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Serb Town Still Waiting for NATO Bombing Clean-Up

4 May 2002

Three years ago, NATO bombed a petrochemical plant and oil refinery at Pancevo near the Danube river, sending a huge black cloud into the sky and releasing more than 2,000 tons of noxious chemicals.

The town's 140,000 residents still are waiting for a clean-up - and their fate is reflected elsewhere in poverty-stricken Yugoslavia as it struggles with the poisonous twin legacies of war and dirty socialist-era industry.

"This town has a huge ecological problem," Pancevo Mayor Borislava Kruska told Reuters. "I'm very, very concerned. We are dealing with toxic, carcinogenic material."

She complained that UN-led efforts to clear the hazard had moved too slowly, but acknowledged that the dilapidated complex already was an environmental headache before the Kosovo war.

Pancevo's pollution woes show that the reformers who ousted Slobodan Milosevic as Yugoslav leader in 2000 have their work cut out for them to improve environmental standards, which until now largely have been ignored.

They need to redress years of neglect and under-investment in new technology as well as the impact of sanctions and air strikes against Milosevic's Yugoslavia, which left traces of depleted uranium munitions at several locations.

"We are facing a very big task," said Andjelka Mihajlov, who heads the environmental protection unit of the health ministry of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.

Belgrade no white city

Beograd (Belgrade) means White City in Serbian, although these days that name belies its familiar grime-encrusted concrete.

A Western consulting firm recently ranked it among the dirtiest cities in the world, an indication of the scope of the challenge to narrow the environmental gap with the European Union, the wealthy Western bloc it hopes to join around 2010.

"Belgrade has never been so dirty," said Bane, a 31-year-old born in the city of 2 million people. "It has become a lot worse in the past 10 years."

Like others in eastern Europe in the Cold War, old socialist Yugoslavia focused on industrial growth, paying little attention to environmental issues in comparison to Western countries. But its environmental standards were still higher than in the Soviet bloc.

During the Milosevic era, when Yugoslavia plunged into poverty, the over-riding priority for many Serbs was staying alive, not keeping rivers and forests clean.

"Environmental issues were sleeping during these eight to nine years," Mihajlov said. "Some things were put on paper but not implemented."

Eleven weeks of NATO bombing caused more damage, especially in Pancevo, just a few miles up the road from Belgrade, and three other "hot spots" that a U.N. expert mission identified as in need of urgent action after the war.

U.N. scientists said in March they had also found widespread traces of depleted uranium from NATO munitions at five other sites in Serbia and the coastal republic of Montenegro.

They said the level of contamination posed no immediate health threat but still urged precautionary measures.

Mihajlov said the government was stepping up its environmental efforts with plans to create a dedicated ministry. It also has drafted a protection law with the help of Western experts.

But Serbia faces a tricky balancing act with so many pressing priorities. Most factories would have to close if strict standards were introduced overnight, a social disaster in a country with a jobless rate of at least 30 percent.

"The environment is a high priority for the government of Serbia but not the first priority," Mihajlov said.

Sewage in the Danube

In its quality of life survey published in March, Mercer Human Resource Consulting said Belgrade scored an environmental rating of only 53 points, based on the level of air pollution and the efficiency of waste disposal and sewage systems.

It came nowhere near the cleanest city, Calgary in Canada at 166, and was also below other eastern European cities.

That will come as no surprise for visitors to Belgrade, a run-down city where battered old cars spew out fumes and sewage is dumped into the rivers.

"Air pollution is worse than it was before," Mihajlov said. "No city in Serbia has a waste-water treatment plant. Everything goes into the Danube."

In Pancevo, Mayor Kruska suggested that the bombed industrial complex should not have been built on the edge of the town in the first place, even if the jobs were needed. "We all knew it was dangerous ... that it was attacking our lungs ... our health."

Nothing was invested in the plants during sanctions, leaving them "rotten, old and neglected," she said. Then NATO struck, causing a huge spill of oil, mercury and other toxic substances.

A UN team sent to Yugoslavia after the conflict urged the immediate cleaning up of pollution caused by the bombing in four "hot spots" - Pancevo, the central town of Kragujevac, Novi Sad in the north and the Bor mining center in eastern Serbia.

The U.N. Environmental Program identified 27 priority projects, estimating the cost at $20 million, of which just over half has been raised. Pancevo was the worst affected, and clean-up work there is lagging behind the others.

NATO insisted that such industries were legitimate targets in its campaign to end Serbian repression of Kosovo's Albanian majority. Kruska said it should now foot the bill for causing an "ecological catastrophe."

U.N. project coordinator Dennis Bruhn painted a more nuanced picture, saying the bombing's short-term impact was limited. "The long-term damage could be huge. We don't know about that yet."

Visiting the war-scarred petrochemical plant in Pancevo, he said good progress had been made but suggested not everything could be removed unless donors gave more money. "You wouldn't have enough funds to go all the way," he said.

Fredrik Dahl, Pancevo.
Published by Reuters © 2002 Reuters Limited

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