By Nikolas Leontopoulos

The trial of the owners and senior executives of 15 industrial companies accused of serially polluting the environment in the Asopos River basin resumes today at the three-member misdemeanor court in Thebes, central Greece. The court case began exactly two weeks ago following several postponements.

According to the indictment, the accused are being held criminally responsible for “serial degradation of the environment”, the extent and magnitude of which “created risks for grievous bodily harm and fatalities”.

It is the first time that a court is assessing the culpability of specific people and companies regarding pollution of the Asopos River basin, one of the most environmentally degraded areas in Greece. The owners and high-ranking executives, due to their respective roles in the companies, are deemed legally culpable for the environmental damage their factories are alleged to have caused. This means that the executives themselves are facing potential criminal convictions.

The Asopos River basin (map), 60 km to the north of Athens, is a heavily industrialized area responsible for an estimated twenty percent of Greece’s industrial output. It also produces agricultural goods destined for domestic and international consumption.

Studies have shown that since industrialization in the region began in the late 1960s, cancer and mortality rates have risen disproportionately among the residents of Oinofyta compared to the rest of the country. The severity of the case has drawn international attention, with Greece being condemned last June for violating the residents’ right to health by the European Committee of Social Rights, an institution overseen by the Council of Europe. Their plight even came to the attention of U.S. activist Erin Brockovich, whose role in establishing in the U.S. corporate culpability for heavy metal pollution, and in particular hexavalent chromium just like in the Asopos case, was made famous by the eponymous Hollywood film in which she was portrayed by Julia Roberts.

During the first day of hearings on November 8th the court heard the testimony of several witnesses including former chief environmental inspector Ioannis Dermitzakis. The indictment was based, in part, on his official report published in 2008.

One of the companies on trial in Thebes is ELVAL, part of the Viohalco industrial group, which is controlled by the Stasinopoulos family. According to Reuters, Viohalco accounted alone for about a tenth of total Greek exports before the 2010 debt crisis began. The group announced in September that is would move its base to Brussels and trade on the Euronext stock market.

In October, ThePressProject published in full an April 2013 report by the state-sanctioned Institute of Geological Mineral Research and Studies (IGMEM) that for the first time was able to link the pollution to specific polluters. Inspectors conducting tests in the Asopos River basin found concentrations of heavy metals, including chromium, that in some cases were fifty times higher than the legal limit. These tests were made on the perimeter of an ELVAL plant in the vicinity of the the town of Oinofyta.  

The report repeatedly stated that the pollution was man-made concluding that, “the excessive findings of certain mineral elements […] are exclusively due to the direct submergence of pollutants on the grounds of the facilities and not to factors of subterranean shifts through the subterranean movement of aquifers […]”.

When contacted about the IGMEM report, a Viohalco representative told ThePressProject: “At Viohalco we are very sensitive and place great emphasis on the environment. ELVAL alone has invested €43.8 million euro in the last five years in environmental-related projects. As for the measurements by IGMEM, we consider them imprecise and there are methodological problems. On our part, we assigned a German laboratory to make measurements and the results were within allowable limits. We want to be clear on this: We do not pollute!

The IGMEM report was the first with specific claims against those involved in polluting at the Asopos region. It may not be the last. The trial continues.

(Reporting by Nikolas Leontopoulos; Writing by Menelaos Tzafalias; Editing by Pavlos Zafiropoulos)