Quality of life

In the early 1990s some 200-250 tonnes of hazardous materials were stored at the Bajza railway station. Since then 82 tonnes have been removed and the site has been declared 'clean'. © UNDP in Albania

Remediating cross-border environmental ‘hot spots’ in the Western Balkans

Development prospects in parts of the Western Balkans are afflicted by environmental ‘hot spots’ virtually all of which were inherited from the socialist regimes that collapsed in the early 1990s. Because these hot spots are typically associated with industrial activities that are mainstays of local economies, the challenges of remediating these threats go beyond environmental policy, raising critical regional economic development issues. And because the ecosystems threatened by the hot spots often have trans-border dimensions, remediation can raise delicate questions of inter-state cooperation. In some instances, prospects for accession to the European Union are associated with addressing these hot spot challenges.

Governments in the Western Balkans, and the international development community, have therefore made hot spot remediation a key focus of environmental, crisis prevention, health, and regional development efforts. This article focuses on the current status of and lessons learned from remediation in 11 such hot spots, under the auspices of UNDP’s Western Balkans Environmental Programme (with financing from the Government of the Netherlands, as well as from the Western Balkan governments themselves). All 11 were identified as national environmental hot spot priorities due to their significant negative health and environmental impact, and because of the high risks of cross-border pollution they pose to the neighbouring states. In helping to remediate these hot spots, UNDP has provided governments and other stakeholders with international best practices, expertise, and neutral platforms for addressing cross-border issues of concern in a common manner. Remediation activities undertaken in these locations from September 2007 until September 2010 significantly reduced environmental pollution, and improved living standards of people in those locations. Brief descriptions of the work done at six of these 11 hot spots are provided here.

West Balkan hot spots: Before and after Mojkovac (northern Montenegro)

The ‘Brskovo’ Lead and Zinc Mine operated during 1976-1991, extracting mostly zinc and lead. While mining activities largely halted following the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia, some 2 million cubic metres of toxic materials (mostly liquefied lead- and zinc-contaminated tailings) were left inside the site’s 19-hectare mine tailings impoundment, lying between the western edge of the Mojkovac municipality and the right bank of the Tara river. The Tara and its gorges, which cut the longest river canyon in Europe and the second longest in the world (after the Grand Canyon), belong to the Durmitor national park, which is an internationally protected biosphere site and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. In addition to threatening local biodiversity and ecotourism, a possible rupture of the Mojkovac tailings facility could generate a large-scale toxic discharge that would enter into the Drina and Danube rivers, potentially threatening the entire Black Sea basin.

With support from UNDP’s Western Balkans Environmental Programme, the tailings impoundment has been drained, and some 500,000 cubic metres of liquefied lead- and zinc-contaminated tailings inside the impoundment have been treated. As a result, 19 hectares of land suitable for other uses have been created on the now remediated site. A 5,500-person equivalent municipal wastewater treatment plant has also been constructed, reducing organic waste discharges into the Tara river. After remediation activities and the investment of some $11 million by donors and the government, Mojkovac is no longer one of Montenegro’s most polluted cities. It is instead increasingly identified as a northern Montenegrin town with growing income- and employment generation potential in eco-tourism,1 organic farming, and other sectors.

Tuzla (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Prior to the 1992-1995 conflict that engulfed Bosnia and Herzegovina, the regional economy around the city of Tuzla was based on the extraction and processing of coal, minerals, metals, and chemicals, and on electricity generation. Before the war, employment in these sectors in and around Tuzla numbered 60,000. While production fell sharply during the early 1990s, the post-war economic recovery has seen a rebound in industrial activity in Tuzla—as well as in pollution.2 Air pollution is further worsened through the widespread use of small boilers and furnaces with unsuitable combustion chambers, often produced on West European licenses but constructed for different types of coals. Problems are further exacerbated by inadequate information concerning the use of coal for residential and small-scale heating, the lack of coal conditioning for the needs of small furnaces, and poor maintenance of energy sector equipment.

As a result, the Tuzla municipality and its environs are today considered one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most polluted areas. This is particularly the case for air pollution: due to winter-time emissions from coal-fired power plants, industrial heat production and individual heating systems, sulphur dioxide levels can be three to four times maximum allowable concentrations. The 320,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide emitted annually from the Tuzla canton constitute over 70 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s total SO2 emissions. These emissions, which cause acid rain and other forms of environmental damage, can be transported over thousands of kilometres, making Bosnia and Herzegovina a net exporter of sulphur dioxide to surrounding countries.

