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Loss of Violating Plant Adds to Economic Struggles

Why shuttering a toxic plant and winning an award didn't make this environmentalist a hometown hero.

Labeled everything from eco-terrorist to environmental hero, in simplest terms, Uros Macerl is a farmer. So maybe it’s that unique connection to the earth that helped fuel his fight against an extraordinary polluter – who also happened to be a key employer and local economic staple.

Trbovlje is a modest city of about 16,000 people in central Slovenia – a country with an unemployment rate of over 11 percent. Trbovlje’s unemployment rate is closer to 14 percent.

Macerl recalls local factories covering surrounding farms in a suspicious fog, and freshly fallen snow that would turn black within a day due to the ashes from a local coal plant.  However, because these industries provided jobs and economic benefits, local leaders never confronted the plants or their parent companies.

In 2002, the French company Lafarge took over a 130-year old cement factory. Cement production demands a tremendous amount of heat, which Lafarge generated by burning petroleum coke, a byproduct created in oil refining, instead of coal.

Yes, they actually found something cheaper, dirtier and worse for human beings to inhale than coal emissions.

It also turns out that burning petroleum coke creates benzene. To oversimplify, benzene is the worst chemical emanating from vehicle exhaust. Benzene levels jumped by more than 250 percent within a year of Lafarge taking over the factory.

Macerl’s meetings with Lafarge representatives had no effect, and even after showing that the factory was exceeding permitted emission levels, local authorities did nothing.

Lafarge would later apply for a new license, to burn car tires no less, when Macerl realized that the location of his land allowed him to challenge the permit. When the local government blew him off, Macerl filed a petition with the European Commission.

After a five-year legal battle, Lafarge was eventually forced to shutter its operations.

Lafarge insists the plant was compliant and that the Commission’s ruling went against Slovenia's environmental agency and government.

Although Macerl was awarded the U.S. Goldman Prize, one of the world's most prestigious environmental awards, he’s definitely not considered a hometown hero.  Many local residents blame him for the 56 jobs, annual charitable donations and economic infrastructure that left along with Lafarge.

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