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Ecological catastrophe - NATO bombings in the Balkans

Dr. Janet M. Eaton - 7 Jul 1999

Commissioned by: The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Szentendre, Hungary. For the BULLETIN, Quarterly Magazine, Volume 8,Number 4. Submitted: July 7, 1999

Within the first two weeks of the war informed scientific and environmental warnings of a pending "ecological catastrophe" due to NATO bombings echoed through cyberspace alerting viewers to possible long term destruction of the environment, the eco-destruction of Yugoslavia, a great environmental catastrophe for the entire Balkan region, and indeed the possible risk to all of Europe. And this deep concern continued to intensify as the war progressed with further warnings of environmental carnage, environmental devastation, environmental disaster and eco-cide.

Why did the NATO bombings, which began as attacks on military targets, exact such a degree of dire and devastating ecological concern and outcry?

Early on it became clear that the war was not confined to military targets as NATO had first indicated and as the rules of war should dictate. University of Ottawa , Economics Professor, Michel Chossudovsky, widely published author of books and internet articles, revealed the extent of the civilian damage in his Impacts of Nato's "Humanitarian" Bombings, The Balance Sheet of Destruction in Yugoslavia posted April 11, 1999. And then daily reports of civilian bombings in mainstream media began leaving little doubt of human and ecological risks and threats to civilians, and civil society. The full extent of Chossudovsky's balance sheet was spread out for full view with the Internet release of Dr. Radoje Lausevic's comprehensive "Overview of Ecological Consequences of NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia until May 20th". Dr. Lausevic, a University of Belgrade Professor documented the catastrophic damage to:

  1. Infrastructure - general, traffic, bridges, railways and railway stations, roads and transporters, and airport s
  2. Industry-factories, refineries and warehouses, agriculture
  3. Urban and rural residential areas
  4. Pre-school institutions, schools and universities
  5. Cultural and historical monuments and museums.

    While this degree of destruction of civilian infrastructure fueled humanitarian concern, the ecologically aware voices were most incensed by the bombing and subsequent burning of Industry -factories, refineries and warehouses.

    Included among the targets blasted during the nearly 35,000 sorties flown by NATO planes were the massive petrochemical facility in Pancevo, the oil refinery in Novi Sad, and the pharmaceutical complex in Galenika as well as petroleum storage sites in Nis, Sombor, and other locations throughout Yugoslavia according to a June 3rd article by Christopher Walker reporting on Radio Free Europe Newsline.

    Ecological Catastrophe Due to Bombings and Burning of Petrochemical Plants:

    When it became apparent that not only oil refineries but also major petrochemical, chemical and pharmaceutical plants were being targeted as well, reports and articles began to emerge which resounded with horror and disbelief that the civilian population, the environment and indeed entire ecosystems were now threatened, perhaps for generations to come, with an immense volume of toxic materials known to be highly hazardous to human health in the short term and to the integrity of ecosystems and bio-diversity in the longer term In particular, the final destruction of Pancevo Petrochemical Complex, one of the largest of its kind, by bombing and subsequent burning on April 18th simultaneously unleashed toxic black clouds across the Balkans and shock waves of alarm from both individuals in the affected region and from an ecologically- concerned and humanitarian international community alike.

    A plethora of press releases reiterated the numerous toxic materials that had been released into the atmosphere from the burning of Pancevo's oil storage facility, ammonia plant and a vinyl chloride monimer plant and we learned also that plant workers had released tons of chemical contaminants into the Danube in an action they determined would assist in minimizing air pollution. Dr. Radoje Lausevic in his comprehensive Overview report of the ecological consequences of NATO bombings recorded the following chemicals released: Oils and petroleum products, polychlorinated biphyles (PCB's) Ammonia, ethylene dichloride, natrium hydoxide, hydrogen chloride [1,000 tonnes released into the river] , vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) [1,000 tonnes released], phosgene, nitrogen oxides, hydrofluoric acid, heavy metals, as well as products from incomplete combustion such as carbon monoxide, aldehydes, and soot and particulates.

    The June 29 press release announcing the release of the UN Interagency Needs Assessment Mission report noted that the chemicals released during the destruction of Pancevo and other related so-called "accidents" pose a serious threat to health in the region as well as to ecological systems in the broader Balkans. In particular it noted that these chemicals can cause cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects while some are associated with fatal nerve and liver diseases.

