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UN team finds contamination at sites of NATO bomb attacks

By Joe Lauria, Globe Correspondent, 08/06/99


UNITED NATIONS - NATO's bombing of Yugoslav industrial sites has contaminated the river Danube and ground water in parts of Serbia and Kosovo, posing a health hazard for ''several years,'' the head of a UN environmental team said yesterday.

''We have found that on many of these targeted sites there are serious environmental consequences and probably also serious health consequences,'' said Pekka Haavisto, a former Finnish environmental minister, who heads the UN Environmental Program/Habitat Balkans Task Force.

Haavisto said his team has determined that reports of workers at a chemical factory in Pancevo dumping toxics into the Danube ahead of NATO attacks were false.

''The workers denied this and our observations showed that the area where the chemicals leaked into the Danube had been bombed,'' Haavisto said in an interview.

The 12-member UN team returned this week from a 10-day mission to targeted industrial sites in Serbia and Kosovo, and will return for two more weeks at the end of the month. The team will present its findings in a report to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the end of September.

''It will then be up to the secretary general to decide what action the UN should take,'' Haavisto said at a news conference.

The team will take samples of sediment from the Danube to gauge the extent of the contamination. The team will study what impact the bombing fallout has on the long-term health of the people of the region.

''It is too early to give figures on how many people are in danger,'' Haavisto said.

The team has determined that ''a lot'' of mercury, asbestos, and other toxic substances were found in the soil surrounding several of the 15 industrial sites visited.

''The overall estimation is that there are certain environmental and human health risks if immediate action is not taken,'' Haavisto said. He noted that if the cleanup were to begin tomorrow it would take ''several years'' to complete.

In a visit to Washington this week, Haavisto appeared uncomfortable talking about the response State Department officials gave to his request that the United States lift its ban on reconstruction aid to Yugoslavia to help pay for an environmental cleanup.

President Clinton has said Belgrade will not get ''one red cent'' until Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is removed from office. The United States will offer aid if the need is determined to be humanitarian.

But it may prove difficult to judge whether aid to protect Yugoslav workers already rebuilding contaminated industrial sites could be considered humanitarian.

Haavisto said State Department officials were waiting for the team's final report ''before making up their minds.''

The team also will study the environmental and health effects of the depleted uranium shells left over from NATO attacks. Haavisto said he has contacted NATO, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Yugoslav government, and the World Health Organization for information about these shells.

''We are ready to take samples and work with this issue,'' Haavisto said. ''Whether we find something that is alarming remains to be seen. We have with us simple radioactivity measurement equipment and we haven't found any high radioactivity levels at the moment.''

Many of the sites the team is studying, however, had environmental problems before the war began, Haavisto said.

''Some opposition local officials told us they have been waiting 10 years for us to arrive,'' Haavisto said. ''We have to make the distinction between the problems caused by the crisis and the previous environmental and health problems.''

This story ran on page A20 of the Boston Globe on 08/06/99.
Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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