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Mixed findings on
environmental effects of NATO bombing

By Steven Erlanger - July 28, 1999

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- A United Nations environmental team has found no evidence of a major ecological catastrophe in Yugoslavia as a result of NATO's bombing war, its leader said Tuesday. But he urged the West to provide immediate aid to help clean up significant "hot spots" of war-related pollution.

In a news conference to discuss preliminary findings from the 10-day inspection visit, Pekka Haavisto, a former Finnish environment minister and chairman of the U.N.'s Balkan Task Force, said: "We talk about chosen hot spots where immediate action has to take place, but not about a major ecocide or country-wide catastrophe."

Still, he said, environmental damage in heavily bombed industrial towns like Pancevo, Kragujevac and Bor needed immediate attention to protect the health of ordinary citizens, and added, when asked, that the West should help.

Mercury released by the bombing of industrial targets is contaminating Pancevo. And in Kragujevac, where the Zastava car factory was bombed, there are high levels of PCBs. In Bor, the problem is acid rain, which could be affecting areas beyond Yugoslavia.

One of the most difficult problems the team faced, Haavisto said, was distinguishing between pre-existing environmental damage in Yugoslavia -- an Eastern European country that has had nine years of economic sanctions -- and damage caused by the war.

In Pancevo, for instance, where a major petrochemical factory, a refinery and a fertilizer factory were bombed repeatedly, mercury lies in pools and should be cleaned up even before any other effort is made at reconstruction, he said.

When asked if it was safe to eat fish from the Danube, he hesitated, saying that local officials had lifted a ban on river fish and that they were honest in their assessments. Still, he said, he would not let fishing continue in a mile-long channel near Pancevo where effluent from the three factories enters the river.

"We found very dangerous chemicals there," he said. "But how dangerous it is to the whole Danube we cannot say."

Existing cleaning mechanisms were overwhelmed by the water used to try to put out the fires and by the lack of electricity or chemical supplies, he said.

Haavisto said the original state of environmental pollution in Pancevo was high, though the bombing had worsened it. The effects of the "black rain" in Pancevo, when burning factory fires sent pollutants and chemicals into the air, had now passed, he said.

"We've had some very worrying findings, but in some sites where there was a lot of worry we found nothing," he said.

He said the initial findings did not show an increased level of radioactivity from any bombs containing depleted uranium, as was feared. But he noted there might be other consequences from trace elements that still need to be examined.

And in Nis, for example, local fears about depleted uranium and the leakage of PCB's into the ground and ground water proved unfounded, he said.

In Bor, at a copper factory, the problems are worsened by a lack of electricity to run equipment that would stabilize sulfur or run pumping stations, and so sulfur dioxide is being emitted into the air, causing acid rain and likely traveling across borders.

NATO countries are divided on how much and what kind of help to provide Yugoslavia. The United States has refused to consider any reconstruction aid while President Slobodan Milosevic is in power, saying it will provide only relief assistance. The European Union is urging broader aid to repair the electrical system before the winter. But Washington has begun to discuss how to get aid to individual cities, especially those run by the opposition to Milosevic, and Pancevo and Kragujevac both are opposition-run.

In general, Haavisto danced carefully around the political issues, stressing that the report of the U.N. team would be given to Secretary-General Kofi Annan in about a month, after more detailed laboratory tests and evaluation.

Haavisto said that the Yugoslav authorities were helpful and the team, which also went to Novi Sad, Kraljevo, and Prahavo, visited any site he chose except for those in Kosovo where land mines remain.

Predrag S. Polic, a chemistry professor at Belgrade University, praised the team for its dedication and patience. "There is a lot of anxiety and emotions because of the war and a lot of fear about health, and I hope things will improve," he said. "The hot spots are very bad, but large areas are only temporarily affected."

Given Yugoslavia's climate, with wind, rain, rivers and vegetation, "self-purification here is good," Polic said. "It's not like Iraq."

Link to PMA's 'NATO Bombing - has it brought peace to the Balkans?' Alert.

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