PROTECTING an area of undoubted natural beauty and a valuable source of underground water, or servicing people's insatiable need for concrete?
Such is the dilemma facing the residents of Aegina as one of the island's two cement-manufacturing plants plans to move to Skotini, a sleepy outpost enjoyed, until now, almost exclusively by a handful of fortunate holiday home owners.
It is a peaceful backdrop to what is becoming an acrimonious dispute.
The Toyas family has been providing cement on Aegina for 15 years, during which time they have been forced to relocate twice. With complaints of dust from local residents at their current location near the port of Leondi, and little chance of a renewal of their temporary licence, the family sought yet another location. Almost three years after applying for the necessary environmental permits from the Region of Attica, the coast is now clear for what the Toyas brothers, Nikos and Costas, hope will be a permanent move to the remote area of Skotini.
For others, however, the granting of the environmental permit represents the start of a battle to block the cement factory's move on the basis that the seasonal river that runs through the proposed site is one of two sources of groundwater on the island and that the existing plant produces far more than the 50m3 of cement per day outlined in the permits that it has secured for the new plant.
The stakes are high. The Toyas family, including the brothers, father and an uncle, have already invested in the new land and additional machinery. On the other hand, the likes of Elias Messinas, an architect and president of Ilios (a pressure group for sustainable development), have little time left to raise awareness that an ecologically sensitive area of the island could be in danger.
Messinas is at pains to point out that his opposition to the move is not directed at the Toyas family, but rather to the absence of a scientific study into the suitability of the new location.
"They should have used a GIS [geographic information system], which could have been carried out by the Athens Polytechnic," he said. "It would be the only way to properly determine whether the site is suitable. It could even have suggested other locations on the island."
Toyas, it goes without saying, sees things somewhat differently. "For the last 15 years, we have been like Gypsies, travelling from place to place," he says. "Nowhere is good enough. Our last site was near a mountain that was of archaeological importance, and the archaeological inspectors decided that we had to move. Before that we were in Agios Nektarios. I would welcome the chance to stay where we are, but that is not possible."
He stresses, too, that when the family was considering the plot in Skotini they were accompanied by local archaeological and environmental inspectors. Before their application was sent to the region of Attica and the local prefecture, Aegina's municipal council voted almost unanimously in favour of the new location.
The complication for the Toyas is that the municipal council created after last year's local elections would, according to one of the island's deputy mayors, now vote differently.
"I would prefer the factory to stay where it is today," Deputy Mayor Nikos Pteroudis said. "If there was a vote today, no one would vote for it. The new location is much further away from the port, and the roads, which go through town, are not suitable for transporting the raw materials."
The municipal council's original vote will stand, but Pteroudis' remark adds credence to Messina's stance.
Maria Panagopoulou, the Region of Attica's environmental advisor involved with the Toyas' application, told this newspaper that the new plant would be monitored closely and face heavy fines - possibly even closure - if it contravened any of the restrictions outlined in its environmental permit, including exceeding the daily 50m3 quota.
"We must wait until the new factory starts operating," Panagopoulou explained. "The application came with all the necessary decisions - regional, prefectural and municipal - and they are abiding by the town planning department regulation that new buildings must be constructed at least 20 metres above such a waterway."
The few residents of Skotini, who have recently seen a waste transfer depot move into the area, say that the quality of the underground water would undoubtedly be affected.
In lodging a formal opposition to the recently-granted permit at the environment ministry, they point out that the Toyas plant's claims that the river is dry and, therefore, of little importance to the water supply of the island are belied by the presence of nine dams established nearby at a cost of 336,000 euros. The dams are designed to stem the flow of water in the winter and encourage absorption into the water table.
"There are very strict provisions on what we will be able to do in Skotini," says Toyas. "The waterway will be protected. We have done entire studies on this. Whatever waste we create will be collected and removed. There will be no damage caused in producing around 50m3 of cement a day."
Those quantities, however, appear at odds with the reality of the
island's cement needs. Messinas estimates that, with 3,500 building
permits granted by the municipality last year, an annual quantity of
150,000m3 - or 450m3 a day - is required, almost all of it produced
on the island and 60 percent of it from Toyas' current plant.
ATHENS NEWS , 01/06/2007, page: A07