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Plants That Blackened Entire Town Virtually Shut Down

February 7, 1991

COPSA MICA, Romania (AP) _ Two factories whose toxic fumes created an eerie world of blackened buildings, trees and faces in this Transylvanian town have been virtually closed down.

Residents, who for almost four decades have been breathing poisonous air that has slashed life expectancy to only 43 years, are concerned a permanent shutdown could rob them of their livelihood.

The tradeoff between their health and environment and their jobs is a source of continuing tension for people in Romania and other formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

The fallen governments pursued rapid industrialization for decades while ignoring the environment. The non-Communist successors are trying to clean up the environmental damage and redirect the economies, but find the two aims often conflict.

″The ecological motive for shutting down the factories is laudible, but it’s unjust for us to be tossed aside now, after years of living and toiling in this hellhole,″ said 38-year-old Eugen Visarion, a newly unemployed worker.

Residents of Copsa Mica, a city of 20,000 about 150 miles northwest of Bucharest, said the government should modernize the plants to provide them with an economic future.

The output of the town’s two plants, Carbochim and Matallurgucal Nonferrous Metals, has been indefinitely reduced to only 10 percent of capacity.

About 60 percent of the town’s 8,000 workers have been laid off and placed on half-pay, officials said.

The industries are among the only producers of carbon black, used in coloring rubber tires and ink.

The shutdown followed a visit by a high-level Industry Ministry commission last weekend. Because of Romania’s energy shortage, officials said the government was cutting back on industries that use large amounts of fuel in order to heat homes and provide consumer services.

But in the case of Copsa Mica, the real motive was understood to be the environmental disaster wrought by the factories.

The fumes they produce pollute an area 19 miles in radius with acids, arsenic and various carcinogenic sustances.

The local life expectancy of 43 years is almost 30 years less than the national average. The town’s children, most of whom suffer from lead poisoning, reportedly perform 10 percent to 15 percent worse in schools, officials say.

Visible effects of the pollution first were noticed about 20 years ago and widely publicized by Western journalists after the revolution in December 1989 that toppled Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

They still were in evidence this week. Everything in the town was covered by a layer of black, which appeared to have been burned into residents’ prematurely creased faces as well.

″We don’t argue for preserving the pollution, but for providing the existing factories with new technology,″ Mayor Ion Stavila said.

The factories were built in the rural area in the early 1950s with already outdated British technology. Since then, very little new technology was introduced and the factory’s output has increased many times.

Deputy Industry Minister Valentin Ionita said money already had been allocated to the town, including about $714,000 for buying new filters.

He did not disclose the government’s longterm plans for the factories.

Stavila said the government was not doing enough to attract foreign investment to the town.

″Without money, we can do nothing, and the permanent shutdown of the two factories would lead to a social and industrial disaster,″ he said.

″We need money, not commissions,″ agreed engineer Ion Diac, 43, a local official. ″After a production of some 7 billion lei ($200 million) in recent years, we don’t deserve to be abandoned.″

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