    Further implications for air pollution from the bombings and burnings of the petrochemical plants includes acid rain. Two acid rains were reported in Romania's southwestern counties one at end of April and the other on May 15th. In a May 27th Reuter's news release Romanian authorities said that acid rains were the direct consequence of air pollution caused by fires following bombings against targets in Yugoslavia. Acid rain was also recorded in Bulgaria May 23 to may 26th and and in Yugoslavia following the burning of Novi Sad and Pancevo.

    Much of the air and water pollution will, according to preliminary findings, settle into the soil through rainfall or leaching and news releases have also warned that the food chain would be contaminated and agriculture adversely affected. Milenko Vasovic, independent journalist from Belgrade, writing in a June 30th release entitled "Hiding Under Black Rain" noted that rains north of the city washed down the released vinyl chloride monimer poisoning the land and the crops, grains and fruit growing on it.

    The contamination of water supplies from the earliest days has been a major cause for concern. In an April 7th Environmental News Service release entitled "Environment of Europe at Risk from NATO Bombing: Branko Jovanovic, a leader of the Yugoslavian New Green Party said that NATO bombing of Yugoslavia was endangering the entire environment of Europe. "I warn you that Serbia is one of the greatest sources of underground waters in Europe and that the contamination will be felt in the whole surrounding area all the way to the Black Sea." A week later in another ENS news release "End Eco-destruction Yugoslav Scientists Plead", Momir Komatina, PhD, hydro-geologist and author of 12 books and over 260 scientific essays on subterranean waters said: "The pollution of water resources in the wide area of NATO bombing is not damaging just for our country but for the Balkans and a part of the South Europe as well, especially for the countries in the Black Sea area. Everybody agrees that they are the essential natural resources for the future of humanity and once polluted they can hardly be recovered."

    Dr. Radoje Lausevic reported that after bombing of the VCM plant in Pancevo on the night of April 18th a total of 1400 tons of ethylene dichloride [EDC] and 800 tons of 33% hydrogen chloride (HCl) were released directly into Danube watercourse, as well as 3000 tons of natrium hydroxyde (NaOH), 30 tons of liquid chlorine and almost 100 tons of mercury (Hg. As a consequence of released toxins after repeated bombings, Yugoslav authorities prohibited fishing on the Danube downstream from Pancevo.

    On May 7th the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) warned that an environmental crisis was looming in Yugoslavia, the lower Danube River and the Black Sea and that in the long-term there could be a build-up of toxins in the food chain and inability to reproduce among some species.

    Tony Wesolowsky writing on "Collateral Damage" in his June 2 news release for "In these Times" writes that environmentalists are especially worried about the Danube , which flows through 10 countries and supplies 10 million people with drinking water. Phillip Weller of the World Wildlife fund warned that the situation downstream of Yugoslavia was dire wherein a toxic brew of oil, chlorine monomers and mercury had taken over the Danube threatening the Black Sea while Greek based Alexandra Chiani also of the WWF - reported that Serbia's wetlands are some of the very best and that the bombings have destroyed a whole web of life!!

    Ecological Catastrophe due to DU

    Another reasons for the serious ecological alarm and warning of potential health hazard was the stark realization that dreaded depleted uranium [ DU ] weapons used in the Gulf War with such devastating health consequences were being used by NATO against Yugoslavia. Dr. Rosalie Bertell, renowned Canadian humanitarian scientist and expert on low level radiation speaking in Toronto midway through the War explained the consequences of exposure to DU radiation:

    "Canada has been an international leader against land mines but this depleted uranium is worse than land mines and it will stay around for thousands of years after the war is over. It is incorporated into the farm land; it can be picked up by the vegetables; the shrapnel can be handled by children ; it stays around ; it doesn't disappear; and because it's an aerosol it can travel as much as 50 - 60 km from the point of release. This is chemical and radiological warfare - its outrageous - It's a very serious violation of human rights. "

    Indeed the fact that toxic substances from the bombings of petrochemical plants and the use of DU weapons are the greatest concerns and the ones that have led to the outcry of "Ecological Catastrophe" can be inferred by noting the extensive number of references to both in the "Ecological Catastrophe" compilations. Further confirmation can be found in the words of Michel Gorbachev, President of Green Cross International recorded in a Guardian news release:

    " I believe that strikes against certain industries and infrastructure, such as ... chemical and petrochemical plants, must be prohibited. ... In my view, weapons containing depleted uranium should be among the first to be banned."

