Pirot (Serbia) - An old oil train © Dimitrina Lavchieva/Shutterstock

Pirot (Serbia) - An old oil train © Dimitrina Lavchieva/Shutterstock

Little or nothing is known about the impact and responsibility of 20 tonnes of ammonia leaking from a tank on a freight train in southeast Serbia, an accident that also claimed two lives. In Serbia, it remains hard for citizens to obtain information about these environmental disasters

26/01/2023 -  Antonela Riha Belgrade

In mid-January, the state of emergency was lifted in the territory of Pirot, in southeastern Serbia, introduced on 25 December 2022 due to the ammonia leak from a derailed freight train. In addition to the dispersion of ammonia, which is highly harmful to human health, the derailment of the train produced dense smoke, causing nine road accidents. According to media reports, there are two victims: the driver of a truck, of Turkish nationality, who died after going off-road due to inhaling toxic fumes, and a man who died in hospital from asphyxiation.

At the time of writing, it is not yet known whether the prosecutor's office has launched an investigation into the Pirot train crash. To date, the only person detained is a local journalist  who tried to film the place where one of the road accidents caused by smoking took place with a drone.

Commenting on the decision to lift the state of emergency, Vladan Vasic, mayor of Pirot, explained that the tracks have been cleaned up and that railway traffic has been restored, with the introduction of some extraordinary measures for freight trains: the reduction of speed limit to 20 km/h, the reduction of the payload to 1200 tonnes, and the ban on the transport of ammonia.

Twenty tonnes of poison

Although the train derailed outside the town of Pirot, citizens soon noticed the smell of ammonia. The media reported that 56 people sought medical assistance the day after the accident, including 38 presenting symptoms associated with asphyxia, 3 reporting injuries caused by a road accident, and 15 who ended up in the emergency room.

Ammonia is transported in the liquid state in pressure tanks, and once released into the atmosphere it passes into the gaseous state. Exposure to high concentrations in the air can cause burning and swelling of the airways, lung damage, and death. In contact with water, ammonia forms ammonium hydroxide, a substance that can cause severe burns.
The derailed freight train, which on the day of the accident was carrying around 900 tonnes of ammonia divided into 20 tank cars, travelled every day on the Nis - Dimitrovgrad line. On the railway section, which has been in poor condition for some time, where the accident occurred, the freight trains were forced to reduce speed to 30 km/h.

The Eliksir company, owner of the cargo transported by the train that left the rails, explained that the ammonia came from Bulgaria. According to the estimates of this company, which produces phosphoric acids and complex mineral fertilisers, on the day of the accident, about twenty tonnes of ammonia leaked from one of the derailed wagons.

It was then decided  to leave the derailed tank wagons open, letting all the rest of the ammonia escape. The mayor of Pirot explained that, according to experts, that was the safest way to deal with the environmental accident.

In the first days after the train derailment, the population of the Pirot area was asked not to use water from the wells. It was also speculated that the ammonia ended up in the Nisava river. However, news soon spread that there would be no major environmental impact.

The questions left unanswered

Noting that accidents like Pirot's happen from time to time, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic stressed  that the authorities reacted promptly and that the risk of further disasters of this type will be reduced with new investments in major infrastructure works.

The day after the freight train derailed, Goran Vesic, Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, said he did not need any investigation to understand that the cause of the accident was related to the poor condition of the railway infrastructure. The minister then explained that, on the basis of an agreement signed in 2018, a tender for the reconstruction of the Nis-Dimitrovgrad railway section was called in March 2022 and that the works should start this year. The cost of the project, according to the minister, is estimated at 270 million Euros.

The response by Environment Minister Irena Vujovic did not go unnoticed. Answering journalists' questions about the details of the story, Vujovic took an arrogant attitude, replying with statements such as "Why should I know?" or "Is it up to me to carry out those measurements?”.

Many questions remain unanswered. Was the transport of the dangerous cargo carried out in accordance with the law? Was adequate protection ensured for the tanks so that they could withstand various external pressures? Who is responsible for the accident? Why did the tank cars overturn when going off the tracks? How much ammonia ended up in the soil and water? What emerged from the investigations into the causes of death of the two men who died as a result of the accident?

Transport of dangerous substances in the heart of Belgrade

In Serbia now no one raises the issue of railway infrastructure. It is clear to everyone that the railways are in a catastrophic condition. Over the last year, precisely on the Nis-Dimitrovgrad section, there have been at least three railway accidents , leading to the derailment of wagons containing dangerous substances. A few days after the Pirot accident, a wagon containing phosphoric acid went off the rails on the Zajecar-Knjazevac section. Luckily the tank remained intact and there was no leakage. Also in this case, the owner of the transported goods was the Eliksir company from Sabac. The latest accident  took place on January 24 near Subotica, in northern Serbia, where three tank wagons full of propane derailed. According to media reports, there was no gas leak from the tanks and the accident did not pose any danger to people's health.

One of the taboo subjects for the Serbian leadership is the so-called Vracar Tunnel, a 3.5-kilometre long railway tunnel that passes under downtown Belgrade and is crossed every night by freight trains filled with ammonia, liquefied petroleum gas, various acids (sulfuric, acetic, nitric), and petroleum derivatives, therefore full of flammable substances. Trains carrying dangerous and flammable substances pass through the Vracar tunnel only at night. However, as emerged from an investigation  carried out by the independent BIRN portal, the Office for Emergency Situations at the Ministry of the Interior has never issued any authorisation that allows any type of rail transport, therefore both passengers and goods, through the Vracar tunnel. Furthermore, the documents that BIRN has obtained show that, in the event of a leak of dangerous substances in the tunnel, the fire and first aid teams would not be able to intervene.

An inspection and a risk assessment have shown that in the Vracar tunnel "the risk of fire is very high" and that "the conditions for a possible evacuation of a train stopped due to breakdown are unfavourable". Engineer Dragutin Ignjatovic, director of the CIP Transport Institute, told BIRN that if an explosion were to occur in the Vracar tunnel, "half of Belgrade would blow up".

The authorities have not been able to give a satisfactory answer even to a warning like the one launched by the engineer. The public company responsible for managing the railway infrastructure of Serbia said that the chances of a leak of dangerous substances in the Vracar tunnel are "extremely low" and that in case of fire or similar incidents, freight trains do not stop inside, but outside the tunnel – therefore, somewhere in the centre of a city with over a million inhabitants, assuming they make it out of the tunnel.

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