Kosovo town weighed down by legacy of lead
by Hans Nordstrand
Until it was shut down by the United Nations military forces, the Zvecan lead smelter in Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, belched out lead-tainted pollution that was identified in the late 1980s as a likely cause of measurably reduced intelligence among children in the area. It still took more than 10 years, and the intervention of the United Nations, before the foul facility was closed.
Officials are now assessing the future of the smelter, and re-opening the facility, with cleaner technology, is still a possibility.
Even the UN was afraid to tackle the politically sensitive issue, because the plant is located in the Serbian half of the ethnically divided town, and the layoffs hit the Serbian population the hardest.
Even though the Green Party of Kosova had been lobbying to close the smelter for some time, and even though the smelter's ill-effects on the local population had been measured for years, there was no final decision for closure by the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), the provisional government in the region, until after concerns were raised about UN troops. French and Danish soldiers serving in the area were found to have elevated lead levels in their blood.
The last months of operations at the plant which was temporarily closed after the Spring 1999 NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia were probably the worst. When the smelter resumed activities in November 1999, the facility reportedly used even fewer filters than normal, and smoke and dust from the smelting process were apparently emitted directly at ground level, instead of from the plant's 200-metre-tall chimney.
The smelter's closure was a breath of fresh air for the local population, as direct emissions of lead particles into the atmosphere have been prevented, at least for now. But the contamination left behind by years of operation at the Zvecan lead smelter still pose a serious threat to the local environment and people's health. Recent samplings show that the soil and dust in the surrounding area have very high levels of lead. In a school situated a few kilometres away from the smelter, dust samples from a classroom contained 45,000 micrograms of lead per kilogram a concentration of 4.5 percent lead. Some samples also showed high levels of mercury and arsenic. Lead levels in vegetables analysed were extremely high, in the range of 24-176 micrograms per kilogram, which compares poorly to the UK's legal limit of 1 microgram per kilo.
The greatest threat caused by the plant is air-borne particles that were inhaled in the past or have settled into the soil, thereby entering the food chain. Lead particles ingested by breathing or eating are highly toxic, especially to children, whose learning abilities are adversely affected. Furthermore, lead from previous contamination stays in the body for years, and pregnant women who were exposed can give birth to children with brain damage.
A government study conducted in the late 1980s found that 4-year-old children in Mitrovica had significantly lower intelligence, verbal expression and perception, compared with children in Prishtina.
Lead extraction has gone on for years in the Mitrovica region, where the lead mines are among the richest in Europe. In the late 1980s, about 100,000 tonnes of raw lead were produced annually at the smelter, and about 1,200 tonnes of lead dust was emitted into the atmosphere.
As with many companies in Kosovo, it is difficult to clearly establish ownership of the Zvecan lead smelter. This uncertainty as well as the toothless environmental legislation that exists in Kosovo makes it difficult for authorities to find someone responsible for compensating for past damages or preventing future pollution.
The smelter is now under UNMIK control, and a consortium of international consultants has been given the task of investigating the situation and recommending a future course for the smelter and the mining industry in the Mitrovica region.
In the long run, only a considered approach that gives strict attention to environmental impacts can help eliminate past ill-effects, and prevent further threats, from the lead industry around Mitrovica.
The Bulletin, March 2001