ISTANBUL - Municipalities and governors’ offices line up to distribute free coal to the needy while many argue that this cannot be considered a good deed because the free coal is low quality and causes pollution that will carry a hefty health bill in the long run. While stove sellers are happy with the boost in business, most coal sellers say they are in dire straits
Low quality coal distributed by municipalities and governors is creating serious air pollution in Turkey’s large cities and hurting both the natural gas and coal market, experts say.
Since the early 1990s, Turkey has invested heavily in its natural gas network and nearly eliminated the endemic pollution in cities like Istanbul and Ankara. The huge increases in natural gas and electricity prices, however, coupled with the distribution of free coal, is pushing urban preference toward coal for heating in the cold winter months.
Distribution of free coal, seen by many as a cheap election ploy by municipalities, has already brought a black haze to Istanbul’s skyline and the odor of coal to the air. Furthermore, the free coal is low in quality and causes much more pollution while producing less heat than average coal, according to experts.
Customer Associations Federation, or TÜDEF, President Ali Çetin said the excessive increase in gas prices and the free coal were causing significant pollution in cities, noting that according to tests, in certain parts of Ankara, nitrogen monoxide and nitrogen dioxide levels were eight times the accepted level.
"In Ulus, It is eight to 10 times the accepted levels. In Sıhhiye, it is double the accepted level while in Bahçelievler is four to five times the level," he said.
In Istanbul, around E5 highway and in Barbaros neighborhood there is a high level of pollution, said Çetin, suggesting a state subsidy for natural gas rather than the free distribution of coal. "If things remain the way they are, people will find it hard to breathe when the coal really kicks in," warned Çetin.
Sulphur levels in high quality coal is around 0.5 percent, said Professor Semra Tuncel from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, but added that tests showed the sulfur concentration in the free coal is up to 2.5 percent. The upper limit for sulfur content is 1 percent.
"This means we are all being poisoned. Especially those with asthma, people with a heart condition, children and the elderly face huge risk. The public will pay a very high price for free coal. They are committing a huge mistake just to get a few votes," she said.
Istanbul Deputy Governor Mustafa Altıntaş said the coal they distributed had a quality guarantee, noting that the coal came from the state-owned Turkish Coal Companies Directorate.
"The coal we distribute has passed inspection. Moreover, we have not received any complaints," he said.
Those who live in Yenisahra and Barbaros neighborhoods on the Asian side are receiving significant aid in free coal, according to reports.
Even though both neighborhoods are linked to the natural gas network, a strong stench of coal can be smelled when one enters the region.
The argument made by the locals is simple: "Why should we use expensive gas when there is free coal?"
The owner of a local supermarket, Osman Öztürk, said those who live in the back streets do not get any coal even though they were the ones in need of the aid. "Some can’t even find coal and burn tires, wood and even garbage. Many who can afford gas don’t use it because of free coal," he said.
One of those who could not find free coal, Naciye, who did not give her surname, said she decided to sacrifice her foldout bed to get warm.
Hurting the coal sellers
Officials from the Uğur Pik Döküm stove manufacturer said in the last few months their sales increased by 40 percent, while Sefer Döküm, another stove manufacturer, said their sales of even the most expensive stoves, costing more than YTL 700, were selling like hot cakes. It is believed that the amount of coal Ankara will use this year will be around 300,000 tons, while the municipality and the governor’s office is in the process of distributing more than 200,000 tons of free coal..
The owner of Akarçeşme Kömür and Istanbul Chamber of Commerce Coal Committee Deputy Chairman, Hüseyin Akarçeşme, said their sector was in its death throes because of free coal, with wholesales down by almost 50 percent.
"We are constantly getting order cancellations. Just the other day, a colleague had a 5,000-ton coal order cancelled," he said. "Those who used to sell the coal now freely distributed by the state used to get huge fines in the past. Due to the huge increase in energy prices, they started to ignore the regulations," he said.
Officials from the Ankara-based Pak Kömür said they had sold 500 tons of coal in November 2007 while their sales last month was not even near 100 tons.
After the governor’s office in the Aegean town of Muğla distributed free coal to 679 families, local politicians and environmentalists condemned the decision, arguing that it had polluted the air.
Doğan news agency reported that locals couldn’t go out on the street in the morning due heavy smoke, with many being treated at hospitals for respiratory problems.
Environmentalist Gaye Cön Şakar said public health was put at risk just for votes, accusing the government of poisoning people with low quality coal. She demanded that the free coal distributed to be tested and the results made public.
Free coal deliveries increase
air pollution in Antalya
While some say the free coal is an attempt at electioneering for the local elections in March or just plain political showing off, some others say the free coal relieves the burden on the people who slog to have a balance between their income and expenditure due to the fluctuations in the economic and political atmosphere in Turkey.
"Antalya Municipality has proven its social municipal work with the coal deliveries, which is of great importance for a great number of Antalya residents in financial difficulty. Those, who criticize the municipality for this application, should put themselves in our shoes," said Ayten Gündoğan, who is living in Barınaklar district in Antalya.
While the quality of the free coal is disputed, the air pollution in Antalya is dramatically increasing, say authorities. Unless certain precautions are taken immediately, the city faces the danger of losing its popularity as a tourism hotspot, and attempts to attract tourists year-round will need to be abandoned.
"The air pollution in Antalya has reached serious levels over the last few years. Let alone going on walk, we cannot even breathe outside after 5 p.m. when the temperature falls and people light their heating stoves," Fatih Karabayır, owner of a local PVC plant, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.
"Moreover, the coal is low quality, which makes the things worse. The municipalities should not sacrifice this beautiful city for their political purposes. I have been living here for 40 years, and am really sorry for the future of Antalya", Karabayır said.
"There is a long queue of people in front of the neighborhood chief’s office (mukhtar). They wait there for hours to get free coal. This is not humane", said Ali Ergene, retired map engineer.
Betül Çal from Daily News Antalya bureau and Mehmet Nayır and Gülşen Cebeci from daily Referans contributed to this report