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Yugoslavia: UN Says Ecological Disaster Averted, But Damage Remains

The United Nations Environment Program's Balkans Task Force recently completed a survey of the environmental damage caused by the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia earlier this year. While the task force said there was no environmental catastrophe, it did warn of dangerous "hotspots" throughout the region.

Prague, 23 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- During its 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, NATO destroyed petrochemical plants, oil refineries, and fuel depots, unleashing chemicals across Yugoslavia.

Not only Yugoslav officials, but also many Western environmentalists, talked of a potential ecological catastrophe. For its part, NATO downplayed such fears, and some Western officials pointed out that the Balkans were already horribly polluted before the war.

Stepping into the fray to separate fact from fiction was the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). About six months ago, UNEP established a Balkans Task Force to gauge just how much damage has been done to the environment in Yugoslavia.

Last month, the task force released its report. Task force official Pasi Rinne said some 70 percent of the pollution at bomb sites stemmed from chronic causes and was not caused by NATO. No environmental catastrophe had resulted from the bombing, the UN said. Still, the task force identified four serious "trouble spots" stemming from the bombing campaign that threaten Yugoslavia's ecosystem.

Concern focuses in particular on a crippled petrochemical complex at Pancevo, some 20 kilometers northeast of the Yugoslav capital Belgrade. NATO bombed the sprawling industrial site some 15 times, releasing toxins into the air and into a water channel that feeds the Danube River. The Danube is a source of drinking water for Bulgaria and Romania downstream.

The head of the UNEP Task Force, Pekka Haavisto, says the greatest immediate threat to the Balkans environment is the potential flow of wastewater out of Pancevo into the Danube. He spoke recently by telephone with RFE/RL.

"The main risk, I would say, is along the river Danube. For the reason that the Pancevo channel -- which is a two-kilometer-long channel from the three industrial facilities in Pancevo to the river Danube -- is a wastewater channel. And there is now a lot of pollution in that channel. It's not moving at the moment for the reason that these facilities are not working, but one day this heavy pollution from this wastewater channel will flow to the river Danube."

Along with Pancevo, the Balkans Task Force listed the car plant at Kragujevac, an oil refinery at Novi Sad, and a mining complex at Bor as the other environmental "hotspots." Toxic contamination at the sites includes PCBs (polychorinated biphenyls), mercury, dioxin, and other chemical toxins.

The UN calls for specific measures to be taken at the sites, such as hazardous waste removal and treatment. But Haavisto says some countries in the West, led by the United States, are reluctant to grant any aid to Yugoslavia for fear the aid could prop up the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

"I think the situation at the moment is very politicized. We recommend that there should be environmental cleanup as part of humanitarian assistance to Serbia, [but] the question of enlarging assistance to the field of environment is something [over which] many governments are still hesitating."

UNEP has also been frustrated in its efforts to obtain data on when and where "depleted uranium" weapons were used in Yugoslavia. Shells tipped with depleted uranium can penetrate tank armor easily, but the uranium turns to dust on impact. While the dust is not very radioactive, it is highly toxic, so much so that it is believed that one speck lodged in a lung can lead to cancer. First used by the U.S. in the Gulf War, depleted uranium has been linked by some medical experts to high levels of stillbirths, birth defects, and leukemia among Iraqi children, as well as cases of "Gulf War syndrome."

Washington has acknowledged that depleted uranium weapons were used in Yugoslavia. But UNEP officials say U.S. officials refuse to give exact locations of where the weapons were used, saying that the information is classified.

Haavisto also expresses concern over some of NATO's targeting in Yugoslavia. He says that by bombing fuel depots, chemical plants and oil refineries, NATO was exposing civilians to considerable risks.

"My impression after what we saw, and of course what kind of scientific tests we made in places like Panchevo and Novi Sad, that targeting this kind of chemical facilities like especially in Panchevo, you are of course releasing a lot of chemicals to the surroundings and in this case especially to the river Danube. The main target of course then through this environmental damage are the people, their drinking water, and in this case, of course the risks caused to the people downriver [along the] Danube. I think anyhow, this gives a good opportunity to ask is this ... where warfare is going these days? There are rules to avoid chemical warfare, but when you target chemical facilities in the midst of high population [areas] you are actually causing some of that type of risk."

The United Nations estimates the cost of emergency cleanup of the four hotspots at some $15 million to $20 million.

(The Balkans Task Force report is available on the Internet at:

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.