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Yugoslavia: Environmental Damage Lingers Three Years After NATO Bombing

  • Alexandra Poolos

In 1999, during air strikes against Yugoslavia, NATO forces bombed a petrochemical plant and oil refinery in Pancevo. The blast sent a huge black cloud into the air and released thousands of tons of chemicals into the environment. UN scientists say the environmental damage to Pancevo and other Serbian towns from the NATO air campaign needs to be addressed before long-term health and environmental risks develop.

Prague, 7 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Residents of the Serbian city of Pancevo say paint chips the size of large coins fell from the sky after NATO bombed the local petrochemical plant and oil refinery in April 1999. A large black cloud gathered over the Belgrade suburb, and tens of thousands of tons of oil caught fire and spilled into the nearby Danube River.

Three years later, the black cloud has dispersed, but the effects of the chemical spill have seeped their way into the groundwater, contaminating the Danube and compromising the safety of private well water.

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) calls the damage in Pancevo the worst out of four so-called "hot spots" from NATO's air campaign. The other locations are the central town of Kragujevac, Novi Sad in the north, and Bor in eastern Serbia.

UNEP formed a special task force shortly after the NATO campaign concluded to evaluate environmental damage in Yugoslavia. Three years later, however, the task force has raised only about half of the $20 million needed to clean up the four towns.

In Pancevo, the work has not even begun.

Miroslav Nikcevic is the head of Yugoslavia's Environmental Protection Unit, part of the Health Ministry. Nikcevic tells RFE/RL that he's disappointed that cleanup projects have failed to start in Pancevo: "We expected much, much more [from the UN]. Maybe they have their problems. They have expected $20 million, but up until now they have only received $11 million. So there are a lot of problems in the financing and to find donors. But definitely we expected much, much more."

Nikcevic says the environmental damage to Pancevo includes mercury and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination of the groundwater. The PCB contamination is especially alarming, since the chemical is a known carcinogen. "Now some places are polluted with mercury even in the groundwater. That's very dangerous. Also we have PCB pollution. They found PCB in the groundwater, which is extremely dangerous."

Henry Slotte, the director of UNEP's Balkan Task Force, says the risks to human health because of the slow environmental cleanup in Pancevo are "quite clear" but expensive to remedy. But he says work has been done in other damaged areas: "The fact is that a lot has been done in Kragojevac, in Bor and in Novi Sad. But when you address environmental concerns, when you need to create a project, it takes time. If you want to do it in a proper way, in a way that 10 years from now you can still say that the work was done well, and if you also do it in a way that respects the local legislation.... That's why you cannot do [the work] in two months. That's why it take two years."

The main reason for the slow pace of work in Pancevo, Slotte says, is a lack of funds. Pancevo's cleanup alone is estimated to cost $7 million. "This is a project that I know we have had some criticism from the local municipality [about] why it is not yet done. The basic reason is that there's not money enough. We have raised $11 million, but that divided among four cities is not enough to start a project in Pancevo that could cost up to $7 million."

Slotte says the UN is still lobbying donor countries for more funds so the cleanup projects can be completed. But he fears that damage done to Yugoslavia's environment has become "old news" to donor nations. "It's always the same case that the donors have to address the new crisis, the new need. That means Afghanistan today. Tomorrow it might be Sri Lanka."

Pancevo was an environmental headache, however, long before NATO bombs fell. The city's pollution woes reflect decades of environmental neglect. During the socialist years, Yugoslavia focused on industrial growth, paying little attention to green issues, at least in comparison to Western countries. The Western consulting firm Mercer Human Resource Consulting recently ranked Belgrade as one of the dirtiest cities in the world.

Slotte says the new reformist government in Yugoslavia is making the environment more of a priority. "We know that environment was not a priority for Yugoslavia in the decades prior to the conflict We also know that now there is a more and more a wish from Yugoslavs to address environmental issues. There's more and more local environmental experts within the government that want to have this on the agenda. We're trying to assist them."

Nikcevic says he and other Yugoslav environment officials have their work cut out for them, however. He says little money in the federal coffers is specifically earmarked for the environment, and outside UN funds seem to have dried up.

Nikcevic is concerned that the long-term damage sustained by Pancevo and other Yugoslav cities will never be fully addressed. While he does not entirely blame NATO for Pancevo's woes, he says the environmental and health concerns have worsened since the bombing. "No one is trying to say that Pancevo was a spa before the bombing," Nikcevic said. "But after the bombing, the situation has become quite critical."