A chernobyl scenario is threatening pljevlja

Andrea Perišić


Tales from the Region



Decades-long environmental problems in Pljevlja, Montenegro, have led to mass emigration of part of the population, and those who have decided to stay in this city are facing health risks. If something is not done soon, Pljevlja could become the Chernobyl of the Balkans.

“Recently, I received a sad answer from a young resident of Pljevlja living in the ‘diaspora’ – and we know where most of the Pljevlja people live the ‘diaspora’ (it is in Podgorica and possibly the coastal towns), when asked whether he is visiting Pljevlja. He said: “I rarely go, I don’t have any wish do to so, and when I leave Pljevlja after three days, I understand why I have no desire to return and why I left”, said for ResPublica the young person who wished to remain anonymous. He is also from Pljevlja but still decided not to leave his hometown.

The complex environmental issues that have been present for decades in Pljevlja, a municipality in the north of Montenegro, are a real example of how the enormous pollution of air, land, and water, inadequate infrastructure for waste management, inadequate mining and landfill management, as well as the reduction of biodiversity, can destroy a city.

According to the preliminary results of the 2023 Population Census, Pljevlja has approximately 26 thousand inhabitants, which is about five thousand less compared to the Census of 2011. The trend of population decrease continues – back in 2003 Pljevlja had about 36 thousand inhabitants and in 1971 - as many as 46 thousand. This means that in just over half a century, the number of inhabitants in Pljevlja has halved.

And what is the reason for that?

“A priority environmental problem in Pljevlja is the high air pollution, especially during the heating season, which, in the north of the country, can last up to nine months of the year”, a civic activist from Pljevlja Kemal Pajević tells ResPublica.

In addition to the enormous air pollution, he says, the citizens of Pljevlja often have a problem with the supply of drinking water, because the water supply of this city is not properly and technically equipped to prevent the water from becoming muddy during heavy rainfalls. “Such a situation sometimes lasts for several months, and the citizens receive only water for technical use”, says Pajević.

Without the necessities for life - clean air and water, it is no wonder that the inhabitants of Pljevlja leave, either to other cities in Montenegro or abroad. According to Administration for Statistics MONSTAT data, about two thousand people moved out of Pljevlja in a period of eight years (2014-2022). This city is also facing a continuous negative population growth rate.

According to the World of Statistics site, Pljevlja was the most polluted city in Europe in 2023.

Air pollution in Pljevlja is affected by the thermal power plant Pljevlja (a key facility for the generation of electricity in Montenegro), which uses lignite, a type of coal with a high sulfur content, which results in high emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO₂), nitrogen oxides (NOₓ) and harmful PM particles. In addition, air quality is also made worse by the various industrial plants, quarries, the coal, lead, and zinc mine, the disposal of municipal waste at Jagnjila, the traffic, forest fires, and burning of waste out in the open, including the household heating (several thousand of them) because many Pljevlja residents use coal for heating during the winter. All this means that the presence of harmful PM10 particles in the Pljevlja air is not within the allowed 35 days a year but it is significantly exceeded and exists for as many as 200 days a year.

The Ćehotina River, which passes through Pljevlja and is the most important city watercourse, is also seriously polluted, both due to heavy industry and inadequate treatment of waste and sewage water. Ćehotina, whose river valley is an EMERALD area candidate (a key habitat for the preservation of biodiversity in Europe) suffers from heavy metals and other toxic substances originating from the coal mines in Pljevlja, and it is also being destroyed by the Mjednički Potok, one of the most polluted water channels in Montenegro, which flows into this river, downstream from the mining settlement of Gradac.

Source: nova.rs

Large quantities of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, dust particles, and other harmful substances are also emitted from the Pljevlja Coal Mine, which leads to the occurrence of smog and acid rain that negatively affect human health and the environment. Furthermore, wastewater from the mine often contaminates local waterways with heavy metals, sulfuric acid, and other toxic substances, and surface mining for coal exploitation has so far caused major changes in the landscape, such as a decline in plant and animal populations and soil erosion.

The negligent management of the Maljevac landfill has long-term consequences for agriculture - an activity that is the source of income for many citizens in the north of Montenegro, including Pljevlja.

All these industrial activities affect the health of the people of Pljevlja.

