Hiding Under The Black Rain

Ecologists say the authorities in Serbia are concealing the extent of the ecological and health threats caused by NATO bombing.

Hiding Under The Black Rain

Ecologists say the authorities in Serbia are concealing the extent of the ecological and health threats caused by NATO bombing.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

When Novi Sad youngster D. Benasic went out on the streets last month to play football with his friends he was wearing white trainers. But when he returned home his shoes were literally black as soot.

Fortunately for the boy, his parents' frustration was reserved for NATO, not him. Their streets have been drenched with slimy, sooty rainwater, the result of the West's attack on Novi Sad's oil industry on May 1. Thirty oil tanks were set ablaze and continued burning until May 11, sending foul smoke into the air all the while. Rains swept the sticky grime through the city thoroughfares, onto the boy's shoes--and into the Danube River.

There has been no official explanation for the pollution, though one is hardly needed. A massive environmental disaster is on hand, with untold health problems to come. Even the vast quantities of fire-extinguishing foam needed to douse the eleven-day blaze pose their own ecological threat.

Pancevo, a city of 150,000 citizens near Belgrade, suffered a similar fate. Three major industrial plants were destroyed by NATO bombs and missiles--the city refinery, the Petrohemija oil products processing plant and the Azotara nitrogen-processing plant.

The strike on this last target will leave a particularly terrible legacy. In the early hours after the strike on the Azotara plant on April 18, levels of the carcinogen vinyl-chloride monomer (VHM) were found to be a lethal 10,600 times over recognised safety levels. Rains north of the city have washed down the escaped VHM, poisoning the land and the crops, grains and fruit growing on it.

This information was initially concealed from the community and the rest of the world. A Canadian TV news crew was barred from the area, and Belgrade officialdom has held silent on the potential risks.

"It is obvious that the authorities are hiding the truth," says Dusan Vasiljevic, chairman of the Belgrade Democratic Party's ecology committee, "even though we could benefit from knowing the risks for the Yugoslav population.

"They are doing that for fear of those who are affected, and for fear of facing pressure to do something. On the other hand, they themselves are aware that they are not competent, nor can they do anything," Vasiljevic adds.

But pollution of this kind and on this scale is unprecedented. Experts are offering help in exchange for this knowledge, and a Swiss firm has offered equipment.

Simon Bancov, Serbia's environmental inspector, believes that the air pollution over Pancevo is now within safe limits, even though water and land is still affected. But even he is having trouble getting accurate data.

"Officials say that everything is all right," he says, "but there are various forms of pressure exerted on researchers not to publish the information. Those who do disclose sensitive data will probably be held to account [by the state]."

Like everyone else he must make do with clues. "The ban on fishing best indicates that the water is polluted," Bancov adds.

Huge quantities of ammonium and ammonium based substances have been leaked into the Danube - a river that was already suffering from pollution from the plants even before the first bombs fell.

The Serbian Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Economy says local fish are a health hazard and has barred fishing on the Danube downstream from Pancevo, and on the Kolubara, Beljanica and Turija rivers.

Even more potentially deadly mudflows, bearing heavy metals and mercury, are seeping into their waters. As the river headwaters rise, they will sweep the poison across Yugoslavia and through southern Europe.

The lack of information is worrying everyone. The fate of this year's wheat crop was briefly discussed when the plants were first hit, but since then there has been little official word beyond the statement that the situation is "being monitored".

Some officials like Bancov are breaking ranks to warn against eating fish, eggs and meat from the affected regions, and some experts advise people to boil water before drinking. Fears of future birth defects are tormenting pregnant women, culminating in public calls for help with abortions, though the Serbian Ministry of Information says that unborn foetuses are not at risk.

But teams from the United Nations Environmental Programme and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements in Yugoslavia have already sent a report to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warning of the dangers of "miscarriages, birth defects as well as incurable diseases of the nervous system and liver."

Elsewhere the bombing of electrical installations in Kostolac, Lzarevac, Nis, Belgrade and Smederevo destroyed a large number of high-voltage transformers. Some used the highly toxic and cancerous coolant piralen, one litre of which can poison four million litres of water.

The German section of the World Wide Fund for Nature has called for the adoption of an international action plan to tackle the crisis. It warns that "due to the consequences of the destruction of the chemical plants the countries in the lower reaches of the Danube and the Black Sea region are particularly affected."

Filip Veler, head of its Danube-Karpati programme, has appealed for urgent action. He says people must not be deceived by the fact that some types of pollution cannot be seen by a naked eye. Mercury and heavy metal pollution requires particular attention, and can travel well beyond the Yugoslav borders.

Farmers around the Bulgarian towns of Kula and Belogradcik reported that flowers fell from fruit trees and vegetables began to rot on their land after the blasting of the fertiliser plant over the border in Prahovo.

Even some ordinary mosquitoes may be carrying poison, with reports of bites swelling up unusually, while paediatricians around target areas near Belgrade are reporting numerous new and unexplained allergies among youngsters.

Last but not least there is the threat from the bombs and missiles tipped with depleted uranium, some 150 of which are thought to have been dropped on Belgrade alone. Belgrade University chemist Predrag Polic warns that the danger from radioactive dust thrown up by the bombs may be even greater in Kosovo. There, an estimated 150 such weapons were landing daily during the conflict.

Physicists warn that radioactive dust can spread up to 10 kilometres from the blast site. Belgrade nuclear physicist Vladimir Ajdacic urges widespread measurements of radioactivity in the affected areas and the public release of the data. But there are little resources and even less available expertise for such a task.

Milenko Vasovic is a journalist based in Belgrade.

Serbia, Kosovo
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