Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Poisoned Town Pleads for Help

Deadly emissions from a smelting plant have doomed an entire generation in the town of Veles.
By Mitko Jovanov

The doctor from Veles compared what he had witnessed to a scene from a horror film.


"Babies are being born with entire organs missing. The deformities are frightening," he said, asking not to be named.


The central Macedonian town of Veles is the site of a public health


catastrophe. A smelter for lead and zinc - built barely 300 metres away from the nearest houses, in defiance of expert advice - has brought horror and suffering into the lives of the town's 60,000 inhabitants.


The children of 700 families in the town have serious health problems, and in the last five months alone, two have died of cancer.


Infertility and miscarriages are on the rise, while newly-born babies are lucky not to be diagnosed with heart or lung disease, asthma, anaemia, cancer or other major problems.


To local campaigners and health officials, the source of the problem is obvious - the town's lead and zinc smelter, which has shrouded Veles in pollutants for thirty years.


Yet there is no one to take the blame.


Compensation claims launched by the town's long-suffering inhabitants have revealed that the smelting plant has no single owner. Instead, ownership of the plant is divided between a number of companies. Critics say this was done to avoid creditors and complicate any claims for compensation.


Ace Kocevski, the mayor of Veles, told IWPR, "The smelter loses over 50 million euros a year, yet the state still makes its continued operation a priority."


The smelter might not be turning a profit, but it is still turning out pollutants. The volume of toxic waste in the town is astounding.


Latest measurements taken by the Macedonian Institute for Health Protection show that 62,000 tons of zinc, 47,300 tons of lead and 120,000 tons of sulphur dioxide are being released into Veles - every single year.


These figures are way over the maximum level set by international


regulations. Cadmium emissions in Veles are also more than 50 percent higher than they ought to be.


Little surprise then, that the town is also said to have the highest death rate in Macedonia.


World Health Organisation officials added Veles to their blacklist of critically dangerous places in 2001.


Most at risk are the town's children, who inherit deformities and ingest toxins, but lack the immunities to fight back.


Rozeta Bosilkova, a paediatrician in Veles, said, "My patients do not respond well to any treatment, even for the common cold. This is because their defence mechanisms have been badly eroded."


Sonja Gavrilova, who heads a pressure group, the Association for the Protection of Future Generations of Veles, records how two Veles families sent samples of their children's hair to the Centre for Microbiotic Medicine in Moscow.


"One sample displayed a concentration of lead seven times above the norm, and the other was five times above the norm," said Gavrilova.


The Moscow Centre is one of the few places parents can hope to have their children's complaints treated. But few can afford to pay for the treatment.


Last year, mayor Kocevski and the Veles municipality filed a law suit for the town's inhabitants, asking for 25 million euros in damages from the state.


They charged that the way the plant was run breached the constitution and environmental legislations - but according to Kocevski, the claim is getting bogged down by constant demands for new evidence.


Kocevski has proposed that all agriculture and cattle farming in the Veles region should be stopped immediately given the level of heavy metal pollutants in the soil.


However, detailed evidence for this pollution, which was produced with the help of the Vila Zora environmental group, was dismissed by the plant's managers as inaccurate and alarmist.


Macedonia's minister for the environment, Ljubomir Janev, tried to break the impasse by saying the focus should now be on finding a solution to the problem rather than ascribing blame.


"No more effort should be spent on convincing anyone there is pollution in Veles, or in looking for a culprit. We should be seeking solutions based on concrete measures for establishing an integrated preventive protection programme," Janev told the Utrinski Vesnik newspaper.


The state has recently announced that it will set up a taskforce dedicated to solving the problem.


But locals can be forgiven for doubting whether real improvements will follow the latest official proclamations. Earlier statements have yet to bear fruit.


The ministry responsible for the environment and urban planning organised a round-table in February this year, where one participant, Antonia Efremov, from the Agency for Technological Development and Economic Protection, suggested that Veles' problems could be solved by renewing the plant's technology.


The United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, recently donated equipment for use in monitoring the plant's emissions. However, Vera Ristova, the head of the Veles branch of the Republican Institute for Health Protection, which received the equipment, refused to tell IWPR whether it had been used yet or not.


As their health deteriorates, the anger of Veles's inhabitants is growing.


Kocevski told IWPR, "The inhabitants of Veles are the conscience of this country. Macedonia cannot hope to join the EU without addressing this problem."


Mitko Jovanov is a journalist with weekly Denes