The Mess NATO Left Behind.
They are about the size of a paper-towel holder, bright yellow with orange lettering. A little white plastic umbrella is attached to one end, giving it a harmless, toy-like appearance. But these little items are far from innocuous. They are bomblets from cluster bombs--NATO's deadliest anti-personnel weapon--left behind by the U.S. Air Force. During a war that generated so much rhetoric about precision-guided smart bombs, the cluster bomb is the ultimate "dumb bomb." Many don't explode on impact. Like land mines, the unexploded bomblets that break off a cluster bomb can continue to kill for years, posing a particular danger to curious children. NATO planes dropped thousands of them over Kosovo, where they now dot the landscape.
Unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs are just one of the many hazards left behind by NATO's two-month air war against Yugoslavia. Signing a peace agreement may have ended the fighting, but cleaning up the dangerous debris could take years. The landscape is littered with remnants of anti-tank shells made of radioactive depleted uranium and other unexploded ordnance. Italian fisherman have even been pulling larger NATO bombs out of their nets in the Adriatic Sea, where NATO planes returning to bases in Aviano, Italy, dropped unused payloads.
NATO's decision to target chemical plants, oil refineries, and energy transformer stations could have long-term consequences for civilians in the region. Dangerous chemical and oil spills may already have contaminated the Danube, which flows through Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova. And a recent environmental study of the largely rural region of northern Greece that borders Yugoslavia has found dioxin levels as high as one would find in a heavily industrialized city.
Environmental groups are trying to assess the hazards and come up with a plan of action. On June 16, the United Nations Environment Program and the United Nations Committee on Human Settlement convened a special meeting of international environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Green Cross. A special Balkans Task Force was established under the leadership of former Finnish environment minister Pekka Haavisto to address the region's environmental problems. "There were concerns expressed at the meeting about Serbia and Kosovo as well as the transboundary environmental impact," says Greenpeace spokesperson Stephanie Mills. "We want to take a look at some of the war's toxic effects, such as the bombing of chemical factories and transformer stations and the use of depleted uranium weapons." The problem, says Mills, is that there is little real information on the extent of the impact at this point. Exaggerated propaganda by Yugoslav authorities and total denial by NATO have made it difficult to accurately assess the dangers posed by bombed chemical and oil facilities. Western military planners failed to take the most basic steps to mitigate hazards to civilians.
NATO secrecy could have fatal consequences. Especially when it comes to the immediate environmental danger in postwar Kosovo: cluster bombs. The most common cluster bomb used by the United States, the CBU-87, disperses its 202 submunitions over an area larger than a football field. While the manufacturer claims that these bomblets have a dud rate of between 2 and 5 percent, a report by Human Rights Watch stated that up to 23 percent of the weapons have failed to explode on impact in testing. A conservative estimate is that about ten unexploded submunitions are left behind by every CBU-87 used. The duds then become, in essence, above-ground land mines, able to detonate at the slightest touch, even after extended periods of time. On June 22, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon revealed that U.S. forces alone dropped 1,100 cluster bombs on Yugoslavia. That means roughly 11,000 live bomblets remain, in addition to an unknown number dropped by British aircraft.
On June 23, the Associated Press reported that the first allied fatalities in Kosovo--two soldiers killed by an explosion at a schoolhouse in Negrovce, a village twenty miles from Pristina--were victims of a NATO cluster bomb, not a Serb booby trap, as originally thought.
According to a report by the Congressional General Accounting Office, at least twenty-five U.S. soldiers were killed after the Gulf War by unexploded cluster bomb submunitions. "When you're walking through the desert and you encounter one of these things, even at a distance of fifty or sixty yards away, well, it's a horrific feeling," says Kevin Kavanaugh, a research fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, who served as an Army officer during the Gulf War. "You know that thing can go off at any time, that it is more likely to detonate than other types of ammunition. And, just like that, you could be dead." The risks are far greater for civilians, especially children. "Kids look at this," says Kavanaugh, "and they just can't see the danger." Although there is no full accounting of civilian deaths due to the use of cluster bombs in the Gulf region, Human Rights Watch has estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million unexploded submunitions were left behind. There is little doubt that the weapons used in the Gulf War continue to take innocent lives and will for the foreseeable future.
U.S. F-15E and F-16 fighter bombers began using cluster bombs in Kosovo on April 6. Their intended targets were airfields and large troop concentrations, but civilians were hit as well. On April 24, five boys were killed and two wounded by submunitions from a cluster bomb near the village of Doganovic in southern Kosovo. Cluster bombs were also used when NATO hit a hospital complex in Nis.
Not all NATO officers were keen on using these weapons. The Spanish weekly Articulo 20 quoted Spanish air force captain Adolofo Luis Martin as saying a colonel he served with refused "a coded order from the American military that we should drop anti-personnel bombs over the localities of Pristina and Nis." The weapons were used most extensively in nonurban, mountainous areas of Kosovo. These could pose problems for refugees returning from the mountains.
Fatalities could be prevented, says Kavanaugh, if the U.S. Air Force would deploy special unmanned planes, drones called the Hunter and the Predator, equipped with synthetic aperture radar, designed for rooting out minefields but also able to find cluster bombs.
But the military has so far been unresponsive. "These systems can make sure refugees are safe," says Kavanaugh. "They aren't safe right now. And there is no reason we don't do this. We caused these problems, but we're not willing to help alleviate them. The Pentagon doesn't even want to talk about the issue."
But Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Bill Dowdy says removing unexploded ordnance is now the responsibility of the RONCO Consulting Corporation based out of Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, which has just signed a $1.6 million contract with the State Department to demine Kosovo.
"We'll be providing pretty detailed maps of where the stuff was dropped," says Dowdy. "But it's not our job to clean up all this ordnance."
