Kosovo ecological damage falls short of catastrophe

U.N. team investigates environmental effects, identifies `hot spots'

July 28, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- A United Nations environmental team has found no evidence of a major ecological catastrophe in Yugoslavia as a result of NATO's bombing war, its leader said yesterday.

But he urged the West to provide immediate aid to help clean up significant "hot spots" of war-related pollution.

In a news conference to discuss preliminary findings from the 10-day inspection, Pekka Haavisto, a former Finnish environment minister and chairman of the United Nations' Balkan Task Force, said: "We talk about chosen hot spots where immediate action has to take place, but not about a major ecocide or countrywide catastrophe.

"We've had some very worrying findings, but in some sites where there was a lot of worry we found nothing," he said.

He said environmental damage in heavily bombed industrial towns such as Pancevo, Kragujevac and Bor needed immediate attention to protect the health of residents, and added, when asked, that the West should help.

Mercury released by the bombing of industrial targets is contaminating Pancevo. And in Kragujevac, where the Zastava car factory was bombed, there are high levels of PCBs. In Bor, the problem is acid rain, which could be affecting areas beyond Yugoslavia.

One of the most difficult problems the team faced, Haavisto said, was distinguishing between pre-existing environmental damage in Yugoslavia and damage caused by the war.

Asked whether it was safe to eat fish from the Danube, he hesitated, saying that local officials had lifted a ban on river fish and that they were honest in their assessments.

He said initial findings did not show an increased level of radioactivity from bombs containing depleted uranium, as was feared. He noted there might be other consequences from trace elements that still need to be examined.

In Nis, for example, local fears about depleted uranium and the leakage of PCBs into the ground and ground water proved unfounded, he said.

In Bor, at a copper factory, the problems are worsened by a lack of electricity to run equipment that would stabilize sulfur or run pumping stations, and so sulfur dioxide is being emitted into the air, causing acid rain and likely traveling across borders.

In general, Haavisto danced carefully around the political issues, stressing that the report of the U.N. team would be given to Secretary-General Kofi Annan in about a month, after more detailed laboratory tests and evaluation.

Haavisto said the Yugoslav authorities were helpful and the team, which also went to Novi Sad, Kraljevo and Prahavo, visited any site he chose except for those in Kosovo where land mines remain.

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