With support from UNDP’s Western Balkans Environmental Programme, obsolete coal-fired thermal generation facilities have been replaced at the Gradina and Slavinovici health clinics. Some 650 households in the Dragodol community are now connected to a cleaner district heating system. These changes are expected to reduce harmful air emissions in the city core by an estimated 500 tonnes of sulphur and nitrogen oxides per heating season, as well as reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 16,730 tonnes and coal use by 7,500 tonnes/year. The annual anticipated savings of $550,000 should help these activities pay for themselves in four years.

The Grand Backa Canal (northern Serbia)

Also known as the Danube-Tisza-Danube Canal, this was built in the 18th century, for transport and water supply purposes, and to drain the wet and fertile soils of the Backa district of Vojvodina (in northern Serbia). It connects the Danube in the west with the Tisza in the east, running along a 130 km stretch. In the 20th century, the eighteen kilometre-long area between the towns of Crvenka, Kula and Vrbas on the banks of the canal became heavily industrialized; at present, it has a population of 57,000 people. Over time the canal became increasingly polluted; in the worst stretch around Vrbas, the canal has become more or less filled with industrial sludge from pig farms, slaughterhouses, edible oil factories, metal processing and untreated sewerage. An estimated 400,000 cubic metres of highly contaminated sludge is contained within the six kilometres of the canal running through Vrbas municipality. Some 30,000 litres of mostly untreated wastewater enter the canal each day, with the three towns accounting for about a third of this. Most of the canal within a five kilometre radius of the factories is almost biologically dead. As a result, this six-kilometre section of the canal running through Vrbas is considered one of Europe’s most polluted water courses.3 Water quality is essentially that of sewage, presenting health risks from coliform, e-coli, and enterococcus bacteria, and from viruses. The high nitrate levels can also cause ‘blue baby’ syndrome.

With donor support, the Government of Serbia has developed a $50 million investment programme to clean up the canal. Within the framework of this programme, UNDP has supported the construction of a new $3.7 million water network capturing wastes from Vrbas and Kula, and over twenty industrial enterprises. The construction of this network should make possible additional investments to further reduce wastewater discharges into the canal by some 30,000 cubic metres per day, and subsequently the remediation into the canal by some 30,000 cubic metres per day, and subsequently the remediation of 400,000 cubic meters of polluted sludge.

Zarkov Potok (northern Kosovo4)

Considerable data indicate that air and water pollution from past and current mining activities in Zarkov Potok (and other parts of Stari Trg, including the Trepca mining complex) make a significant contribution to the heavy metal contamination of the town of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo and its surroundings. This impact is particularly evident in the Roma camps near Trepca, where blood lead levels in children closest to the point sources of pollution have been measured at extremely dangerous levels.5 The 23-hectare Zarkov Potok tailings dam, with its dry tailings beaches forming an elevated mound on top of the tailings dam wall, is perched above Mitrovica—representing a clear point source for airborne heavy metal contamination. In fact, severe scouring and channel marks from the wind are apparent on the heaped tailings, where concentrations of heavy metals exceed international norms by between 67 and 290 times for arsenic, 16-51 times for cadmium, and 5-13 times for lead.

Remediation work at Zarkov Potok by UNDP has therefore focused on dust prevention and tailings stabilization to stop this source of airborne heavy metal pollution. The tailings mound has been covered with a 50 centimetre earthen cap, and uncontaminated surface soil has been stabilized by planting new vegetation. However, testing conducted in June 2010 shows the uncovered portions of the dam remain with very high concentrations of heavy metals, which will require similar remediation in the future. In light of numerous other sources of toxic tailings and mine wastes in the vicinity of Mitrovica, significantly greater funds (beyond the $210,000 provided by the Government of Netherlands that financed the above work) will be needed to completely remediate these hot spots. In the interim, UNDP’s public awareness raising campaign has focused on ‘living with lead’—that is, helping local communities to minimize or avoid the risks of lead poisioning.

Bajza (northern Albania)

Bajza is a small town in northern Albania, located about 25 kilometres from the city of Shkodra and two kilometres from the Montenegrin border. The railway station of Bajza is located on the shore of the border, straddling Lake Shkodra. All rail transportation to and from Montenegro passes through Bajza railway station and its customs facility, where approximately 10,000 tonnes of freight are handled each month.

In the early 1990s an estimated 200-250 tonnes of expired pesticides and other hazardous chemicals were put together in one of the storage houses of the Bajza railway station. While the origin of the chemicals remains unclear, it is known that the German company Schmidt-Cretan during 1991-1992 imported and temporarily stored in Bajza 480 tonnes of hazardous chemicals, including toxaphene and phenyl mercury acetate, both of which have been banned in the EU since 1983. Although most of these pesticides were returned to Germany in 1993 for safe disposal, local inhabitants in the interim took some of the barrels, in the process emptying toxic chemicals directly in the railway station and storehouses. It was also reported that several sheep that had grazed around the storehouse and downhill from the railway station died after the incident took place. Moreover, in subsequent years fishermen on Lake Shkodra reported masses of dead fish in the lake.

