Winter '99/2000
Vol. 14, No. 4

What NATO's Bombs Did to the Environment

by Phillip Frazer

Bombing a country in order to save it

NATO's bombs not only destroyed Serbia's military machine; they also devastated the region's land, air and water. After several months of Serbian forces' burning villages and NATO's flying over 40,000 sorties that dropped powerful explosives on Yugoslavia, massive damage has been inflicted on the Yugoslav environment and neighboring countriesl. Western estimates are that property damage from NATO's bombs exceeds $100 billion. Yugoslavia has a network of national parks - some of which it claims NATO "intensively bombed" - and is home to some 250 rare native plants and more than 420 rare native animal species. The country boasts its own environmental movement. Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, had declared itself the world's first "environmental state," pledging to live in harmony with nature.

The most apparent environmental catastrophes were NATO's repeated bombings of the Petrohemija petroleum processing plant and a chemical and fertilizer plant in Pancevo, a city of 140,000.

The London Times reported that the bombing and fires released "a toxic cloud of smoke and gas hundreds of feet high" containing hydrochloric acid, toxic phosgene and chlorine gases. Concentrations of vinyl chloride reached 0.43 milligrams per cubic centimeter - 8,600 times higher than the danger level. Workers at the complex released 1,400 tons of carcinogenic ethylene dichloride and 800 tons of hydrogen chloride into the Danube to avoid the risk of a further explosion. The pollution was left to flow downstream to Rumania, Bulgaria and into the Black Sea.

The Serbian newspaper Glas Javnosti reported that the bombing of a chlorine-alkaline electrolysis plant at Pancevo released "3,000 tons of [sodium] hydroxide, 30 tons of liquid chlorine and almost 100 tons of mercury." The Yugoslav government accused NATO of "ecocide," claiming that had the chlorine and ammonia tanks not been emptied before the bombing, the attack "would have sounded the death knell for all the inhabitants of Pancevo and its surroundings."

People exposed to the cloud have already started dying. Children with chemical-singed lungs find it painful to breathe and an unusual number of women suffered miscarriages following the bombing. Milan Borna, chief of Pancevo's environmental protection department told the Associated Press: "We fear that the worst effects may be degenerative changes in future generations."

Robert Hayden, Director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said: "NATO's bombing of the petrochemical plant ... risked the life, health and safety of the civilian population of 2 million in the city of Belgrade."

According to Green Cross, a global environmental protection organization headed by former USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev, "about 1200 tons of vinyl-chloride monomers was released into the air." When ignited, this colorless, flammable, toxic gas produces hydrogen chloride, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, chlorine, and small amounts of deadly phosgene nerve gas.

An attack on a transformer station at Pancevo released stockpiles of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), cancer-causing compounds that were banned worldwide decades ago. Just one liter of PCBs can contaminate 1 billion liters of water to levels dangerous to human health. According to Yugoslavian authorities, "several tons of PCBs [were] released into the Danube River watershed."

Threat to nuclear plant
Many oil refineries and storage facilities were bombed, including one at Novi Sad in the northern Vojvodina region which lies on the banks of the Danube. The bombings produced an oil spill in the Danube nine miles long. During the bombing campaign, the Glasgow Herald warned of the possibility that the oil slick could jam the machines that pump water from the Danube to the reactor cooling system of Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear powerplant, running the risk of triggering "a second Chernobyl."

In an interview with the BBC, Yugoslavian hydrogeologist Momir Komatina worried that the region's underground water resources - which serve about 90 percent of Serbia's domestic and industrial needs - are now at risk. He noted that the imperiled water tables extend well beyond Serbia and into southern Europe.

Polluted surface waters eventually will make their way to the Aegean and Adriatic Seas and then into the Mediterranean. "Now that the war appears to be over," says Philip Weller of the World Wildlife Fund, "urgent action has to be taken to protect the lower Danube and the millions of people whose security is linked to its environmental health."

Blowing in the Wind
In addition to the Serbs' burning the homes of ethnic Albanians, the explosion of 23,000 NATO bombs (more than 14 million pounds of explosives) and the destruction of chemical facilities, refineries, fuel tanks and warehouses sent a significant volume of greenhouse gases and vast clouds of toxic soot into the atmosphere.

The night after the bombing of oil depots near the Yugoslav-Bulgarian border, heavy rains blackened with soot fell on Bulgaria.

The Macedonian Environment Ministry's monitoring stations detected the presence of airborne furans and dioxins - toxic and carcinogenic substances. The ministry assumes the pollutants were blown over Macedonia after NATO bombs hit refineries and transformer stations.

During the 32-day air assault, vast quantities of jet engine exhaust were dumped into the regional airspace. More than 40,000 flights by high-flying NATO aircraft released chemically reactive exhaust trails filled with nitrogen oxides that devour stratospheric ozone.

Jet aircraft emissions are far more toxic than the exhaust fumes of gasoline or even industrial fuels. The toxic and carcinogenic combustion products can destroy forests and vegetation, and impair human health as well. The combustion of fuel stabilizers with lead and fluorine compounds produces fluorine radicals that can cause painful wounds and burns in humans and wildlife. Exhaust gases eventually drift to earth - all the way from the launch site to the target.

The burning of newer buildings - such as the TV headquarters and government office blocks bombed in downtown Belgrade - produced fumes that were far more toxic than smoke from pre-World War II structures. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that many of the airborne toxins had reached Poland and could, depending on weather conditions, reach Hungary, Greece and Italy. The Russians predicted that these countries would see an increase in the incidence of malignant tumors, and lung, skin and other diseases in the future.

