REZINA-RABNITA CHECKPOINT, Moldova -- Early on a recent Monday morning, a column of trucks loaded with tons of scrap metal crowded the road to a checkpoint denoting the start of separatist-held territory in eastern Moldova.
Beyond it lay a bridge to the city of Rabnita and its Moldova Steel Works (MMZ).
Squat on a mostly flat horizon, the plant is near the east bank of the Dniester River that serves as a de facto boundary between the breakaway region of Transdniester and the rest of the country.
Access from the west is limited to a lone concrete bridge that vibrates perceptibly as each of the trucks is allowed to cross, one at a time.
From there, the drivers navigate through the city of around 50,000 residents to the steel works on its northeastern edge.
The stream of weekday traffic is a nuisance to locals on both sides of the river here, about 100 kilometers north of the Moldovan capital of Chisinau and just 10 kilometers west of the Ukrainian border.
But it's not nearly as concerning to them as the smoke that belches out of the plant's half-dozen or so candy-striped chimneys and contributes to a haze that sometimes blankets low-lying areas.
"All evening long, we see what's going on there, what's smoking and what the factory consumes," a woman in Rezina, a village on the Chisinau-controlled side of the bridge, told RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.
Patience is running out, particularly as locals' fears mount that authorities are trading away their health in exchange for cheaper energy and to avoid further irritants in relations with the breakaway territory, one of several "frozen conflicts" in the post-Soviet region.
"I don't know how people live there," the woman, who did not want to be identified, said. "I think our state has to take measures to make people healthy, both from their side and from our side."
It's another on a long list of grievances crisscrossing an unrecognized border that separates a mostly Russian-speaking sliver of Moldova from the rest of Europe's poorest aspiring EU member.
Nearly half a million of Moldova's 3 million-plus people live in the separatist area, according to breakaway authorities' figures that are difficult to independently verify.
Making An Exception
The country's Commission for Exceptional Situations recently granted MMZ its fifth derogation, or exemption, from environmental legislation on waste management and emissions that might otherwise shut down the plant.
Inspectors have reported irregularities that appear to confirm locals' complaints, including violations spotted in March and again in August. The director of the Environmental Protection Inspectorate, Ion Bulmaga, told RFE/RL that the metal works should eliminate the problems and reapply for environmental permits.
Environment Minister Iuliana Cantaragiu last month called the latest exemption a cost of "broader negotiations to benefit" all Moldovans. She implied it was a trade-off for electricity produced at a thermal power plant, at Cuciurgan, on the separatist side of the Dniester.
"It's our choice, as a society, whether we want to pay twice as much for electricity or not," Cantaragiu said. "If we're ready to do that, then we refuse the authorization."
Political tensions underlying the breakaway efforts make reporting in separatist-held areas difficult, including for RFE/RL's Moldovan Service.
The outgoing head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe's (OSCE) mission to Moldova, Claus Neukirch, told RFE/RL before the end of his mandate in September that the MMZ's leadership recognizes that it needs investments to improve its outdated equipment and meet environmental standards, particularly if it wants to import scrap metal from the European Union.
"But it's a long-term process," Keukirch said. "I hope that this process will take place, because it is in the interest of the people who live in Rabnița and those who work there that the metallurgical plant operates in accordance with ecological regulations."
Moldova is heavily dependent on electricity and fossil fuel imports, including natural gas that comes almost exclusively from Russia, which has better relations with separatists in Transdniester than with Chisinau.
Moldova's efforts to diversify have gained momentum since Russian troops began their full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February, accelerating Chisinau's EU bid and feeding concerns that Moscow might also have military designs on Moldova.
'Many Diseases Have Multiplied'
In addition to the metal works, Rezina and Rabnita each host large cement mills.
The head of a local health-care facility in the village of Mateuti, a few kilometers west of the Dniester, said illnesses there have multiplied, although she did not provide accompanying data.
"Obviously they produce emissions, including smoke, that spread throughout the region. Obviously this also affects people's health," the health director, Aliona Peru, said. "We can say clearly and for certain that many diseases -- both oncological and of the respiratory system [or] the gastroenterological system -- have multiplied. Also, in the last year, the number of allergic conditions has increased a lot."
Mateuti's air-quality monitoring station has been out of operation since 2018.
Alecu Renita, the president of the Ecological Movement of Moldova, an NGO, said a lack of access to basic information about the steel mill's operations is a big problem.
He said its technology appears to be from the Soviet-era and "in the Soviet Union, environmental issues were not in the foreground." Renita argued that the mill should be rebuilt from the ground up with modern, nonpolluting technology.
"I'm convinced that both the Rabnița metal works and the Cuciurgan Thermal Power Plant are two huge sources of pollution for the Republic of Moldova," Renita said. "Unfortunately, the state institutions haven't done a complex monitoring of this area."
The leadership of MMZ failed to respond to a request for comment by RFE/RL's Moldovan Service before this article was published.
On its website, the company says it does all it can to prevent the discharge of pollutants and to minimize, disinfect, and dispose of its industrial waste.
The steel works is among the top three contributors to separatist Transdniester's budget.
Breakaway authorities in Tiraspol, the unrecognized capital of Transdniester, reported the plant's sales at around $432 million at the end of last year, representing nearly half of Transdniester's total exports.
None of those revenues, or the taxes on them, find their way to the Moldovan budget.