This article was originally published on Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso on December 13, 2012, by Nicole Corritore.

Pancevo, Serbia has for years been the most polluted town in Southeastern Europe. The Nato bombings in 1999 made the situation even worse. OBC’s report

Heading for Pancevo, north east of Belgrade, I open the car window to get some air: the car is full of exhaust fumes from two hours' tailback on the ring-road round the Serbian capital. Pancevo is only 18 kilometers away.

I remember the town especially because of the TV footage of the toxic, black cloud surrounding it one day in April 1999. The Nato bombers were relentless towards the great industrial complex in the southern part of the town - refinery, petrochemical and nitrogen factories – causing damage to the environment and the inhabitants' health to a degree as yet unknown.

Jobs versus Nature

Pancevo was one of the most important production centers in the region. This because of its strategic position, on flat land wedged between the Danube, Tamis and Nadel rivers, with railway and major road networks nearby.

In the period between the two World Wars came the first phase of heavy industrialization, starting with the “Tesla” light bulb factory, a factory producing glass for the building trade and the “Utva” factory making aircraft. Then between the 60s and 70s came the plastics industry and the large new complex of the so-called Juzna industrijska zona (southern industrial zone) made up of HIP – petrochemicals, NIS refinery and HIP nitrogen.

Pancevo, together with other towns in the Yugoslav Federation like Bor in Serbia and Zenica in Bosnia Herezegovina, rose to a primary position for their pollution and death rates. In the rush to rebuild a country beset by hunger after the Second World War, the priority was economic development and work, quickly and at all cost.

Some improvement in environmental conditions took place in 1992, not because the installations were modernized, but due to the international community's embargo of Serbia which devastated the economy of the country: the market was blocked, raw materials disappeared and factories cut back or closed down.

Welcome to Pancevo

The bridge over the Tamis welcomes me to the town. I park in the pot-holed carpark of the dilapidated but functioning Hotel Tamis. This eyesore from the socialist-realism period shows the lack of maintenance in its flaking structure. I ask two workmen sitting on a wall smoking where the tourist information office is. They grin at me, as if to say, what on earth is a tourist doing in this “black hole of Europe”, which is how its mayor, Borislava Kruska, defined it speaking at a conference organized in 2004 by Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso (OBC).

Almost trying to justify myself, I explain to them why I'm visiting. I trace the map of the pollution in the town. “Zagadjenje? Pa sta, tako je. Moramo jesti!” This comment reminds me of the case of the Ilva steelworks in Taranto: “Pollution? Eh, that's how it is. We have to eat.”

In the tourist information office I leaf through the brochure with the council's stamp. It says, “Pancevo, town to the north east of Belgrade. 124,000 inhabitants, 77,000 of whom live in the town and the rest in the villages, in an area of 755 square kilometers, 85% agricultural land.” Then follows information on the churches, parks and agricultural surroundings and a sketched history of the town's transformation into an industrial area.

Adding Fuel to the Flames

The mammoth buildings and chimneys of the Refinery, Petrochemical and Nitrogen plants stretch along a wide road in the Vojlovica quarter, five minutes from the town centre, for three uninterrupted kilometers. On the left low rural houses from agricultural times, on the right the factories. “On the morning of April 18th 1999 the three factories were bombed, scientifically,” recounts Nevena Simendic, editor-in-chief of TV Pancevo and considered an indomitable member of the local media. “In the space of two hours the cloud formed a roof over the town, making it dark. A rain of powder and black liquid fell, covering cars, streets, farmland and water courses. . . and we ate and drank all this in the succeeding months:”

The town suffered 14 Nato bombardments between the end of March and the beginning of June, on chemical plant and deposits. UNEP – United Nations Environmental Programme – in a report in October 1999 on the environmental consequences of the conflict, estimated that 2,100 tons of dichloroethylene, 250 tons of ammonia, 460 tons of CVM (monomeric vinyl chloride), but also chlorine, sulphur and nitrogen oxides were discharged into the environment. Over 8 tons of mercury flowed into the Tamis, a tributary of the Danube.

