Inside a factory in Veles - UNEP

Veles, formerly known as Titov Veles, population circa 50.000 is a city in central Macedonia, some 50 km south of the capital Skopje. In addition, it is one of the most polluted places in the Balkans

30/06/2006 -  Risto Karajkov Skopje

Veles, formerly known as Titov Veles, population circa 50.000 is a city in central Macedonia, some 50 km south of the capital Skopje. In addition, it is one of the most polluted places in the Balkans.

Results from a recent research by a professor from the Faculty of Heavy-Metal Industry in Skopje, Mr. Simeon Jancev, confirmed recurrent suspicions that Veles and its area are heavily polluted.

For 30 years Veles hosted a mill for led and zinc, a major employer in town and strong exporter. The mill was closed 2 years ago because of debts accrued in the several last years of its operation. Experts say debts resulted from the Greek embargo in the early 90s and bad and unethical management. The government has been trying to sell it ever since but several public biddings were unsuccessful, reportedly because of the high price demanded.

The mill left a horrendous legacy to the city however. The soil around Veles is said to be saturated with metals. Profesor Jancev's research claims the presence of led, zinc, and cadmium is reported to be in some areas up to 70 times more than the allowed. According to environmental experts, that is a terrifying. They also suspect that the underground water, some of which is used for drinking, is bad. People in Veles have stopped drinking the tab water years ago.

What makes it worse is the fact that farmers use that same soil for the agricultural produce which is afterwards sold to the people in Veles, and not only. That food is simply soaked in poison.

Following the publishing of Mr. Jancev's results, the mayor of Veles, Mr. Ace Kocevski called upon the Government to compensate the farmers in whose plants high quantities of metals were measured. Mr. Kocevski shares the position of the environmentalist groups who are categorical that farming should not be allowed on the polluted soil.

"It is not the farmers' fault that their land has been polluted as a result of years of contamination." says Nenad Kocic from the environmental NGO "Vila Zora". Nevertheless, they should stop working that land, and get damages.

Mr. Kocic says that "With every contact of children and adults with the soil, through consumption of the produce grown on it, they enter serious quantities of zinc, led, and cadmium into their bodies".

The Veles environmental crisis which has been in public focus for over a decade now, enters in a phase of outmost urgency with these latest results. Urgent cleansing of the soil is necessary. There is a project for it, but the resources are lacking.

For decades now babies born in Veles have a very high rate of congenital anomalies. Children are very susceptible to different illnesses. A survey done by a local NGO of concerned parents operates with a number of up to 2/3 of 960 interviewed parents who have stated that their children suffer from some sort of acute or chronic respiratory or cardiac syndromes, problems with the spinal cord, anemia, allergies, etc.

Last year the government triggered an outcry of anger in Veles when it decided to stop funding the climatic rehabilitation (children go away for a 10 day period) of children at health risks originally granted by the Ministry of Environment.

Pressed by the last public turmoil, the Government was reported to have allocated some 100.000 denars for cleansing of the polluted Veles soil. This amount is so small (circa 1,500 euros), that who ever reads it suspects a printing mistake. According to the environmentalists who will use it for an operation called fito-remediation, this will only suffice for an initial work on two small parcels of land. The truth is that the amounts that will be needed for a serious intervention in Veles will be much bigger.

"It will take a lot of money, which not only exceeds the financial capacity of the municipality of Veles, but likely also the state", said mayor Kocevski.

The cleansing operation which started a few days ago involves planting of certain plants which extend their roots deep into the soil and absorb the metals. These plants will then be harvested and stored in a safe location, as heavily poisonous. This methodology is for the first time being used in Macedonia. Local environmental experts replicate the Serbian experience where the same method was used to cleanse the soil around the Belgrade mill.

"We will do lab tests on the plants subsequently, do chemical analysis to see its impact, how much heavy metal they have managed to extract from the soil", says Ms. Tatjana Petrovic, professor at the Faculty of Agriculture.

Very unfortunately, just a week before the last Veles crisis hit, the Environment Minister Mr. Zoran Sapuric had a boastful statement that Macedonia is overall less polluted than its neighbors, partly due to the fact that many industrial plants are closed.

He was trying to appease the public after the media broke the news late May that a train load of radioactive iron was let into the country from Serbia and it stayed for several days at a train terminal in the village of Trubarevo, just outside Skopje. His argument went along the line that "those things happen". Mr. Sapuric said that his ministry does a lot of prevention work but that stricter standard enforcement and bigger fines for perpetrators were necessary.

The country has several big polluters, such s the oil refinery Octa, a ferronickel producer in Kavadarci - Feni. In addition, more than half of the cars in the country are more than 20 years old, far behind present environmental standards.

People in Skopje have lately forgotten the famous Skopje winter smog (word coming originally from smoke+fog), as a lot of the metal processing industry around the city has been closed. Now, with its gradual restarting, it will be back to stay.

The care for the environment is only a declarative commitment in Macedonia, and it is clear that the environmental awareness in the country is at terrible lows, among the leadership but also the citizenry. Environmental hazards such as the one in Veles oust governments from office elsewhere. Not in Macedonia however, not just yet.

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