Collateral Damage of the Environmental Kind

A year after NATO’s bombing campaign, Yugoslav and international ecology experts say that environmental damage caused by the air war is far more extensive than NATO will admit — and they want to take NATO to court to force the issue.

Image: Claude Morgan

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It’s a sizzling summer day in Pancevo, Serbia. Out in the rubble that was part of this town’s petrochemical plant before it was bombed by NATO last year, the air smells sickly sweet. Large holding tanks, ripped by shrapnel, lie dormant, baking in the sun. A large spherical tank used to store the plant’s deadly vinyl chloride monomer now sits like a cauldron with a ragged, torn lip facing the sky, a casualty of NATO “smart” bombs.

The morning after NATO bombed the plant, it rained paint chips the size of quarters, says Nenad Zivkovic, a journalist for the city’s newspaper. Later that day, he recalls, the real rains came, washing down most of the remaining jet-black cloud.

But while the rains did their best to erase the visible blight in the sky, he says, they left an invisible blight elsewhere: 80,000 tons of oil had burned in the night, much of it spilling into the nearby Danube river. Another 2,500-plus tons of ethylene dichloride, vinyl chloride monomer, and metallic mercury — all known toxins — likewise seeped into the nearby earth and the Danube. Zivkovic, like many Pancevians, wonders just how much of those toxins wound up where — a crucial question from an environmental standpoint.

One year and several international fact-finding missions later, that question still haunts Pancevo, a tree-shaded suburb of Belgrade. The uncertainty around the fate of those toxins continues to generate questions about the size and shape of the environmental damage caused by the recent war. The toxic mystery also raises new questions about who bears the moral — and legal — responsibility for setting environmental wrongs aright after environmentally disruptive conflicts.

NATO has steadfastly refused to accept responsibility for cleaning up the former Yugoslavia’s blighted environment, saying the damage caused by its bombing was acceptable under international law.

“Fuel supplies are a key element of any nation’s military machine,” says Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman, defending the air strike on Pancevo’s petrochemical plant. “That is recognized under international law. NATO also believes that a proportion of the pollution we have been alleged to cause, in fact, reflects poor environmental standards on [Yugoslavian] industry, and was not caused by us.”

But Yugoslav and international environmental experts maintain that the environmental damage caused by the 78-day war is far more extensive than NATO will admit — and Yugoslavia wants to take NATO to court to force the issue.

“I think we are seeing a new kind of war being waged here,” says Fedor Zdanski, a former professor of chemical engineering at Belgrade University, now head of the natural sciences department at the Alternative Academic Network. He and colleagues in Belgrade are tracking and studying the long-term human health and environmental consequences of the war.

Aside from the NATO strike on Pancevo, 73,000 tons of crude oil and oil products burned and seeped into the groundwater in the northern city of Novi Sad, where it may now be contaminating the region’s water supply. Elsewhere, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, ammonia, and other caustics, spewed from burning industrial facilities into the air, ground, and rivers in the former Yugoslavia, leaving many experts convinced that the impact of the toxic releases reach far beyond Yugoslavia’s borders.

“It’s a catastrophe,” says Zdanski.

It may also be a crime.

Legal experts say that NATO countries may have violated a number of international laws and treaties (including the Geneva Convention) created specifically to protect the environment and long-term human health during wartime — an issue the international community may soon be forced to address.

Responding to reports of a widespread environmental disaster, the United Nations formed a special Balkan Task Force to investigate. The Task Force, led by former Finnish environment minister Pekka Haavisto, released its report in October identifying several environmental “hot spots”created by the bombing in the former Yugoslavia — areas in need of immediate cleaning — but said that otherwise, most of the country’s pollution predates the air war. Serbian experts and others reject the findings of that report.

Dragana Tar, head of the Regional Environmental Center (REC) in Serbia — a group based in Hungary and funded by international donors — says the damage is far more widespread than a handful of environmental “hot spots.”