Site visits conducted in 2008 revealed that the bags of chemicals stored at the site had been torn open, and their contents mixed with small pieces of leather that are stored in the same warehouses. Although the leather had likewise been stored for many years for intended export to Hungary (as a raw material for glue making), it had clearly been contaminated beyond re-use and needed safe disposal, together with the rest of the chemicals. The site visits also indicated that the railroad station’s storage area should undergo immediate and strict decontamination, to avoid the leakage of toxic chemicals into Lake Shkodra. At risk was not only the lake, but also the Bojana/Buna river, which flows into the Adriatic.

Since 2008, $350,000 in remediation efforts at Bajza organized by UNDP (and financed by the governments of the Netherlands and Albania) have removed some 82 tonnes of chemical waste from removed some 82 tonnes of chemical waste from the site, which has now been verified as ‘clean’.

Bucim (the Former Republic of Macedonia)

The Bucim Mine is located in the municipality of Radovis, in the southeastern part of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Operated as a state-owned copper mine during 1979-2001, the mine has since then engaged in intermittent operations under private (chiefly foreign) ownership. The 110 million tonnes of waste rock generated during more than two decades of mining, which are stored on 153 hectares of land, have produced significant quantities of acid drainage. While some of this drainage empties into the retaining Lake Bucim, an estimated 5-20 litres per second of acidic drainage (with a pH of approximately 3.4 and a copper concentration of some 400mg/l) evades this collection system and travels 890 metres along Jasenov Dol into the Topolnicka river. This introduces a very dangerous source of pollution for water users along the river (the population of Radovis alone is 50,000), as well as along the Lakavica and Bregalnica rivers (into which the Topolnicka flows). These polluted waters are nonetheless the main irrigation sources in the eastern-central part of the country. Crops and livestock that depend on these waters are threatened by heavy metals that can cause food poisoning, allergic, and carcinogenic reactions. Via the Topolnicka river, the Bucim Mine may also contribute to cross-border pollution in Bulgaria and Greece, and ultimately the Aegean Sea, via inflows into the Nivicanska, Strumica, Struma and Bregalnica rivers.

Remediation activities under UNDP’s Western Balkans Environmental Programme have been two-fold. The first part involved capturing the contaminated waters through diversion of clean waters, and the construction of 2.2 kilometres of piping, two pumping stations and dams to collect and pump the 946,000 cubic metres per year of contaminated drainage waters. The second part involved controlling the mine dust, particularly from the 39 hectare tailings dam by installing reservoirs, pump systems and sprinklers for the non-vegetated parts of the tailings dam face. Longer term, the re-vegetation of approximately 30 hectares of the stabilized tailings dam is to further reduce movement of toxic dust. Altogether, these activities cost some € 1.4 million.

Lessons learned

Financing for the activities conducted under UNDP’s Western Balkans Environmental Programme has amounted to some $20 million. The Government of the Netherlands has provided $14 million, while some $6 million has been provided by the countries/territories themselves. Remediation has been accompanied by efforts to encourage public participation in environmental decision making, via a series of assessments, trainings, study tours, and awareness raising campaigns. Wherever possible, emphasis has also been placed on creating new employment and income-generation opportunities for people living in the vicinity of the hot spots—to encourage them to stay on their land and use it in a sustainable way. Eco-tourism, kayaking (e.g. in Mojkovac, along the Tara river), organic farming, and energy efficiency investments have been supported under this programme.

The approach of combining investments in hot spot remediation with institutional development, public awareness-raising, and cross-border dialogue and information sharing has helped improve relations between neighbouring countries, creating new development opportunities, and consequently improving living standards in the Western Balkans. However, many questions about making financing for hot-spot remediation in the Western Balkans more sustainable and effective remain open.

Snezana Dragojevic is Regional Programme Manager, UNDP Western Balkans Environmental Programme.


1 See, for example, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tara_(Drina) (accessed on 3 September 2010).

2  For example, electric power generation increased from 750 GWh in 1996 to 2,855 GWh in 2004, some 77-80 percent of pre-conflict levels.

3  For more on this, see Strengthening Capacities in the Western Balkans Countries to Mitigate Environmental Problems Through Remediation of High Priority Hot Spots, UNDP-Montenegro, September 2007.

4  Hereafter referred to in the context of the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999).

5 The US Center for Disease Control has introduced emergency chelation therapy to reduce blood lead level in the most severely affected children. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and national public health institutes have also been deeply involved.

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