Radioactive Shells
One controversy that got occasional coverage in the US media was NATO's use of tank-piercing depleted uranium (DU) munitions. DU is a very dense metal, capable of penetrating steel plating up to 57 mm thick. It is also toxic, carcinogenic and still 60 percent as radioactive as natural uranium. The Iraqis blame DU for a range of health problems in southern Iraq where it was used in the Gulf War. In the US, some veterans hold DU responsible for causing Gulf War syndrome, whose symptoms resemble radiation sickness.

When Belgrade broadcasts first announced that NATO was using "radioactive weapons ... which are forbidden by the Geneva Convention," ABC Nightline dismissed the charge as an "astonishing claim." Asked the next morning about NATO's use of DU weapons, Pentagon spokesperson Kenneth Bacon replied that such discussions were "verboten from this podium." John Catalinotto, an editor of the 1997 book Metal of Dishonor: Depleted Uranium, claims that just one "hot particle" of DU in the lungs is equivalent to receiving a chest X-ray every hour. Once inhaled or ingested, DU is impossible to remove, so the lung is irradiated at that rate for life - whether the victim is a Yugoslav citizen or a NATO soldier.

Calling For a Ban
Last June, Mikhail Gorbachev charged that weapons containing depleted uranium "burn at high temperatures, producing poisonous clouds of uranium oxide that dissolve in the pulmonary and bronchial fluids. Anyone within the radius of 300 meters from the epicenter of the explosion inhales large amounts of such particles ... [which] destroys chromosomes and affects the reproductive system."

In the aftermath of the war, Gorbachev has called for a global ban on military strikes against nuclear power stations and chemical and petrochemical plants.

"Similarly," Gorbachev argues, "we should prohibit weapons whose use may have particularly dangerous, long-term and massive environmental and medical consequences. In my view, weapons containing depleted uranium should be among the first considered for such a ban."

He also called for a new conference on the environmental consequences of war, to set new rules for future conflicts. (The first such conference was held in Washington in 1998.)

Waging War on Global Laws
On December 18, 1998, when the US and Britain began bombing urban centers in Iraq, Secretary of Defense William Cohen told NBC's Today program, "We're not going to take a chance and try to target any facility that would release any kind of horrific damage to innocent people."

Three months later, NATO and the US began targeting industrial sites in urban settings. US/NATO also began specifically targeting civilian targets including telephone and computer sites, political offices and the homes of Serbian leaders. A NATO attack on Yugoslavia's TV headquarters in Belgrade killed a number of civilian journalists.

NATO's bombs also damaged the Serbian Historical Museum, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul, the 400-year-old Rakovica Monastery, the Children's Culture Center and the Dusko Rodovic Theater.

On May 11, Human Rights Watch [www.hrw.org] appealed to NATO to halt the use of antipersonnel cluster bombs. Five percent of the "bomblets" dropped are expected to lie on the ground undetonated. Because the brightly colored bomblets resemble soda-cans and baseballs, they frequently attract - and kill - children. "The US may not have signed the landmines treaty, but it's still obliged to carry out warfare according to international humanitarian law," declared HRW's Joost Hiltermann.

An agronomist with The New Green Party in Belgrade noted that NATO's bombing would prevent "the planting of 2.5 million hectares of land .... The lack of fuel for agricultural machines will have catastrophic results, because it leads to hunger of the entire population. When you add to this the poisoning of the water, air and soil, catastrophe becomes a cataclysm."

Thousands of citizens from hundreds of nations have taken years to write agreements designed to slow or stop dangerous trends such as the destruction of the ozone layer. One military decision by a politician can set such efforts back decades. The Yugoslavian Ministry for the Environment claims NATO violated just about every existing environmental treaty, including the Rio Declaration on the Environment and Development. Even during war, both NATO and Yugoslavian forces must abide by international laws created to protect civilians and the environment. NATO's actions routinely ignored agreements to protect the ozone layer; slow the greenhouse effect; preserve wild flora and fauna and their natural habitats; protect biological diversity; deal with the effects of industrial accidents and dangerous wastes; protect waterways; prevent pollution from shipping vessels; and to protect cultural monuments and natural treasures.

The 1977 UN Treaty against Environmental Modification prohibits widespread modification of the environment but it does not go far enough. An international campaign is underway to counter the "new generation of environmental weapons" unleashed by NATO during the Serb war.

There is a desperate need to address the environmental damage of the NATO attacks. Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor notes, "The US and several key European allies have indicated that, other than the most basic humanitarian aid, no international assistance will be granted to Serbia as long as Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, is in power." The White House needs to be reminded that environmental restoration is a basic human right.

What You Can Do: Read the Open Letter on Environmental War [www.universebooks. com] and NATO in the Balkans [International Action Center, 39 W. 14th St., #206, New York, NY 10011, (212) 633-2889, www.iacenter.org] and check UN Environment Program [www.unep.org], Green Cross [www.gci.ch/ special/yugoslavia] and World Wildlife Fund [www.worldwildlife.org].

Box Score

  • Estimated number of Albanians killed by Serbs in 1998: 2,000
  • Estimated number of Serbs and Albanians killed by NATO: 4,000
  • Estimated number of Rwandans killed over previous 5 years: 800,000
  • Estimated number of Iraqis (mostly children) killed by US-led sanctions: 1,000,000-plus
  • Cost of 21 B-2 bombers: $42 billion
  • Yugoslavia's pre-war GDP: $43 billion
  • UN budget as a percentage of the Pentagon budget: 5 percent