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In These Times August 8, 1999

Collateral Damage
By Tony Wesolowsky

During its air war in Yugoslavia, NATO's military might was locked on targets stockpiled with some of the most lethal chemicals known to man. Across Yugoslavia, fuel depots, oil refineries and chemical factories were routinely bombed, trying to bring Slobodan Milosevic to heel. But the environmental consequences of bombing certainly didn't factor into the equation. As a result, NATO's air campaign unleashed a chain of ecological disasters, the aftermath of which will be felt for generations.

Although it's too early for comprehensive reports on the bombings' environmental effects, there is some alarming evidence of serious damage. Acid rain in Romania and hundreds of dead fish bobbing in oil slicks stretching up to 10 miles across the Danube River are the most obvious telltale signs.

The sprawling petrochemical plant at Pancevo, just 10 miles northeast of Belgrade, served as one of NATO's favorite targets; during 78 days of bombing, NATO missiles hit Pancevo some 15 times. Thick plumes of toxins hovered over the smoldering industrial site, which included fertilizer factories and an oil refinery. Among the most lethal substances handled at the plant was vinyl chloride, which is known to cause cancer, as well as damage to the liver and kidneys. Many Serbs made sick by the noxious fumes were instructed by authorities to breathe through scarves soaked in sodium bicarbonate.

While among the most destructive, the assault on Pancevo was not unique. Environmentalists are especially worried about the Danube, Europe's main waterway. Pancevo, oil behemoth Novi Sad and other industrial sites NATO bombed sit along the river, which flows through 10 countries and supplies 10 million people with drinking water. Four countries along the river -- Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine -- are downstream of Yugoslavia.

At a May conference of European scientists and environmentalists in Athens, Philip Weller of the World Wide Fund for Nature, the international arm of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), warned that the situation was dire downstream of Yugoslavia, where a toxic brew of oil, chlorine monomers and mercury has taken over the Danube and threatens the Black Sea. "Only immediate measures to stop the down-stream flow of pollution," he said, "will prevent an ecological catastrophe from following the humanitarian one."

A study of the Danube by the Romanian environmental ministry showed concentrations of copper, lead, chromium and cadmium had doubled over three days in April. These chemicals build up in body fat, causing birth and genetic defects and infertility. Questions remain about how much of this lethal stew was trapped by the 66-mile-long electric dam that supplies Yugoslavia and Romania with power.

The first major oil slick on the Danube reached Bulgaria on April 7 after the bombing of the refinery at Pancevo. Weller says that 20,000 tons of curde also gushed into the Danube after NATO bombed Pancevo and Novi Sad one day before the peace deal was signed. During the NATO campaign, Bulgaria periodically shut down ground-water reserves along a 300-mile stretch of the Danube to protect drinking supplies from contamination. After a wet winter and spring, river levels fell this summer, leaving behind oil and other toxins on the shore that are leaching into the soil.

The U.N. Environmental Program and the U.N. Center for Human Settlements have created a special task force to assess the ecological impact of the conflict on the Balkans. Meanwhile, the governments of Romania and Bulgaria are working with the WWF to acquire funds and specialized equipment that will monitor toxins in the Danube. "The first step must be an independent and verifiable assessment of the situation," Weller says. "Without that, it's impossible to know the appropriate action to take."

Tracking oil slicks, however, may prove to be a more urgent concern, though many officials won't admit it. John Large, a London-based nuclear safety consultant, told Scotland's Sunday Herald that Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear power plant, which sits on the Danube 90 miles south of the Yugoslavian border, is in danger of a Chernobyl-like accident from the spills. He warned that the oil could jam machines that pump water from the river to cool the reactors.

The same waters flowing in the 1,700-mile Danube also support some of Europe's last surviving and richest wetlands, including its vast delta. Large flocks of birds that would normally roost in Serbia are taking refuge in Macedonia, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The Guardian reported that fires caused by the bombings devastated protected forest habitats across the country. "Serbia's wetlands are some of the very best," says Alexandra Chaini of the Athens branch of the WWF. "The bombings destroyed a whole web of life."

And grazing livestock, such as cattle, goats and sheep, may be poisoned after ingesting small aluminum shards dropped by NATO warplanes to confuse radar, according to reports from Friends of the Earth in Greece.

Especially troubling was NATO's use of armor-penetrating depleted uranium (DU) weapons. DU, the waste left over from the enrichment of uranium, is extremely dense -- 1.7 times more dense than lead. On impact, DU turns to dust -- a speack lodged in a lung can cause cancer. A 1991 report by the U.S. Nuclear Defense Agency found that radiation from fragments and intact DU rounds pose a "serious health threat." First used on a large-scale during the Gulf War, DU has been linked to Gulf War Syndrome as well as high levels of stillbirths, birth defects and leukemia among Iraqi children.

No one knows exactly where and how much of this lethal dust is now sprinkled across Yugoslavia. The Kosovars returning home are about to find out.

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