The editor-in-chief becomes rather indignant when she refers to the justifications given these years in the political world which remove the “Pancevo problem” instead of getting to its roots. “They tell us tumors are caused by the stress of these years, or by the increase in traffic and the consequent exhaust fumes.” Certainly, she continues, stress is an important factor, particularly in a situation of profound social and economic crisis which has lasted for twenty years. “But you can't refute the evidence. Here there are more deaths than in other parts of the country, and for some years we have known exactly what the level of pollution is in the air, thanks to you Italians.”

The Italian city of Ravenna and Pancevo have been in contact since 1994. Caritas in Ravenna began taking aid to the inhabitants experiencing difficult conditions. This relationship was reinforced in March 2001 when the Mayor, Borislava Kruska, spoke at a Conference in Ravenna on the health problems resulting from the war. She asked for help in dealing with the substantial pollution problem in her town.

One year later, thanks to a project promoted by the Province of Ravenna, a modern network began monitoring the quality of the air in Pancevo. The Councillor responsible for environmental matters, Andrea Mengozzi, on his return to Italy wrote: “They are having to build a new cemetery because the existing one is not big enough: in the year 2000, 1,200 people died, compared with the annual 600 deaths during the 90s, before Nato arrived.”

Monitoring the Quality of the Air

Olga Sipovac, who works in the Secretariat for environmental supervision and Vladimir Delja, the local Councillor responsible for the environment, meet me on the 9th floor of the Town Hall in a large room with an oval table with places for 15, looking onto a vast terrace above the rooftops. On one wall there is a gigantic painting by the Serbian artist Vuk Vuckovic which depicts the town in grey and black: a “the day after” scenario where flames and atomic mushroom clouds weave through the ruined buildings.

“Thanks to a series of steps taken, with Ravenna's help, compared with 10 years ago the situation has improved,” says Delja. “That does not mean that the situation is rosy,” adds Sipovac, giving details on the condition of the inhabitants' health. “True monitoring does not exist. We have made various surveys, using the methodology and standards of the OMS, but there are 2 problems: the shortage of epidemiological documentation of the past and the lack of a methodology of collection and analysis of health statistics at a national level.” In other words, it is difficult to compare the data from other towns and so claim for certain the cause-effect connection between the pollution and sickness.

“The evidence is undeniable,” continues Olga Sipovac. “The number of citizens affected by cardiovascular illnesses is significantly above the national average.” In 2009 the Council asked the local Institute of Public Health to make a survey of the children, focussing on those illnesses which at a world level can be correlated to exposure to pollutants. “It emerged that the presence of illnesses in the cardiovascular system, in the blood and the digestive tract is 149% above the national average”, she adds. The figures are confirmed by statements issued at Ve?ernje Novosti a year ago by the director of the Institute, Ljiljana Lazic: “Each inhabitant suffers at least one respiratory illness per year. Primarily infections in the respiratory system, then cardiovascular ones. Cancers are increasing. The main cause of death is cardiovascular illness, followed by cancer.”

“Air pollution is what we feel most. In August we had 15 consecutive days when level of hydrocarbons and particulate matter went above that allowed by law,” says Vladimir Delja. “There was a strong smell . . . and moreover we could not expect people to keep their windows shut day and night when the temperature reached 45°.”

The monitoring system of the quality of the air used in Pancevo is the first to be adopted in the whole of Serbia. “The funding and implementation of the 4 measuring stations enabled us to recognize the problem,” explains Delja. The figures collected in real time and visible on the Council website have given strength to the Council and moved public opinion against the immobility of the government. Olga Sipovac concludes, “We have improved the system, thanks to the activity with the SeeNet Programme – with the website publication of information from the 4 stations and some corrections to the station at Starcevo.”

Today, this time with pressure from the EU, Serbia has finally set up a national network for monitoring the quality of the air, run by the Agency for Environmental Protection and fully functioning from 2010. The values (in µg/m³, micrograms per cubic meter) are picked up throughout the country by 39 stations. At Pancevo there are 2, in Sodara and Vojlovica. In the Agency's report for 2011, published last November 14th, the data collected put Pancevo in the third category, that is the worst for pollution.