    Other Environmental Concerns

    Other lesser concerns are the damage of the land from bomb craters, and the fires that spread from the bombing sites destroying habitats and reducing bio-diversity. In addition widespread destruction from bombing within several national heritage sites has been recorded. Further environmental hazards to both human health and the land itself are the landmines throughout Kosovo and Serbia. In a similar manner cluster bombs, also weapons of mass destruction have littered the environment with numerous unexploded mini- bombs released upon detonation from their parent cluster bombs raining down upon a hapless environment and populace. Fishermen in the Adriatic have also had to face the presence of these unexploded mini-bombs in their fishing nets because NATO war planes discharge their unused cluster bombs in various approved locations.

    What Now That the War is Over ?

    Now that the War is over and the bombings have stopped major ecological concerns remain- Press releases from Green Cross Institute the Regional Environment Center for Eastern and Central Europe, the UN mission team and the World Wildlife Fund have noted one or more of the following concerns: 1) the need for effective immediate assessment of the entire region, 2) the need for immediate and effective cleanup operations and 3) the need for ecologically sound reconstruction. In addition they have stressed the need for NATO countries to take responsibility for assisting in the multi -billion dollar price tag already determined to be needed to set things right. There is however a growing concern that, at this time, neither adequate monies nor the political will exist to address the ecological catastrophe which the NATO bombing has created.

    And there are other major and alarming concerns and growing demands emerging around the hazards to human health in this post war period of analysis and reflection. Foremost among them is the threat of exposure to depleted uranium and the growing awareness of the urgent need for the Pentagon to release DU maps as they have done for the Gulf War. It is imperative that returning refugees , citizens, peace keepers and aid workers be informed of the location of all sites where DU munitions or missiles exploded, and it is also crucial that they be given instructions in how to avoid possible contact with DU and that anyone involved in clean up or who is likely to come in contact with DU, for any other reason, be issued protective clothing and given adequate instructions.

    Another major concern is the unpleasant political reality that has plagued fair and responsible reporting from the beginning of the war and which may continue to place stumbling blocks in the way of effective recovery and that is the tendency for authorities, acting within established political precedents to deny, minimize, or to down play the dangers and broadest implications of the ecological and human health consequences of the War. This has been the case first in regard to the use of DU weapons, then in regard to the health hazards DU presents and now comes the outcry that Belgrade authorities are 'hiding a toxic time bomb'.

    Hopefully NGO's and civil society can contribute the compassion, determination, will and the balance of a third sector necessary to insure that civilians will be afforded the utmost protection from the devastating consequences of such chemical and radioactive warfare, and to assist in environmental restoration guided by ecological principles.

    And if we can learn the political and ethical lessons of this great ecological and humanitarian catastrophe perhaps we can alter course from the present corporatist and strong man forms of decision making to restore faith in more democratic forms of governance both globally and for nation states caught up in historic ethnic rivalries.

    Biographical Material - Dr. Janet M Eaton

    Dr. Janet M Eaton is a Biologist, Educator, Researcher, Public Policy Consultant, Research Fellow of the International Systems Institute and a part -time university professor who has taught in both biology and Graduate Education faculties. For several years in the 80's she was the Director of a Community Education Research and Development program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. During the past five years has been active in promoting what she refers to as 'systemic change' based on general and evolutionary systems theory. As part of this change process she maintains that it is essential for a global citizenry to emerge to provide a balance to the present mode of economic globalization. She is well known for her work on the mai-not and other international listservs and when the NATO War in Yugoslavia began she became active on many listservs to promote greater awareness of alternate perspectives to mainstream media. Noting from the beginning of the recent War, the magnitude of the ecological catastrophe occurring, she chose to assist in creating awareness of that fact by collecting and later assembling with indices and excerpts over 64 articles on the subject of Ecological Catastrophe posted to multiple international list serves and environmental and peace agencies throughout the world.

    Janet's focusing of this article is based on the readings of the 64 articles she collected, compiled, collated, indexed and summarized for the Ecological Catastrophe & Health hazards of NATO Bombings Reference lists as well as another 10 or more articles and reports she will soon past in Ecological Catastrophe [6]

    Return to the 'NATO Bombing - has it brought peace to the Balkans?' Alert.

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