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Serbian environmental agency fires expert for protesting change in air quality criteria

Serbian environmental agency fires expert air quality criteria

Photo: Milenko Jovanović

Published

December 29, 2020

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Published:

December 29, 2020

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SEPA dismissed Milenko Jovanović, head of its air quality monitoring department. He says he was harassed and fired because he reacted after the agency loosened the standard for displaying the categories of air quality.

Nineteen environmentalist groups and nongovernmental organizations demand from the government to annul the decision of the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency to fire Milenko Jovanović, head of its air quality monitoring department. He claims he was unlawfully laid off after he protested against an abrupt easing of the criteria for determining whether the air is polluted.

The activists and NGOs also urged the Government of Serbia to determine the responsibility of SEPA’s management for the move but also for the change in the criteria. The increase in the thresholds for suspended particles PM2.5 and nitrogen oxide caused a public uproar earlier this month.

Air is now considered polluted when the level of PM2.5 is above 55 micrograms per cubic meter, compared to the earlier threshold of 40 micrograms

For instance, air is now considered polluted, which is indicated by red color, when the concentration of PM2.5 exceeds 55 micrograms per cubic meter, while earlier the threshold was already at 40 micrograms. The categories marked by colors are mostly used for informing the public in a simple way, via the media.

Mobbed at work before dismissal

Jovanović said he was mobbed by the agency before it terminated him as it shut off his phone and blocked access to his email account without explanation. SEPA claimed the meteorologist agreed with the said change in the criteria and that he was fired over inappropriate behavior and inadequate maintenance of air monitoring stations, which he denies and insists the devices are in the best condition since they were installed in 2011. He called the agency’s claims “ridiculous.”

Of note, Jovanović spent 17 years in the agency and participated in setting up all 36 monitoring stations. He adds SEPA also blocked the email account of the head of its IT department.

SEPA lowers capacity of air quality monitoring department

According to Jovanović, the agency has now “practically abolished” the air quality monitoring department and reduced its headcount even though the European Union granted over EUR 3 million for 17 new automatic air monitoring devices and sophisticated equipment for the detection of heavy metals should arrive at the laboratory.

Jovanović: Index thresholds were changed at least five times over several days

SEPA’s interim head Filip Radović shouldn’t have changed the criteria without consulting the agency’s experts and it is inappropriate to make such a move in the winter, when air pollution is high, Jovanović asserted. He stressed that the standard for displaying the quality of air has been changed at least five times over several days and that there were disparities within the agency’s own website.

European Environmental Agency has benchmark standard

While SEPA said it just harmonized its thresholds with those of the Common Air Quality Index – CAQI, used by the Belgrade City Institute for Public Health, the new values still aren’t the same. In Jovanović’s view, Serbia should adjust the tables to match the ones from the European Environmental Agency, which has a stricter standard, called EAQI. The EAQI network is much bigger than that of CAQI.

The air quality expert revealed he intends to form an environmentalist and advisory group that would contribute to the fight against pollution.

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