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Asbestos scar slowly fading away
UNTIL the 1990s, the pretty drive up to the Troodos mountains was always marred by the grey, barren hillside scar at Amiantos, the price of 84 years of asbestos mining there.
Even now, 21 years after the state first announced plans to reforest the area, the damage caused to the landscape is clearly visible.
The asbestos mine in Amiantos opened in 1904 and closed in 1988 after financial difficulties, and by 1992 its licence was revoked. It is estimated that in the 1930s around 6,000 people were employed there.
State-funded rejuvenation works have not been not sufficiently generous to fully restore the area, so a large chunk of the project has been financed by the European Economic Area (EEA) grant fund. Last month a further agreement was signed between the planning bureau and the forestry department for the financing of a biodiversity conservation project. The EEA grants will provide 84.3 per cent of the total project budget of €1.35 million, with the government contributing the rest.
Chief Forest Officer, Marios Christodoulou said the project aimed to establish at the lowest possible cost, a stable, self-maintained forest ecosystem with features similar to that of the neighbouring forest.
“This will then help to cover certain exposed surfaces that are potential sources of asbestos fibres being released into the air, to conserve catchment and to restore the initial potential uses of the area and its aesthetic and other environmental values as much as possible,” he said.
He explained that the project will begin with the appointment of the project management team, which will require two experts, one in hydro-seeding and a second in mine restoration who will evaluate current restoration techniques, train personnel and submit technical reports. They will help evaluate and improve the current mine restoration techniques.
Christodoulou added that a biodiversity workshop will be organised in the second year during which experts from different fields will present practical ways for integrating wildlife.
Plans are in place for an artificial pond with a capacity of between 30 and 40 thousand cubic metres to be created to meet irrigation, aesthetic and wildlife needs in the landscaping of the mine core. Some direct measures to favour wildlife are also planned such as the installation of artificial bird nests, provision of water and feeding points, improvement of bat refuges and the construction of stonewalls.
The restoration of an area of 14 hectares around the mine core is planned. This includes the stabilisation and reshaping of waste heaps, transporting and covering it with natural topsoil, ground preparation, planting and sowing.
The dangerous nature of asbestos makes mine restoration even more pressing, said Christodoulou.
“The surface of the mine is occupied by asbestos wastes and rock fronts, which are potential sources of air-born asbestos fibres, and therefore they should be covered to reduce fibres being released in the air,” he explained.
“The mine is also part of the Troodos National Forest Park with the highest recreational and tourist value on the island. It is also part of a very important watershed, which flows into the biggest water dam in Cyprus, whose water is used mostly for domestic purposes,” he said.
When work first began on the rehabilitation project in 1995, the main focus was to ensure harmful minerals were no longer released into the atmosphere.
No time target was set even though it was highly desirable to complete the task the soonest possible according to Christodoulou.
“With the knowledge that asbestos is unsafe, our first efforts were to make sure no harm could come to the public first and then to the environment,” he said. “Bearing that in mind, initial work that was carried out ensured people’s safety, first and foremost.”
It was also a political commitment to neighbouring communities, to give first priority to the stabilisation of waste tips. These, under certain circumstances could endanger lives and properties downstream, especially at the village of Amiantos situated only one kilometre from the lower edge of the mine.
The rehabilitation programme is progressing well according to Christodoulou who said roughly 125 hectares has already been reforested.
He explained that there are some major problems that management has to deal with in the near future though.
“Plant germinability and growth on steep sites is not sufficient and in many cases this contributes to continuous erosion and further decline of the site’s fertility,” he said. The total volume of topsoil required for the whole mine is huge, two million cubic metres, and it is questionable if such a quantity can be found in the next 10-15 years at a reasonable cost, he said.
“Unfortunately no evaluation of the success of certain reforestation and re-vegetation techniques was made, making the cost is too high,” Christodoulou said.
One major addition to the area over the last ten years has been the Botanical Garden situated on the borders of the old asbestos mine of Amiantos, just a short drive off the main Nicosia-Troodos road.
The garden, named after the Anastasios G Leventis Foundation for their financial contribution to the project, has proved a popular tourist attraction.
“The main objectives of the Troodos Botanical Garden are to contribute to environmental education and enlightening of the public, by providing opportunities for recreation, research on flora and plant communities and the preservation and protection of endangered plants species,” Christodoulou said.
The garden includes both indigenous and selected exotic and cultivated plants of the region. When finished, the garden will host around 500 different plant species.