The most common pollutants, and many studies are showing their impact on the health of the people, are the PM10 and PM2.5 particles, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, methane, mercury, and the soot generated from the combustion of hydrocarbon gases. “The most common pollutant when burning coal is sulfur dioxide. With its irritating effect, it causes coughing, contraction of the bronchi, and increased secretion of bronchial secretions. Particles lead to the onset and progression of cardiovascular diseases and they increase mortality from these diseases. It has also been established that they are carcinogenic to humans”, warns the Pljevlja Local Action Plan for Environmental Protection for 2022-2026.

This is confirmed by the Analysis of the air pollution impact on health in Montenegro (for the municipalities of Pljevlja, Nikšić and Podgorica) done in 2016 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and many Montenegrin government institutions, which indicated that more than 250 premature deaths and 140 hospital admissions on an annual basis happen in these three cities, as well as many other health consequences, are all directly related to exposure to the increased concentrations of PM particles. WHO calculations showed that the cause of 22 percent of all deaths in Pljevlja can be attributed to air pollution.

A just transition is overdue

Montenegro, as a candidate country for European Union (EU) membership, has committed itself to the global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and aligning its policies with the Green Deal of the European Union, meaning that the European continent will be climate neutral by 2050. This implies a just transition - gradual abandonment of coal as a source of energy and heating, and all following the needs of the people.

For decades, the development of Pljevlja has been based on the exploitation of coal, not only in the coal mine and the thermal power plant, where about a quarter of the Pljevlja inhabitants have their employment but in a large number of related companies. For many of the residents, the income they earn at these jobs is the only source of income. The government, as well as privileged investors, also make good profits from this industry.

Pajević warns that there are already significant delays in the transition in Pljevlja. “The local government and the Government of Montenegro must start as soon as possible with the implementation of work related to the just transition. It is necessary to start immediately with the construction of new ecologically acceptable generation facilities that would, in due course, replace coal production and the operation of the Pljevlja thermal power plant”, he says and points out that one of the core environmental projects for Pljevlja is the central heating of the city. “This will stop the operation of the city’s boilers and will eliminate the use of individual heating for around 4,500 households. Unfortunately, the implementation of this project is taking too long”.

According to the Electric Power Company of Montenegro (EPCG), the Pljevlja heating project should be completed by the beginning of the heating season in October 2025, when consumers from the city center will be connected to the new heating pipe. However, this project directly depends on the ecological reconstruction of the Pljevlja thermal power plant and cannot be implemented without it. Works on the environmental reconstruction of the Pljevlja Thermal Power Plant began in mid-2022 and are supposed to be completed in October 2024. They are carried out by a consortium consisting of the Chinese company DEC International, Bemax, BBsolar, and Permonte, and the value of the works is around 60 million euros.

However, all these activities, which should improve the state of the environment and the general life in Pljevlja, are progressing very slowly. ResPublica contacted the Municipality of Pljevlja and asked a series of questions - what environmental problems does the local government see as priorities to be solved, what is concretely being done to rehabilitate the ecological black spots in Pljevlja, and what is their vision about the development of Pljevlja as a green, healthy and self-sustainable city. By the time of publishing this text, we did not receive any response.

Cities that found a solution

Some cities show that it is possible to resolve serious environmental issues by implementing decisive action, relevant regulations, and innovative approaches.

The American town of Greensburg in Kansas, which has only about a thousand inhabitants, was destroyed in a strong tornado in 2007. Faced with the need for a complete reconstruction, the residents and the local government of this city made a decision to start using wind for electricity generation and to become environmentally sustainable, which resulted in the construction of buildings with LEED certificates (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Most municipal buildings, schools, and hospitals are built in this manner, and many absorb atmospheric water and store waste oil for heating in winter. The town has also become a tourist attraction so many people come to visit these structures.

The German city of Freiburg also had major problems with pollution in the 1970s. However, a lot of money has been invested in solar panels and energy efficiency, so this city is known today as one of the greenest in the world. It is similar to Reykjavik, which had major problems with air quality during the 20th century due to the use of fossil fuels for heating. Over time, the city switched to the use of geothermal energy and hydropower, which drastically reduced greenhouse gas emissions and made Reykjavík an example of a city with almost entirely renewable energy sources.

The Japanese town of Kamikatsu also faced the issue of excessive waste generation and the lack of an adequate system for its disposal, so a recycling program was implemented with an ambitious goal - to make Kamikatsu a “zero waste” city. Today, its citizens separate waste into as many as 45 different categories for recycling, and the city has become a model for waste management in rural areas.

