01 October 1999 00:00 [Source: PCE]The war in Yugoslavia is over and the ravages of Kosovo no longer make the headlines. But the long-term affects of the toxic pollutants which poured into the region's rivers have yet to become apparent, as John McCallum reports
Thankfully, most of us will never have to face the horrors of war and its aftermath. But those who have tell of the devastation, the displacement and the disruption which lasts long after the last bullets are fired in anger. The war in Yugoslavia is over for the moment and the situation is now in the hands of the politicians. But what about the people on the ground?
The Nato countries commenced a series of bombing raids on 24 March 1999 with the aim of reducing the Serbian/Yugoslavian capability to fight a war and ethnically cleanse the area known as Kosovo. Targets for bombing involved raids on the infrastructure of the country - including bridges, power, water and industrial complexes.
The bombing ended on 10 June when the Yugoslavian forces met the withdrawal deadlines.
###8483###During the war, a wide range of weapons was used against the targets. A new bomb that could cover a large area with graphite powder was shown to be effective against the power stations. The graphite caused short circuits, leading to many power shortages.
Serious concern has been raised over the potential use of depleted uranium (DU) shells against armoured targets. The A-10 'Warthog' anti-tank aircraft was reported to have been set up to use the shells in the ratio of three conventional to one DU. The suggestion has been made that DU may well be associated with the condition known as 'Gulf War Syndrome' which affected troops during the conflict with Iraq. Others suggest the chemical cocktail used to protect the troops from chemical and biological weapons is the more likely source. Dust from the shells may still contain some radioactivity in addition to the normal toxicity of the uranium. Civilians living and working in the areas where DU rounds were used may be at risk from dust and other debris during clean-up operations.
During the war, newspapers and press conferences reported daily on the various targets attacked and their significance to the overall war effort. Regularly attacked industrial complexes included Pancevo (about 15km from Belgrade), Novi Sad, Baric, Nis and Kragujevac.
The Pancevo complex consisted of fertiliser/petrochemicals plants and an oil refinery (Petrohemija, Azotara). It was reported that the bombing released a toxic cloud containing phosgene, vinyl chloride, chlorine, propylene and hydrochloric acid. In addition, workers released ethylene dichloride to minimise explosion risk. Other chemicals reportedly released were used in the synthesis of dyes, pharmaceuticals, herbicides, foams and resins. The presence of nitric acid in the cloud led to warnings not to eat fish caught from local rivers. The range of chemicals seemed to vary from report to report.
The Novi Sad site was another refinery while the Baric and Nis plants may have released a range of toxic materials including furans and dioxins. At Kragujevac the worry was the release of transformer oil into the environment. Serb authorities said that they had planned to dump 180 tonne of hydrochloric acid into the River Sava, southwest of Belgrade. Whether this occurred is uncertain.
The short- and long-term effects of exposure to all of the chemicals released are well documented. Vinyl chloride can cause a rare liver cancer - angiosarcoma - but signs of its appearance may take 20 years. Dioxans in low concentrations cause headaches and drowsiness. In higher concentrations, nausea and vomiting occur with the possibility of kidney and liver damage. There is also the fear of cancer through long-term ingestion via the food chain. Phosgene is well known as a poisonous gas used during the First World War. It causes a delayed secretion of fluid into the lungs (pulmonary oedema) when inhaled. Breathlessness, cyanosis and coughing up a frothy fluid are the usual symptoms.
After these targets chemical plants were attacked, the local authorities struggled to clean up the spillage with the limited resources available. Surrounding countries mobilised to minimise the pollution. The River Danube was believed likely to be polluted. Fish and other aquatic life would certainly be affected by oil spills and the dumping of toxic chemicals. Nato held meetings with the Romanian government over the potential long-term effects on the rich wildlife in the Danube delta. The Romanian government was reported to have brought cleaning equipment from Bucharest to deal with the oil slicks close to the Serb border. Bulgaria and the Black Sea were also expected to be affected by the pollution.
