Photos: Deadly Air Pollution May be the Price for New Jobs in Greece

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A truck driving by smokestacks. Air pollution in Greece is a mounting issue following the construction of new coal-fired energy plants. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_07 Kosta's eyes have turned red from the dust. Everyday he has to clean the dust and ash produced by the mine in order to keep the electricity production running. The staff works 24/7 seven days a week. Due to the high pollution the staff and the locals face many serous health issues including cancer. Anna Pantelia

The belching smokestacks of Ptolemaida’s coal-fired energy plant are a sign of opportunity for Greeks who lost their jobs after the country’s financial meltdown in 2007. For many others, however, they’re a symbol of the European Union’s hypocrisy.

In April 2017, the EU approved new regulations aimed at cutting toxic emissions from burning dirty fuels, such as coal. “Air pollution is the prime environmental cause of premature death in the European Union,” Enrico Brivio, a spokesman for the European Commission, told Reuters. Yet five months earlier, as part of its continuing austerity measures, the bloc provided Greece with 1.75 billion euros ($1.85 billion) to build two new coal plants. Per The Guardian, they would emit more than 7 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. A major backer: Germany, the EU’s most powerful member and a self-proclaimed green energy leader.

“The EU is trying to get everything from poor European countries like Greece and the Balkans,” says photojournalist Anna Pantelia. “Give them all the refugees. Take all the coal from there.”

Pantelia, whose work includes photographing Greece’s refugee crisis, spent five days at the Greek Public Power Corp.’s Ptolemaida mine last year documenting the human and environmental toll coal extraction has taken on her nation. PPC has dominated Greek energy production since the 1950s, and over the decades its 625-square-mile mine—which will expand thanks to the EU’s investment—has gobbled up villages, homes and lives in northern Greece and Western Macedonia. Thousands of people have been displaced since 1976, and seven out of 10 deaths in​ Ptolemaida are due to cancer or thromboembolic disease, according to the deputy regional health manager for Western Macedonia. 

Yet coal mining has created an estimated 10,000 jobs in a region hard hit by the financial crisis. Men employed in mines and plants get guaranteed contracts and salaries (some earn as little as 680 euros ($837) per month, and the dignity of work is enough to set aside the potential hazards of extracting lignite. 

“I really appreciate these workers, and I know their value,” says Pantelia. But her images are also powerful evidence that there’s more at stake than jobs—even if well-off EU states can’t, or won’t, admit it.

FE_Greece_01 A truck driving by smokestacks. Air pollution in Greece is a mounting issue following the construction of new coal-fired energy plants. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_02 A view of Kozani, Greece, a region that includes Ptolemaida, where a new coal-fired energy plant was built. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_12 Α worker poses during his break from his job in PPC. Accidents are usual, sometimes even fatal ones as the security measures most of the times are not followed. Since 1970 more than 106 people died in work accidents. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_03 A PPC worker transfers the ashes from the power plant to the area where it will be buried. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_13 An image of Jesus taken near the location of new energy plants in Greece. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_04 Kostas supervises the excavation of the coal in North Field mine in Ptolemaida. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_14 “My father died of cancer when I was 12. Four other men from his shift lost their lives from cancer,” says Kostas, a 32-year-old man who works as a guard for the Greek Public Power Corporation (PPC). Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_05 According to Greenpeace's Silent Killers report, coal combustion causes more than 1,200 premature deaths in Greece. Despite this, working for the PPC is a dream for almost everyone in the region as it's the only source of income. For more than 60 years the local community has been deployed in the power production industry neglecting all the other economic activities. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_15 Mavropigi, the most recently abandoned village ready to be demolished for the sake of the of coal extraction. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_06 Workers at the Ptolemaida mine take a break. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_08 The Ptolemaida coal mine. Work in coal mines is known to be hazardous and sometimes fatal. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_09 Two PPC workers clean the ash around the conveyor belt which transfers the coal. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_10 A worker at the mine. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_11 A church lays abandoned in the middle of the coal mine. It's what remained from Charavgi, a village that was expropriated and its inhabitants removed so that the mines could be extended. Anna Pantelia

FE_Greece_16 A PPC worker collects a sample from the coal for further examination. Anna Pantelia