* Tax hike sends heating oil demand plunging 70 pct
* Families burn firewood, old furniture to stay warm
* Illegal logging on the rise, smog appears over Athens
By Karolina Tagaris
ATHENS, Feb 7 Greek cleaner Eleni Daneel's
family spends evenings in their Athens home bundled up in coats
after a steep rise in fuel prices made heating their apartment
an unaffordable luxury this winter.
Daneel is one of a growing number struggling to keep warm
after a fuel tax hike aimed at curbing smuggling and boosting
revenues for the cash-strapped state sent heating oil prices up
With Greeks already struggling under wage and pension cuts
imposed by the foreign lenders that bailed their country out,
many have stopped using heating oil altogether, pushing
consumption down 70 percent in the last three months of 2012
from a year earlier.
"Some cry, others swear. I've never experienced anything
like this before, not being able to keep warm," said Daneel, 57,
who supports her unemployed children and bed-ridden husband with
her 400-euro monthly salary.
"Why aren't we allowed to live a dignified life?"
Weather in Greece may be milder than in northern Europe, but
temperatures still drop below freezing in some coastal areas - a
rare snowfall blanketed Athens last month - while mountainous
and northern regions are covered in snow through the winter.
Revenues from the tax rose to 120 million euros over the
period from 73 million previously, but was a long way short of
the 277 million euro government target because of the dramatic
drop in consumption.
Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras, however, has refused to
row back on the tax hike, saying that aligning heating oil and
car fuel taxes eliminates smuggling and that additional revenue
for state coffers was secondary.
By harmonising the taxes, the government eliminated the
motive for suppliers to mix cheap heating oil with car fuel and
reap huge illegal profits from consumers.
A state fuel subsidy for the poor has gone largely
uncollected as apartment building residents who are entitled to
the subsidy cannot always convince neighbours who are not
entitled to it to buy heating oil for the whole building.
RETURN OF THE ATHENS SMOG
Higher fuel prices have helped spawn a set of unintended
consequences - from illegal logging for firewood in the
countryside to a wood-smoke smog appearing over Athens.
The impact is especially dramatic in the Greek capital,
where tenants in both wealthy and poorer neighbourhoods have
mostly opted not to turn on their apartment buildings' central
About 95 percent of Athens apartment buildings bought no
heating fuel this winter, said Yorgos Giortas, who heads an
association of Athens building supervisors. Even the office
building where he works, an eight-storey block tenanted by law
firms and accountants on a busy street in central Athens,
switched off the heating this year to avoid the 2,600 euro
monthly oil bill.
"This is the first winter in 32 years that we haven't turned
the heating on," Giortas said.
"Now they sit around with their coats on, or use the
Further away in a residential suburb of Athens, Apostolos
Mastouropoulos has turned to his largely decorative fireplace to
keep warm. But it is so poorly constructed that most of the
smoke fills his apartment.
"I'm outraged," said Mastouropoulos, complaining it would
cost 200 euros a month to heat his home with oil but only 40
euros with firewood.
"I'm finding it very hard to adapt to this reality, just
because some politicians decided it for us," said
Mastouropoulos, whose wife and two adult sons are unemployed.
So dramatic is the surge in the use of wood stoves and
poorly functioning fireplaces that a hazy blanket of smog has
crept up over the city's skyline, and the smell of ash hangs in
the evening air.
The return of the Athens smog - last seen in the 80s and 90s
before the state subsidised cars with catalytic converters - has
set off alarm bells among environmental groups and officials
worried about potential health risks for the public.
Researchers at the National Observatory of Athens said
polluting and harmful particles that can cause respiratory
problems have reached almost five times the danger level some
nights this year.
The smog contains sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other
carcinogens, and was measured at 241 mg per cubic metre on Jan.
9, compared with a danger level of 50 mg.
For a growing number of Greeks, buying firewood, which can
cost 260 euros to get an average household through three months
of winter, is difficult, is also more than they can manage, even
if it is a quarter of the equivalent heating oil bill.
That has meant a surge in illegal logging in areas like the
rugged forest on Mount Egaleo in western Athens, where
environmentalists have started patrols in search for offenders.
Clad in bright orange vests, a team of about 15 men, often
volunteers, drive jeeps across the mountain, seeking potential
loggers and listening for the sound of electric chainsaws.
"Ninety percent of the time it's people who are suffering
from the economic crisis who need to keep themselves and their
families warm," said Grigoris Gourdomichalis, head of an
environmental group run by municipalities.
"I can see where they're coming from. You can't let your
small child, or a sick person, or the elderly, go cold," he
said, flashing his torchlight on the stumps of three pine trees
cut down earlier in the day.
Without powers to arrest, the patrols are largely aimed at
preventing illegal felling and can sometimes turn dangerous when
loggers turn on the patrollers with knives or guns, he said.
"It's a bit like the Wild West here," Gourdomichalis said.
"There's just such poverty and misery and unemployment."