Party activities are more important than the betterment of the city

Modern science offers various original ways to deal with environmental issues. The only question is whether there is political will and responsible government in Pljevlja to make it happen or whether profits and personal (often party) interests are more important than nature.

Willing and responsible local authorities whose task is to deal with nature protection, would be more determined to introduce better laws and regulations related to the operation of industrial plants, the traffic, and other sources of pollution in Pljevlja. They would encourage more effective inspections as well as stricter penalties for those who violate any law related to environmental protection. They would promote the use of renewable energy sources, develop environmentally friendly public transport, plant trees, and create urban green areas that can improve air quality.

They would invest in wastewater treatment plants and filters for the emissions from industrial plants and develop a system for recycling and proper management of municipal waste. They would educate citizens about environmental issues and would enable, via various initiatives, research into new technologies and approaches that can reduce pollution.

They would more actively use international funds intended for environmental projects and engage domestic or foreign experts for the implementation of best practices. They would organize public deliberations and involve the community in the decision-making process.

They would regularly report to the public on the progress in combating pollution and the results achieved. They would devise a long-term strategy for sustainable development of the city and, finally, they would ensure continuity of all these actions, regardless of the political changes that are happening, and will be happening, in the city.

Unfortunately, the people of Pljevlja are witnessing the opposite. Although there are laws and penalties for those who destroy nature, they are poorly enforced. Renewable energy sources are used to a small extent – the Government has indeed encouraged the generation of electricity from renewable energy sources in recent years, still more than 80 percent of the electricity that is generated originates from the “traditional” facilities - TPP Pljevlja and two hydroelectric power plants - Perućica and Piva. This is shown in the report of the Regulatory Agency for Energy and Regulated Utilities (REGAGEN) for 2022, which was published in July 2023.

There are fewer and fewer green areas in Pljevlja, the recycling system is insufficiently developed, municipal waste can be seen beyond the waste containers and the failure to develop the wastewater treatment system is best reflected in the polluted rivers that flow through Pljevlja - Ćehotina and Vezišnica. So far, it has been shown that for the local authorities in this city, regardless of their party affiliation, self-promotion through party activities is more important than socially responsible activities. An example of this is, inter alia, party employment, which is a long-term problem in Pljevlja (but also in the rest of Montenegro) and this prevents people who are experts from coming to important positions, such as those who take care of nature.

Instead, politically eligible people are appointed to those positions, and that contributes to the fact that raising public awareness about ecology, organizing public debates, using international funds, and working out national strategic documents are the last things on the list of priorities. When someone is elected to be the leader of the city, he/ she focuses more on the fight in the political arena, and less on the improvement of Pljevlja.

The people of Pljevlja need a big rebranding. Why? Because Pljevlja is branded in the Montenegrin and regional framework as the Balkan Chernobyl, as a place from post-apocalyptic zombie-themed series,” says the ResPublica’s interlocutor from the beginning of this text.

He believes that the people of Pljevlja are primarily to blame for this reputation because they do not do enough to highlight some other, positive features of Pljevlja and do not fight enough for their city. “All this is connected with the story mentioned at the beginning – about the mentality of constant complaining. That needs to be changed because Pljevlja is much more than a mine, a thermal power plant, and all the side effects of those industries.”


The blog was created as part of the “Tales from the Region” initiative led by Res Publica and Institute of Communication Studies, in cooperation with partners from Montenegro (PCNEN), Kosovo (Sbunker), Serbia (Autonomija), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Analiziraj.ba), and Albania (Exit), within the project "Use of facts-based journalism to raise awareness of and counteract disinformation in the North Macedonia media space (Use Facts)" with the support of the British Embassy in Skopje.This edition of Tales from the Region is also done in partnership between ICS and the UPSURGE project, funded within the European Union’s Horizon 2020 under grant agreement No. 101003818.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Communication Studies or the donor.

Andrea Perišić

Andrea Perišić is a freelance journalist from Montenegro. She writes for the independent weekly "Monitor" and the portal of the First Montenegrin Independent Electronic News (PCNEN), mostly on social issues - environment, education, equality, and health care. She participated in a number of seminars and attended several journalism training courses. She graduated in communication studies from the Faculty of Communication Sciences at the Aldo Moro University in Bari, Italy. She spent some of her education at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. Andrea lives and works in Podgorica.