“At this point, we could argue over the details of the impact for years,” she says. “I’m afraid we’ll see the real effects — so and so many people dying of cancer — long after it’s too late.”

Recently, the REC issued a report to European Union ministers stating that the bombing of chemical facilities posed “a serious threat both locally and regionally to human health in the long-term.”

A 1999 World Wildlife Fund report observed that pollution from the targeted industrial areas — far from being contained to hot spots — was actually spreading to the environment at large.

Arguing that, in peacetime, the international community would have eagerly declared a large-scale environmental catastrophe in the former Yugoslavia, Jadranko Simic, a senior science advisor at Serbia’s Federal Ministry of the Environment and Development in Belgrade, says that Haavisto and his team have employed a double standard. “If a few tons of oil spill in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of France,” says Simic, “it’s an ecological disaster. If many more times that amount of oil spills into a much smaller body of water — the Danube River — why isn’t this also an ecological disaster?”

Simic, who consulted with Task Force members several times during their 28-day stay in the former Yugoslavia, says the Finnish leader and his team worked in isolation, investigating less than 10 percent of the industrial and natural sites recommended by experts. Furthermore, say many of those experts, Haavisto and his team failed to report their findings objectively.

“Declaring an ecological catastrophe necessarily produces a discussion about responsibility,” says Radoje Lausevic, an assistant professor of biology at Belgrade University, who also conferred with the team. He too studies the long-term environmental consequences of the war.

“Their report is a political document,” charges Lausevic. “The topic was intentionally switched from the pollution that occurred as a result of the war to our long-term pollution problem.”

Members of the Balkan Task Force say they cooperated with local experts and reported their findings objectively. “The [Task Force] was not attempting to make a comparison” between ecological disasters in Europe, says Robert Bisset, a spokesman for the group. “[The Task Force] was mandated to conduct an independent, scientifically-based assessment of the environmental impact of the conflict.”

During the course of their work, he says, Task Force members uncovered the historical levels of pollution and chose to report them “to be scientifically credible.”

The result, however, is that one year later, a clean-up in the former Yugoslavia is nowhere in sight — in large part, because the international community is relying on Task Force recommendations on whether or not to offer financial aid to the Balkan nation.

Stepping over rubble at the petrochemical plant in Pancevo, Radojko Tomic, the plant’s assistant technical director, admits that Serbia doesn’t have the resources to clean up its post-war environment.

“We can’t do it all,” he says.

While most experts recognize that Yugoslavia had pollution problems prior to the conflict, no one knows for sure just how severe those problems were.

“Our industrial growth here has never been followed with medical statistics,” admits Ivan Zafirovic, a sociologist and Pancevo assemblyman. Yugoslavia, he says, has been notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to admitting problems about pollution.

Legal experts say that sifting through these competing layers of pollution — the old and the new — may well be the first step in an international clean-up effort. It may also be the first step in a plaintiff’s plea for justice.

According to experts, Serbia will now ask the international community to examine whether or not NATO members violated international law by inflicting “widespread, long-term and severe damage to the environment” — language added to Protocol 1 (Article 55) of the Geneva Conventions in 1977 after an international review of the US military’s defoliation campaign in Vietnam.

If such an investigation were to proceed, says Jay Austin, a senior attorney at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, DC, it could consequently change the way wars are fought by forcing military planners to consider the long-term environmental consequences of their targets.

“To the best of my knowledge, the environmental language of Protocol 1 has never been tested in court,” says Austin. “Some of these allegations — if proven — could be claimed to rise to the level of violations of the Protocol,” he adds.

The World Court at the Hague, however, has so far refused to hear Serbia’s case, finding it lacked jurisdiction over the parties in the dispute.

More recently, a committee for the war crimes tribunal at the Hague recommended the international body throw out Serbia’s claims because of ambiguous language in the Protocol — and because of the unfavorable conclusions formed by the Balkan Task Force. The question of who, if anyone, will clean up the former Yugoslavia’s blasted environment looks a long way from being answered.


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