Kremikovtsi mill - a "bad soap opera"

( dpa ) - Lying on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, the fuming steel mill Kremikovtsi is embroiled in deep, headline-grabbing, economic, environmental and labour troubles that are likely to continue for much longer.

The 8,000 employees are back in the headlines with their daily protests over backlog payments - they haven't received neither their salary since January, nor mandatory benefits since November.

The problems appear to be just piling up - along with the dramatic output decline in the past year, the mill accumulated debts to some 317 million leva (244 million dollars).

The state railway suspended the transport of the Kremikovtsi products until it at least starts clearing its debts. Electricity and gas suppliers may turn off the energy for the same reason.

Protesting employees want not only what is owed to them, with a pay raise of 25 per cent, but they also want to drive out the majority owner, Pramod Mittal, brother of the Indian tycoon Lakshmi of the world's largest steel company, ArcelorMittal.

Pramod acquired a 71-per-cent stake in Kremikovtsi in 2005 for 110 million dollars from the previous, Bulgarian owner, who had privatized the national debt-ridden "giant" for just 1 dollar, with all its liabilities.

Meanwhile, the new owner failed to meet the commitments he agreed to by purchasing the stake in the mill, including investments into the output facilities and environment-protection. Now the younger Mittal has to pay 240 million leva in penalties.

Constructed in 1963 to "pride of the Communist workers' state," the mill has often made headlines amid allegations of corruption.

"Kremikovtsi - a bad, 500-million euro soap opera," the Sofia- based 24-Casa said, referring to the equivalent of 750 million dollars that Bulgaria allegedly lost through malversations over the past decade.

The heavily-indebted complex has also developed into a grave ecological problem - not that the pollution it has been releasing into the air could have been missed by anyone in Sofia from day one.

"The mill send clouds in all colours of the rainbow into the atmosphere," Sofia Mayor Boyko Borissov perpetually complains. After nothing was done, he complained to the European Commission.

The petition to the European Union's executive says that emission of harmful fumes overshoots the allowed standards several times over.

At that - the environment ministry has last year revoked the mill's operating license, but it nevertheless continued working as usual.

"Mittal pays 132,000 leva in ecology fines each month rather than to invest in environment protection," one critic noted.

Experts estimate that the mill, sometimes described as a "monster near the city," would require more than half a billion dollars to become environment-friendly.

The annual output of 1.5 million tons of steel is "too large and important" to allow a simple closing of the Kremikovtsi mill, according to the government, holder of 25.13 per cent in the company.

Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Zhevago and US Steel are interested in Mittal's 71 per cent, but Mittal reportedly does not intend to sell.

The offer of investors, which would please the people of Sofia the most - to tear the mill down and build a 2,200-hectare financial, business and residential district instead - is also the least likely of the possible future scenarios.

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