Fears that these pollutants may get into the underground aquifers and prove a long-term problem were highlighted by Momir Komatina, co-founder of the International Karst Commission. 'The bombing is not only damaging just for our country,' he says, 'but for the Balkans and a part of south Europe as wellÉ they are the essential natural resources for the future of humanity and once polluted they can hardly be recovered. The subterranean waters fill the needs of 90% of the population and industry.'
The lack of clean drinking water for the general population as a result of bombing the water plants and damage to the national infrastructure is of great concern. Add to this the effect the war had on planting crops and tending them, there are fears that there will be little to harvest this year and for the next few years. Destruction of the plants at Pancevo has had a considerable effect on the availability of fertilisers and pesticides. The possibility of contamination from the destroyed chemical works does not help matters.
A UN mission to assess the damage led by Sergio de Mello has visited Yugoslavia to assess the needs of the population and the rehabilitation requirements. A new United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) task force has also been established. Its remit includes the monitoring of the environmental and human impacts on the ongoing Balkans conflict. It is hoped that its environmental report will be released by the end of October.
In the meantime, the International Committee of the Red Cross is supplying equipment to the Public Health Institute in Novi Sad to monitor the fall-out from the decomposition of crude oil, an ultraviolet spectrophotometer to check the composition of water and the relevant software and disposable laboratory materials.
What is needed to ensure proper clean-up of contaminated areas in Serbia is unclear, although the Unep report will give some indication. However, the worst of the damage may be over. The gases vented from the chemical plants are now well dispersed into the atmosphere and are no longer a problem. More serious is the damage caused by the deposition of chemicals on the land or the watercourses. The oil spillage has been tackled outside the Yugoslav boundaries.
The damage to the land is uncertain and the extent and long-term damage will depend on the type and quantity of the contaminant, the geology of the area, the soil structure, what soil bacteria are present and the general degree of weathering of the pollutants. Given that several months have passed, the problems may be minimal. Soil bacteria will reduce some of the pollution load by breaking it down into other materials. Whether the organics reach the aquifers or are trapped in pockets away from the water depends on the geology of the area. Organics that reach the subterranean water may still pose some problems but the aquifers and the water obtained from them may be cleaned by aeration methods.
The scale of the problem is still unknown. Aid to the region is already being discussed or put in place and the level of expertise required from external organisations is largely in the hands of the politicians. There will be no aid to Serbia while the present administration is in control, which means as long as Slobodan Milosevic remains in power. The reconstruction of Kosovo is under way and some refugees are returning. One estimate of the reconstruction costs for Kosovo alone is in excess of E3bn ($3.2bn) over three years with 50% of the funding coming from the EU.
Meanwhile, environmental pressure group the Wolrd Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is calling for an urgent clean-up of toxic substances coming from the Pancevo petrochemical complex.
A WWF team warned following an assessment of the complex that toxic pollutants, originally released in the immediate environment of bombed facilities, are now threatening further damage by spreading into surrounding areas.
Philip Weller, director of the WWF's Danube Carpathian Programme, says that support is urgently needed from the international donor community for the clean-up and removal of contaminants from soil around the Pancevo complex and from the Pancevo canal which feeds into the Danube.
The complex includes the Petrohemija chemicals plant - whose output includes vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), chlorine and ethylene dichloride (EDC) - the Azotara fertiliser complex and an oil refinery.
The WWF said samples taken from soil and water showed:
Weller says the mission also found toxic pollution in the Danube but adds that the lack of pollution monitoring in the area makes it difficult to separate damage caused by the war from previous or ongoing pollution. The WWF is also calling for the permanent upgrading of pollution monitoring in the Danube by the parties to the Danube River Protection Convention, which includes Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
Unep's Balkan Task Force (BTF) chairman Pekka Haavisto has played down environmental concerns of an ecological catastrophe, but says action is needed to deal with environmental 'hotspots' such as Pancevo.
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