“The first Italian intervention galvanized public opinion. At least today the politicians are scared that Pancevo will say or do something. But the problems remain unresolved. . .”, Nevena Simendic from the local TV says emphatically.

Politics, the Environment and Privatization

After the monitoring of the quality of the air was started, recalls Olga Sipovac of the Council, further steps were taken. “The secretariat where I work was set up within the Council offices and in 2004 we set out a Strategic Action Plan in support of the environment which has led to various actions. Today, for example, there's a help line the citizens can call to send indications to the so-called Information Centre which is connected to us in the secretariat and we organize the subsequent action.”

Moreover in 2005 a register was set up to facilitate collaboration between the Council, the factories (Nitrogen, Petrochemicals and Refinery) and the Ministry for Education and Technical Development – the Ministry for Power, Development and Environmental Protection did not exist at the time. “Rapid action programmes have also been put in place in the case of air pollution going above the maximum level allowed,” adds Vladimir Delja, the councillor responsible for environmental protection. This would ultimately involve the Inspectors' Office of the State, the only unit which can legally enter the industrial zone, make checks and ask the factory responsible to stop or slow down its work.

“The factories should be able to diversify their activities when atmospheric conditions increase the risk of stagnation of pollutants,” adds Delja, “especially in certain periods of the year.” This would mean slowing down production during fixed hours of the day. But Nevena Simendic is caustic: “According to our sources, we have atmospheric conditions of risk for an average of 8 to 10 months a year. . . The factories won't accept these conditions!”

Furthermore in a high risk area like Pancevo, there are only two inspectors working. “It can happen that when citizens tell us of something anomalous and we call the inspectors straight away, they are working in another area and are unable to come immediately,” Vladimir Delja declares. “The Minister for the Environment, Zorana Mihajlovic, during her visit in August, promised to increase the number.” At the same meeting an appeal was presented to the Minister requesting a programme of support for the factories so that they can put into practice the action plans agreed some time previously.

“The problem is not simple,” explains the engineer and Trades Union representative, Zoran Obradovic, spokesman for the Union Nezavisnost (Independence) at the petrochemical plant. “The Nato bombardments destroyed 40% of our factory. The State has given us nothing and we workers, who built it and were its owners, were only able to resurrect one of the two destroyed structures. We have begun to work at low regime, with obsolete equipment and great waste of energy.” Thus the petrochemical plant has accumulated debts with Srbija Gas, the NIS refinery and Elektrodistribucija (who supply gas, petrol and electricity) to the tune of 80 million euro.

The petrochemical plant is now affiliated with the NIS refinery, with the Russian Gazprom Neft the majority shareholder. When the refinery was privatized an agreement was made between the petrochemical plant, Serbian Government and NIS-Gazprom Neft. The State had the majority at the petrochemical plant, taking on part of the debts and agreeing to invest, while Gazprom Neft took on the petrochemical plant's debts with the NIS refinery and became owner of 12%.

“So the Government and NIS-Gazprom Neft ought to have invested in the petrochemical plant, but nothing has been done. This year our 1,800 employees have only worked full time for three months. For the rest of the time 1,400 were obliged to stay at home,” continues Obradovic. In 2012 NIS- Gazprom Neft slowed down activities in order to enable the restructuring necessary for the production of Euro 5 quality petrol. “It had to be done, so our cars will finally pollute less,” Obradovic spells out, “but it's not enough. There should be the political will to push for restructuring and renewing the activity so as both to stop polluting and become competitive. Whereas we get the impression they want us to touch the bottom then sell us off.”

Land and water

Another source of pollution in Pancevo is the town's rubbish dump which is right in the middle, wedged between the houses and overlooking the river Tamis. A., with a car mechanic's and body shop, has his house/garage five meters from the fence. “I worked in a factory which was destroyed by your planes and it never reopened. With the small amount of severance pay they gave me this was the only piece of ground I could buy,” he says. Some days the air is so heavy he finds the strong smell of the varnish in the body shop a relief. “Yes, some days I think I'll drop everything and leave. But where would I go? In Europe they don't even want young people any more, let alone an older man like me.”

