Serbia is Europe’s most polluted country. Belgrade, recently had the highest level of air pollution in the world. The authorities continue turning a blind eye to the problem that affects millions of people. But the more significant issue is that nobody can say the primary cause of such enormous pollution.
By Nikola Mikovic
Reports suggest that some 15.000 people die yearly due to pollution in Serbia. In addition, new data revealed a more vital link between exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution and cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke and ischaemic heart disease, and cancer.
In the wake of public concern, in 2020, the government prepared a draft air protection program for 2022-2030 with an action plan for addressing air pollution. To this day, however, nothing has changed on the ground.
Moreover, the situation seems to be getting worse by the day. That is why local eco-activists held a protest in Belgrade on November 13, demanding the authorities stop “poisoning“ the people.
The gathering ended with the message that if the government continues ignoring the burning issue, the protest will become radicalized. Since then, activists have scheduled a new rally for December 4 and warned that the government could expect large-scale civil disobedience, including a bridge blockade in Belgrade, if it does not resolve the pollution problem.
Although the Balkan nation has been primarily deindustrialized following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, some argue that industry still significantly contributes to the high pollution level in Serbia.
For instance, environmental organization Tvrdjava commissioned a local accredited laboratory to conduct an independent study that found high concentrations of arsenic, nickel, lead, and cadmium in the air of the city the group is based, Smederevo.
According to Nikola Kolja Krstic, coordinator of the Tvrdjava movement, pollution has plagued that city since the 1970s. He said pollution emitted from a local steel plant has contributed to health problems in Smederevo, situated on the eastern bank of the Danube River, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) downstream from Belgrade.
“Such a scale of red and black dust, as well as various gasses, has not been recorded in history,” Krstic told The Liberum. “Since 2016, when the Chinese company, HBIS, took over the steel plant, there has been a noticeable increase in pollution.”
He points out that HBIS, the largest employer in the city, has significantly increased iron and steel production. Yet, his organization obtained unofficial information that the filtration system used to keep particulate matter from entering the atmosphere has not been maintained for years.
“We are facing not only fine particulate matter but also a very high level of heavy metals in the air,” Krstic said.
Particulate matter (PM), also known as particle pollution, is a complex mixture of airborne particles and liquid droplets composed of acids (such as nitrates and sulfates), ammonium, water, black carbon, organic chemicals, metals, and soil material.
Measurement levels such as PM10 (coarse particles caused by dust and smoke) and PM2.5 (fine particles that can enter the bloodstream) are consistently very high in almost all parts of Serbia.
Besides industry, another aspect of the problem is power plants. In the Balkan nation, they are among the most deadly in Europe, apparently pumping out more sulfur dioxide than all the 221 coal power plants in the European Union put together. The reason is that they are burning lignite, deficient quality coal.
“Last year, we learned that the Nikola Tesla Thermal Power Plant – by far the largest in Serbia –is not using any filters,” Dejan Lekic, one of the founders of the National Ecological Association, told the Liberum. The filters were reportedly removed when fuel oil was added to low-quality coal to keep the power plant operating. In Lekic’s view, the plant management did not want to risk damaging filters.
“Some heating plants, namely, in the cities of Novi Pazar and Kragujevac, have replaced fuel oil with natural gas and biomass, which is a positive development. However, plans and measures adopted last year have not been implemented in several cases.
For instance, the Air Quality Plan of the Belgrade agglomeration adopted in June 2021 clearly defined short-term and long-term measures that should be taken. Still, they have either not been implemented or insufficiently implemented,” Lekic said. As a result, air quality in Belgrade at the beginning of the heating season is usually poor.
“Some of the major reasons why Serbia is so polluted is because the authorities delay implementing environmental protection laws,” he concluded.
But could it be that the Serbian government is deliberately avoiding taking any steps to end the pollution issue? The Serbian Ministry of Environmental Protection did not answer The Liberum’s questions on air pollution. In 2020, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic cited a “higher level of road traffic” as one of the main reasons for this problem.
However, pollution remained high even during the COVID-19 curfew in 2020, when no traffic was allowed for as long as 84 hours, which indicates that other factors, rather than traffic, cause enormous pollution.
Further, while it hasn’t been confirmed, some have speculated that Serbia is burning toxic waste imported from the EU. According to the official statistics, from 2011-2020, Serbia imported 296,523 tons of waste, of which 7,109 tons were hazardous, and 289,414 tons were non-hazardous.
“There are videos on social media of open waste burning. However, there is no official information on whether Serbia is burning imported waste, although according to the Aarhus Convention, they should be widely available,” Lekic said, referring to an environmental and security pact between several eastern European and Asian countries.
If the significant polluters are foreign industrial corporations, chances for Belgrade – heavily dependent on foreign investment – to force them to obey the law are rather slim. Also, unlike wealthy Western countries, the southeastern European state cannot afford to abandon lignite and switch to renewables shortly.
Finally, suppose Serbia is really burning toxic waste imported from the EU members and other countries. In that case, Brussels is unlikely to seriously pressure the Serbian government to change its approach regarding pollution. Thus, the environmental issue in Serbia is likely to be resolved sometime soon.