As for whether any help in locating and identifying unexploded ordnance will be provided in Serbia proper, Dowdy says, "that depends on the Serbian government."
Nor is it clear just what NATO plans to do about an array of bombs dropped into the Adriatic Sea by planes that had to discharge unused munitions before they could safely land at air bases in Aviano. After concern was raised in Italy by a flurry of newspaper articles, U.S. military officials originally said the weapons would somehow be retrieved. But now that is seen as too dangerous, and U.S. officials have stated that they plan to detonate the munitions. "How they are going to safely detonate them I don't actually know," says Greenpeace's Mills.
While unexploded ordnance poses perhaps the most immediate problem, the controversial use of anti-tank ammunition made from depleted uranium may pose more serious dangers. Depleted uranium, or U-235, is the radioactive and toxic byproduct left behind when uranium is enriched for use as nuclear fuel. The weapons were used with amazing effectiveness in the Gulf War. The problem is that when the uranium shell hits an armored target, up to 70 percent of the material burns, leaving behind particles of airborne uranium that can be inhaled. Anyone who goes near the impact area soon after the explosion can inhale the dust, which can cause kidney, skin, and respiratory damage, as well as lung cancer. Despite Pentagon claims that the weapons are relatively safe, Gulf War veterans groups worry that the material is responsible for many of the strange symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome.
But the full scope of the danger might not become clear for at least another decade, according to Dr. Hari Sharma, a professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Sharma has been conducting a study of Gulf War veterans for the Military Toxics Project, one of the main U.S. groups opposing the use of depleted uranium weapons. The amount of uranium he has found in their urine is "astonishing," he says.
"Even eight years after the Gulf War, we are still finding high levels of depleted uranium in their urine," says Sharma. "The risk factor for lung cancer is roughly in the order of 5 to 10 percent. That tells us that anywhere from 25,000 to 50,000 U.S. soldiers can eventually die from lung cancer as a result of the Gulf War. And we know a Kuwaiti scientist was finding depleted uranium in the air as late as 1993. We can extrapolate that there could be anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 additional civilian casualties from lung cancer."
NATO has confirmed the use of depleted uranium in Kosovo by the Air Force's A-10 Warthog, which can fire about 3,900 rounds of thirty-millimeter depleted uranium ammunition every minute. Sharma said his findings led him to write letters to the heads of NATO countries asking them to show restraint in their use of depleted uranium out of respect for the civilian populations of the area. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev made a similar call. In a June 18 column in The Guardian, Gorbachev warned of the dangers of depleted uranium in Kosovo and called for the international prohibition of "weapons whose use may have particularly dangerous, long-term environmental and medical consequences." He wrote: "Weapons containing depleted uranium should be among the first to be banned."
Although NATO won't say how much ammunition it used in the war against Yugoslavia, the amount was probably less than in Iraq. The Iraqi army depended largely on armor, and much of the depleted uranium there was fired from Army M1-A1 Abrahms tanks after the ground campaign. Nonetheless, the use of depleted uranium in Yugoslavia could have put at risk many of the region's civilians.
The conditions NATO has created in Yugoslavia look a lot like the environmental devastation in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, where radioactive waste from uranium weapons combined with toxins released from burning chemical plants, oil refineries, and power transformer sites.
The most serious incident may have been the destruction of the Pancevo industrial complex, twelve miles northeast of Belgrade itself. NATO planes struck a petrochemical plant, a fertilizer factory, and a huge oil refinery. In a May 24 on-site report by National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Sylvia Poggioli described the scene of the air strike as looking like a "science fiction version of `The Day After.'" Poggioli described a "black cloud that hung in the sky from Pancevo to Belgrade for more than a week" caused by the air strikes and noted that a group of foreign reporters who visited the area "regretted it later when they became violently sick from breathing in the Pancevo air."
Among the highly toxic chemicals released during the Pancevo bombing were: vinyl chloride, a carcinogen that can cause damage to the kidneys and the nervous system as well as damage a developing fetus; ethylene dichloride, a carcinogen that can cause liver and kidney damage; and, perhaps most insidious, phosgene, a deadly substance which was used as a chemical weapon in World War I.
Like most chemical plants in the area, the Pancevo plant had a waterway that led directly into the Danube. There are worries that the release of chemicals at Pancevo may have a drastic impact on other countries that depend on the river--Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. What amazes environmentalists is that the Pentagon does not seem to have considered what kind of an effect the bombing of the complex would have on people throughout the region.
In a worst-case scenario, petroleum and chemicals in the Danube could cause a catastrophic accident at one of the six pressurized reactors at Bulgaria's Kozluduy nuclear power plant, which is downstream from Belgrade. The reactors use antiquated cooling systems susceptible to clogging by petroleum or chemicals in the Danube.
In his article, Gorbachev surveyed the wreckage of Yugoslavia and called for international protocols that would forbid the use of depleted uranium weapons, as well as deliberate air strikes against nuclear power stations and some chemical and petrochemical plants. "I am calling for a comprehensive analysis of the environmental situation in Yugoslavia and other countries in the region and in the Danube basin," Gorbachev wrote. "This should be a priority. But we must do more than that. That military conflicts in our time can cause both a human and an environmental catastrophe makes the task of preventing them even more important. Prevention must be foremost in our thinking and our actions. But if hostilities break out despite all our efforts, they must be constrained by certain legal limits.... Environmentalists, political leaders, and public opinion should now demonstrate that we can learn the right lessons from the tragedies of the twentieth century."
Bill Mesler is a writer in Washington, D.C.
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|Title Annotation:||the environmental damages of the NATO-Yugoslavia Conflict, 1999|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1999|
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