Bosnians fret over slag heap risks to health as town empties

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TUZLA, Bosnia, Dec 7 (Reuters) - The population of Bukinje in northern Bosnia has dropped by over 80% in the past decade and local people and health experts blame pollution from the country's largest coal-fired power plant and two nearby slag deposits for the deaths and departures.

Fewer than 1,000 people now live in Bukinje, on the outskirts of the city of Tuzla, down from around 5,500 a decade ago, as residents have died or left the area, said Goran Stojak, Bukinje's community leader.

A health study has made a direct link between the slag heaps and the smoke belching from the chimneys of the thermal power plant TE Tuzla above Bukinje and a high local incidence of lung cancer and other chronic diseases.

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TE Tuzla denies any direct correlation, and says its annual tests show polluting particles in the local atmosphere and water remain within permitted levels. It attributes the sharp drop in population to people leaving the area rather than to deaths.

"The people are just vanishing. Cancer has spread like a virus," said Stojak, adding that his father and many neighbours had died of lung cancer while his two children suffered from bronchitis.


Such concerns are backed up by the health study, its author Nurka Pranjic said.

"The impact of the plant and the slag and ash deposits account for 70% of deaths and chronic diseases in Bukinje, compared with 3% in the Solina district which we compared it to," said Pranjic, who lectures at the Tuzla Medical Faculty.

Solina is a district of Tuzla further away from the plant.

Tuzla is one of five coal-fired plants which together produce about 70% of Bosnia's electricity.

Stojak said Elektroprivreda BiH utility, which owns TE Tuzla, had expanded the slag deposits within the community area and had done little to clean up another slag heap which was closed in 2015.

Responding to these accusations, plant director Izet Dzananovic told Reuters that EPBiH had begun cleaning up the closed deposit but was awaiting government approval of a comprehensive study to continue sanitising the others.

"There is not a single coal-fired plant that has no impact on the environment," Dzananovic said.

Independent institutions annually measure the impact of the slag deposits on plant, animal and human life, he added.

"The deposits are not the only cause that influences the health of people. There are many other factors and the thermal power plant is one but not the only one. There may exist indicators for that but there are no proofs," he said.

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Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Gareth Jones

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