Balkans Task Force Finds No Eco-Catastrophe

GENEVA, Switzerland, July 29, 1999 (ENS) - A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) task force has failed to find major environmental damage from NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia after a 10-day preliminary analysis of industrial sites. Balkans Task Force leader Pekka Haavisto, a former Finnish environment minister, said on Tuesday that there is "no major eco-catastrophe," though local problems are severe in some areas.

Haavisto gave a similar assessment of the war's environmental impacts when he briefed European Union environment ministers on the issue at last week's informal meeting hosted by the Finnish presidency.

Novi-Sad

The Novi-Sad oil refinery goes up in flames (Photos courtesy www.pancevo.com)
The team of 12 UNEP scientists arrived in Belgrade July 18 and left the region July 27. They visited the Pancevo industrial complex, a fertilizer plant, petrochemical factory and oil refinery near Belgrade; the Novi-Sad oil refinery; the Zastava car factory in Kragujevac; the Nis transformer factory; the Bor copper factory, and fuel depots in Kraljevo, Prahavo and Pristina, Kosovo. Two mobile laboratories from Denmark and Germany travelled with the group.

Looking for toxic compounds such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the scientists have taken extensive soil and ground-water samples. These will now be sent to independent laboratories for detailed analysis.

One of the biggest obstacles faced by the task force is the poor knowledge of pre-existing pollution around sites such as the Pancevo industrial complex near Belgrade, Haavisto said. Trying to determine between old and new pollution was a "highly political issue," he concluded, although he stressed that the group had received full cooperation from all parties involved.

Pancevo

The Pancevo complex was hit April 18.
Investigation into possible earlier pollution incidents and the gathering of maps, air pollution records and amounts of existing hazardous wastes is helping the Task Force build up a picture of the state of the environment before the conflict. Such detailed knowledge is a necessary prerequisite for making a credible assessment of the current environmental situation, Haavisto said.

The Balkans Task Force assessment is considerably less pessimistic than one released June 28 by the Hungary based NGO the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC). The REC report concludes the war in Yugoslavia "may have far-reaching impacts on the ability of the Balkan countries to protect the valuable environment of the South Eastern European region, and only a long-term approach to reclamation, monitoring and institutional rebuilding will help prevent a potentially disastrous situation."

Among the more pressing environmental problems, the REC report listed:

The REC report pointed to some of the lesser known problems such as severe strains on fresh-water and sewage facilities in Macedonia and Albania, due to the need to construct large refugee camps with little time for prior planning. "Some refugee camps in those countries did harm to protected areas, and several endangered species in Yugoslavia and the surrounding countries had their fragile environments threatened - either by bombing or refugee movements," REC reported.

Pristina

Pristina, capital of Kosovo
REC said a complicating factor is that citizens' groups and governmental organisations that usually handle these problems "have had their activities severely curtailed by the war, and many groups face the prospect of becoming inoperative." One of the main recommendations of the REC report is that the rebuilding that needs to take place throughout the Balkan region must involve the appropriate environmental authorities and professionals - not consultants who are flown into strange countries, but local professionals who know and care about their own unique environments.

UNEP's Balkans Task Force did make an effort to connect with local people during its preliminary assessment. In many of the towns they visited, stake-holder information sharing meetings were held with council officials, the general public, and representatives from public health institutes and non-governmental organizations.

Further UN missions to Yugoslavia are due in August to check for impacts from the bombing on biodiversity and on the River Danube, both locally and in downstream countries such as Bulgaria and Romania.

The Balkans Task Force is due to report in September.

{ENDS Environment Daily contributed to this report. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London. Email: envdaily@ends.co.uk; Website: http://www.ends.co.uk/envdaily }