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Two decades of economic and social upheaval has given the natural environment in many parts of the former communist bloc a welcome breather. Forced to compete in a global market place, many polluting industries simply shut up shop, while others benefited from inward investment in newer, less polluting technologies. But in Serbia – isolated during a period of economic sanctions in the 1990s – the opportunities have been fewer, and the country still houses a number of heavily polluting industrial sites. The copper mining and smelting works in the city of Bor is one of them.
It is not a pretty sight. Bor may nestle in a bend of the Danube, amid rolling hills dotted only sparsely with farmsteads, but it makes no claims to be anything other than what it is – a post-communist, barely reconstructed mining and industrial complex which has scarred the land and poisoned its people.
The industrialisation of Bor, until a century ago an agricultural village, drew workers from more than 20 countries and encouraged them to set up home in the city growing right around the mines and smelting works that, in good times provided them with a good income but, in good times and bad, polluted their air, land and water.
The town centre facades echo an earlier era. Paintwork peels; stonework crumbles.Even the surrounding hills are denuded of colour: one hundred years of mining copper ore have stripped the topsoil and carved huge vertical craters into the hillsides. The mines cover 1,800 hectares.The mined rock is crushed and roasted, then treated chemically. Once the valuable minerals are removed, what’s left is waste: 11,000 tonnes of it for each local resident. The process releases more than 200,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 300 tons of arsenic.
Routine emissions into the air have acidified the soil, damaged crops and poisoned animals. Farmers claim that acute releases– the most recent in May – have killed crops and bees. Sixty percent of the district’s agricultural land – more than 25,500 hectares – has been degraded.
A DEAD RIVER
But perhaps it is the Bor river which has paid the highest environmental price. It is the most heavily polluted in Serbia, and is classed as biologically dead. Its toxic mix of acids and heavy metals flows into the Timok river and then into the Danube, which after Serbia, runs through three other states before joining the Black Sea. This major conduit carries the negative impacts of Bor way beyond Serbia’s borders.
“Mining and metallurgy are aggressive for the environment,” concedes Zvonko Milijic, the deputy director of Copper Mining and Smelting Complex Bor (CMS) and the man overseeing efforts to mitigate the impacts on the environment.
He says that in its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, the works operated to world standards, employing 26,000 people and producing 4% of the world’s copper.
But in 1992, after wars broke out in the dissolving Yugoslavia, the international community imposed economic sanctions.
“The natural environment suffered the worst damage. The mining industry must have constant investment and we had very old technology. Between 1992 and 2000 basically nothing was done to reduce our impact on the environment.”
Even after the sanctions were lifted, the problems continued.
“For a few years after 2000 we were walking in the dark. There were two attempts to privatise our company, but they both failed. We were sold to Austrian ATEK but they had no money and the privatisation failed.”
Help finally came at the end of 2008. The Canadian Agency for Export Development provided a loan for equipment that will reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide by a factor of 400 and carbon dioxide by a factor of 40.
Filters will hold back toxic waste for reprocessing within the complex. Waste water will be cleaned and recycled. Acid-resistant pumps will be installed.
CMS hopes to repay its loan within six years by increasing the proportion of metal it can reclaim from the ore to 98%. Instead of being disposed of to the environment as waste, it will be sold as a valuable commodity.
Reducing future emissions into the environment will do nothing to remediate the legacy of a century of mining and smelting. Responsibility for that lies firmly with the state and not the company, insists Milijic. And without a wider clean-up, hopes to capitalise on the undoubted tourism potential of a peaceful and beautiful region will surely go unfulfilled. But Milijic is upbeat.
“We'll be No. 1 in terms of environmental protection when the whole equipment reaches Bor. We expect to meet ISO 9001, 14000 and 18000 standards for environmental protection. It is the most complex eco project in Serbia.”
But, he acknowledges, “until the work is done we will continue to experience a lot of problems.”
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The Moldovan Diaries is a multimedia, interactive examination of the country's ethnic, religious, social and political identities by Paolo Paterlini and Cesare De Giglio.
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