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Tax On Heating Oil Turns Greek Skies Black With Wood Smoke

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Heat is a problem in Greece, too, this winter. The issue there is not a literal storm, but an economic one. Greece is entering its sixth year of recession. And with the government adding a hefty tax to heating oil, many newly impoverished Greeks can't afford to stay warm.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli tells us how some Greeks are turning to desperate measures.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Athenians come to the top of Lycabettus Hill for the best panoramic view of their city, but on these cold winter nights, a forgotten nemesis has returned. The nefos, a black cloud of smog, looms over the city as it did decades ago when Greek cars spouted billows of smelly, black exhaust.

JOHN LAPAZANIS: I smell it. I can't do anything else but smell it.

POGGIOLI: John Lapazanis runs the Lycabettus kiosk that's been in his family for 38 years.

LAPAZANIS: In my neighborhood also smells too much. I live far from here. I believe all Athens smells burning wood.

POGGIOLI: Burning wood has increasingly become a major source of household heating. Heating oil became prohibitive after the government raised the price of a liter from 95 cents a year ago to $1.76 today.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER)

POGGIOLI: Business is brisk at this warehouse where chopped wood is sold. Owner Gyorgas Petrakis says most of his customers used to buy just a few logs and just occasionally.

GYORGAS PETRAKIS: (Through Translator) But my clients tell me personally these days when they meet me that now they do it just to get a bit warm. So in the past, it was for the coziness, and now, it's for survival.

POGGIOLI: On very cold days, air pollution in Athens has been measured at three times above the danger level. It's even worse in some parts of northern Greece where temperatures are much lower. The Greek health ministry has started warning citizens of the dangers of wood burning. Stefanos Sabatakakis, environmental health official at the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention, says the effects of surging air pollution are already present.

STEFANOS SABATAKAKIS: The first symptoms that people have mentioned is inflammation of their eyes, difficulty of breathing, along with nausea and headaches.

POGGIOLI: Sabatakakis says those most susceptible are children, pregnant women, old people and people with breathing and heart problems. Three years of austerity imposed by Greece's international lenders, known as the Troika, have had devastating economic and social effects. Unemployment is at a record 25 percent, and economic output has dropped 20 percent. The numbers of newly poor are soaring. It's not just wood that's being burned but just about everything, including books, newspapers and plastic whose chemical components are released into the atmosphere. Health officer Sabatakakis says the paradox is that it's happening in some of the city's best neighborhoods, like Vrilissia.

SABATAKAKIS: And I live there, so I see it with my own eyes, and upper- and middle-class people who live in Vrilissia are the ones who are mostly struck by the economic crisis. As a result, people at these kind of suburbs who are not accustomed to burn firewood suddenly start burning it. That's how smog is caused.

POGGIOLI: Tasos Krommydas, spokesman for the Green Party, says the black cloud of smog is the most recent and most visible consequence of the impact budget-cutting measures have had on the environment. He says the huge increase in demand for firewood has led to a surge of illegal logging. But more importantly, Krommydas says, austerity has led to the dismantling of decades of environmental legislation. So-called green funds, he says, are being channeled away from the environment to cover the national debt.

TASOS KROMMYDAS: It's a typical example of the austerity, and the fiscal consolidation is decreasing the protection of the environment.

POGGIOLI: Already last year in a letter to the European Union, the global conservation organization World Wildlife Fund highlighted a series of significant environmental setbacks resulting from the austerity measures. Among these, the bypassing of environmental impact assessments for new investments, the legalization of illegal construction in protected areas and hasty and uncontrolled sale of public lands. Again, Tasos Krommydas.

KROMMYDAS: As a result of the crisis, the environmental protection has - in Greece has gone decades back, a development model that no longer has the environment as a criterion.

POGGIOLI: Environmentalists are most worried about the controversial Canadian project for an open-pit gold mine in a virgin forest in northern Greece. A decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled the project's environmental damage outweighed the potential profit. That view no longer holds.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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