of factors, including: a lack of incentives, difficulties with public participation, a lack of technology, financial limitations, and most of all, the slow process of privatization and corruption at all levels. Though SOMETRA, Copsa Mica’s remaining factory, was privatized fairly smoothly in 1997, the new owners from the Greek firm Mytilineos Holdings are unwilling to implement many necessary environmental protection measures. Owners say that they inherited a firm riddled with problems, and only so many of them can be solved without forcing the plant to be shut down entirely. Poverty in Copsa Mica is indicative of the national situation, as 28.9% of Romania’s population remains below the poverty line.

Environmental improvement schemes will need to be balanced against efforts to curb unemployment if Romania is to meet its goal of accession into the EU by 2007. The future may be bleak without international intervention; as the Romanian Embassy put it, “in Romania, the resources available in the next ten to twenty years for improving environmental conditions are very limited and the cost of action in the field is very high.”

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