UN seeks repair of unhealthy lead smelter

MITROVICA, Aug 10, 2000 -- (Reuters) The United Nations on Wednesday stepped up complaints against a Serb-run smelter in northern Kosovo which it says is belching fumes with 200 times the safe level of lead into this ethnically-divided city.

But the UN stopped short of detailing how it could reduce the health endangering emissions at the Zvecan plant, which is run by Serbs that report to Belgrade and who deny operations at Kosovo's largest industrial complex are damaging the environment.

UN officials said they had attempted to contact the Zvecan managers, whose facility lies north of Mitrovica in the last major concentration of Serbs in Kosovo, but got no response.

"We're hoping that the management will see from the effects on the environment that the plant has to be repaired," UN Kosovo spokeswoman Susan Manuel said.

Zvecan is part of the giant Trepca mining complex whose vast mineral wealth is hotly contested by Serbs and the province's majority ethnic Albanian population.

The 14 lead, zinc and gold mines, nine flotation plants, two metallurgy plants and 14 factories are in poor repair and straddle the dividing line in ethnically partitioned Mitrovica.

The UN has run Kosovo since NATO forces expelled Serb troops last year in the wake of a 78-day bombing campaign and is in charge of all former state property in the province, such as the Trepca group.

Serbs dispute the UN's presence and its right to direct operations at Trepca. Rights to Trepca's metals output are also claimed by Greek engineering group Mytilineos.

Serbs believe the UN plans to take over all of Trepca and allow ethnic Albanians alone to profit. Belgrade daily Glas Javosti quoted Trepca General Director Novak Bjelic on Wednesday as saying NATO would have to use force to "amputate the plant".

"We're not planning steps against anyone, we plan on rehabilitating the mine and having it work in a safe and environmentally friendly way," the UN's Manuel said.


Doctors at the main ethnic Albanian clinic in southern Mitrovica said they had noticed a marked increase in patients complaining of stomach pains, vomiting, headaches and stiff limbs since the Zvecan plant restarted production in June.

"Because we can't do blood tests we can't check the levels of lead and since we have no exact diagnosis its difficult to give therapy," said Doctor Bajram Prefeni.

The doctor called for the plant to be shut down, echoing the request of the French Ministry of Defense, which said last week Zvecan emissions were harming the 7,500 NATO-led peacekeeping soldiers patrolling across northern Kosovo.

Fumes from the smelter can clearly be seen billowing into the air by passers-by. Equipment failures have cut out pollution filters, the UN says, allowing raw fumes to escape.

A UN-commissioned study has judged the mining complex could be made safe and economically viable with sufficient investment and Italian engineers have already done emergency work to prevent one of the largest mines from flooding.

The UN is also on the verge of signing a $15-16 million contract with a French/Swedish/U.S. consortium for technical audits and emergency repairs of the complex, which could become a major source of employment vital to Kosovo's moribund economy.

But the contract appears to assume Trepca's Serb managers will cooperate, something which does not look guaranteed.

Original article