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Empowering Our Communities To Redesign

In defense of clean air: Slovenian community defeats multinational cement company

This article was written and produced for the GAIA website, and covers the victory of European GAIA member on the cement kiln issue. 
Thanks to Uroš S. Macerl and Eko krog, the Zasavje region of Slovenia has a reason to celebrate. These grassroots leaders stopped the world’s largest cement company.

Zasavje has the nation’s highest cancer rates, and the multinational cement company Lafarge had long polluted the area. When Lefarge began burning toxic waste in the Trbovlje cement kiln — a disastrous move for human health and the climate — Uroš and the others at Eko krog decided that enough was enough. They organized, and after 10 years of tireless battle, they won.

Today, Uroš is awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his commitment to grassroots organizing in defense of the human right to breathe clean air.

The Story of a Grassroots Victory

Uroš Macerl built and operated one of the largest organic farms in Slovenia on the hill above the Lefarge cement plant. Using his rights as a local land owner, Macerl worked with the community organization Eko krog to legally challenge Lafarge’s permit.

After Lafarge purchased the cement plant, the company began using toxic petrol coke (petcoke) as fuel, causing emissions of carcinogenic chemicals to skyrocket, and posing a serious threat to the climate (petcoke has even higher carbon emissions than coal). Then, the plant obtained a permit to co-incinerate waste in the form of car tires, waste oils, and plastic in 2009 — leading to even more emissions of cancerous chemicals. Burning plastic is known to release dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals known to man.

Lafarge tried to get away with this pollution through greenwashing and deception. After looking at the results of the emissions monitoring that Lafarge submitted to the Ministry for Environment, Eko krog found that Lafarge had been self-monitoring, without any outside oversight. Throughout the decade long battle, Lafarge would continually doctor its emissions numbers, even going as far as deleting data, or claiming a typing mistake when the emissions were much higher than allowed.

But the truth prevailed. Over time, Uroš was able to grow the campaign to become a large, people-powered movement. In 2010, members of his organization Eko krog blocked the road the Slovenian Prime Minister was travelling on to visit Trbovlje, and would not let him pass until he had heard their concerns about the plant. The Prime Minister would not hear them at the time, but promised to meet them later. He never did. So a few months later over 3,000 protesters demonstrated in front of the government, demanding that the Prime Minister not privilege corporations over people. In 2011 a group of mothers from Zasavje delivered a powerful message to Lafarge management to make their emissions data public. Meanwhile, Eko krog kept up legal pressure, holding government institutions accountable for continuing to allow Lafarge to endanger the lives of Slovenian citizens.

When the ever-deceitful Lafarge was caught using petcoke without permission, the campaign was able to close the plant for good, and instigated legal procedures against the Republic of Slovenia for allowing Lafarge Trbovlje to continually operate without a permit.

A global movement against waste burning in cement kilns

Waste burning in cement kilns has been wrongly heralded by industry as an “alternative fuel” and climate-friendly alternative to coal, and the industry has even claimed climate subsidies meant for clean energy like wind and solar power. These ‘alternative facts’ hide the true cost of these supposed energy-efficient solutions: that waste burning emits high levels of dioxin (a powerful carcinogen) , carbon dioxide, and other pollutants, and has been linked to cancer, respiratory illness, crop loss, and other such devastating effects. It is a step backward for climate progress and prevents us from pursuing much-needed zero waste solutions.

“Burning waste is madness because it destroys natural resources. And burning waste in cement plants is even worse: it is a crime because it poisons people and environment – the crime is supported by lobbied legislation. Zero Waste is an already implemented alternative in many communities around the world,” says Uroš.

Throughout the grueling decade-long fight, Uroš’s persistence and the community’s collective power created a blueprint for countless other regions around the world who are suffering from the injustices of co-incineration in cement kilns. In speaking about the countless setbacks and ultimate victory, Uroš stated, “We do have an advantage. The truth is on our side. We’ll never allow this story to repeat itself again in Zasavje region.”

All over the world, communities are fighting back against the cement industry and their dirty practices and calling for zero waste solutions. Zero waste means setting a new goal for how we live in the world—one that aims to reduce what we trash in landfills and incinerators to zero and to rebuild our local economies in support of community health, sustainability, and justice. It means valuing life over profit, and fighting tirelessly for the right to breathe clean air. Today, we honor Uroš, Eko Krog, and all of the grassroots heroes in similar rights around the world.

The Goldman Environmental Prize is a prestigious award reserved for grassroots environmental activists and is considered a “green nobel prize.” For more information on the prize visit goldmanprize.org/uroš. For more information on waste burning in cement kilns and organizing around the world, see no-burn.org/cement

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