From the window on the first floor of his house you see a mountain of rubbish in the open with flocks of birds feeding on it and people with horse-drawn carts searching for waste they can sell. “I've lived here for ten years and they've been telling me to close for all this time,” he sighs.

Vladimir Delja admits that the rubbish dump run by the council owned JKP-Higijena is a big problem. “There is a new rubbish-tip, outside town, near Dolovo, built to European standards. But there are still problems to be solved there: the first regards the ownership of the land the road crosses, the other is connected to the final approval of some phases in the separation and recycling of the waste.” Simendic, the journalist, relates that this new rubbish-tip has been in construction since the beginning of the 90s: “There have been two actual opening ceremonies, and no-one knows why it doesn't open.”

Nor are water and land in a good state. According to the document Strategy for Regional Development of the Serbian Republic 2007 – 2012, the quality of water is in an alarming condition and getting worse.

In the areas of Pancevo and Bor, moreover, there are toxic pollutants in the sediment of the drainage canals from the industrial area. “There's the great problem of the land around the so-called Nitrogen canal, a big artificial canal leading to the Danube. All the drains from the factories in the southern industrial area flow into it,” Simendic clarifies. “This problem was exposed dramatically during the Nato bombings. Since then nothing has been done to decontaminate all that land alongside the Danube.”

European future?

Next to the hospital, alongside the tree-lined avenue and cycle path, Miosa Trebinjca, there is the public park, Narodna basta, created at the beginning of the 19th century. They call it “Pancevo's lungs” which one can't help but agree with since it is a buffer between the town centre and the industrial zone of Vojlovica. At the entrance there's a plaque saying, “Rebuilt thanks to donations from the Province of Ravenna, Cervia Municipality and Sardinia Water Board.” Thanks to the project “Pangreen” in the Balkans APQ, the green surface area of 10 hectares has been increased by a further 4 and ½ hectares, the interior restructured and endowed with over 20,000 plants.

A lady with a nice straw hat is picking up loquats from the grass “I get them here because they are are cleaner. If I get them in the market they are worse because they are passed from hand to hand,” is the excuse she gives, smiling. She comes here every evening to go jogging, five whole laps of the 1,300 metre track which winds through the trees, benches and children's playgrounds. “It's lovely now. We've always loved this park. You don't know what a state it was in. Completely abandoned.” When she discovers that I'm Italian she asks me to pass on her thanks to those who made it possible for the park to come back to life. “You know on some days the smell in the air is nauseating and you can't breathe. Then I come here, and just the fact of being in the midst of the trees makes me feel better.”

The economic crisis has again slowed down production, as it did at the beginning of the 90s, slightly lightening the load of the pollution on the air, land, water and people. The information site B92 wrote last September 24th, “The government is not mistaken in saying that the economic crisis represents a chance for Serbia. It does, but only for the health of the inhabitants of the most polluted towns. Thanks to the drop in production, the environment looks better, even if towns like Bor, Pancevo and Obrenovac remain black holes.”

The Ministry of the environment and Planning has listed 180 polluting factories which, by 2015, must sign an agreement obliging them to regulate their activities on the basis of European Directive 2003/105/EC, incorporated into national law. Among these are the three of Pancevo: HIP – Petrohemija, NIS Rafinerija, HIP Azotara. One wonders if three years will be enough.

“The road towards the European Union might manage to put pressure on the government and push the firms to meet European standards. But the guidelines must be modified as received, to suit the local situation. Otherwise the risk is it will be impossible for many to work in accordance with the regulations,” Obradovic, the trades union representative of Nezavisnost, sustains with conviction.

The risk is that who does not have the strength to buy a dustpan to collect the dust will have to close. Or hide the dust under the carpet.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso (OBC)

Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso (OBC) is a research and electronic media centre devoted to social and political change in Southeastern Europe (The Balkans), Turkey, and the Caucasus region. The OBC team, based in Rovereto (Trento - Italy), cooperates with a network of over 40 correspondents and local contributors to deliver daily online articles and in-depth analysis on these areas. Occasionally GreenGoPost.com will reprint articles from OBC, which is one of the best news sources on these vibrant yet challenged regions. Please visit OBC's site at http://www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng