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The environmental impact of the NATO campaign

3 June 1999


RFE/RL NEWSLINE Vol 3, No.108, Part II, 3 June 1999

Headlines, Part II

by Christopher Walker

Among the broad range of difficult issues to be resolved in the post-conflict period in Yugoslavia, one that has been largely overlooked is the environmental damage caused as a result of NATO bombing.

During Operation Allied Force, besides hitting military targets, NATO has consistently bombed strategic sites such as oil refineries, fuel storage depots, petrochemical and fertilizer plants, and numerous other industrial complexes. The destruction of these facilities is raising concerns about the impact of the war on the natural environment of Yugoslavia as well as neighboring Balkan countries. The media controlled by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, moreover, have devoted extensive coverage to real or imagined environmental damage in order to help galvanize public opinion against NATO.

Included among the targets blasted during the thousands of sorties flown by NATO planes are the petrochemical facility in Pancevo, the oil refinery in Novi Sad, and the pharmaceutical complex in Galenika. Numerous attacks on petroleum storage sites in Nis, Sombor, and other locations throughout Yugoslavia have been reported.

Five weeks ago, NATO planes struck the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plants of the HIP Petrochemija facility in Pancevo, 15 kilometers outside Belgrade. PVC, of which VCM is the parent compound, is a plastic resin used in a wide range of industrial and consumer applications. Exposure to certain levels of these materials, which are carcinogens, poses potential health threats to humans. Reports from Yugoslav sources indicate that there have been significant amounts of toxic discharge generated both by the bombing of the plants and as a result of the emptying of storage tanks at the facility by controlled burning.

Yugoslav and international authorities are now starting to determine what environmental damage may be occurring as a result of the bombings. The UN, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), and the EU are among the groups seeking to examine the situation more closely. For the time being, continuing hostilities are hampering a precise assessment of possible damage, but there are indications that considerable environmental impact may turn out to be an ugly byproduct of this conflict.

In mid-May, a UN working group arrived in Yugoslavia to assess possible environmental harm caused by NATO air strikes. The study is being conducted by the UN Environment Program and the UN Center for Human Settlements. Among other issues, the UN working group will investigate possible water and air contamination. The petrochemical plant in Pancevo was among the first facilities visited by the group.

Early last month in Weimar, Germany, EU environment ministers discussed environmental issues relating to the Kosova conflict. The ministers emphasized the importance of taking measures facilitating a swift assessment and cleaning up of any environmental contamination.

The WWF has warned of environmental damage to the River Danube ecosystem and the Black Sea. The group reported that one oil slick was detected last month in the river, but there are concerns that other toxins have spilled into it as a result of the bombing of the oil refinery in Novi Sad and the chemical and fertilizer plant in Pancevo. The Danube is a source of drinking water for some 10 million people in the region.

With regard to the River Danube, WWF's Danube- Carpathian program director Philip Weller told the author that the "WWF believes the potential damage could be significant and that an immediate assessment of the situation is needed with expanded monitoring of the river in Bulgaria and Romania and to the extent possible in Yugoslavia." He added that "a longer-term assessment and action plan to reduce environmental damage needs to be taken at the conclusion of hostilities."

There are also concerns in Bulgaria about potential effects on the Kozloduy nuclear plant. The facility lies on the southern bank of the River Danube in northern Bulgaria and is roughly 100 kilometers downstream from the Serbian border. Bulgarian officials have noted that oil pollution in the Danube could affect the Kozloduy plant, which uses river water for its cooling procedures. As a precaution, Bulgarian authorities have installed oil booms near the plant.

Should the conflict in Yugoslavia continue for an extended period, further bombing could exacerbate environmental harm already done. At the same time, ongoing hostilities will restrict independent monitoring and delay comprehensive remediation of any environmental damage.

The reconstruction of Serbia's infrastructure and social system, as well as the development of open and accountable public institutions, will undoubtedly take a very long time. Should some of the more dire predictions come true, lingering environmental problems may prove another thorny obstacle to Serbia's renewal. That is one reason why the international community has already begun planning comprehensive post-war reconstruction and development projects for the entire Balkan region.

The author is a New York-based analyst specializing in East European affairs

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