Poisoned Town Pleads for Help

At the lead and zinc smelter in Veles, Macedonia
Inside the lead and zinc smelter in Veles, Macedonia (Photo: UNEP).

The doctor from Veles compared what he had witnessed to a scene from a horror film.

“Babies are being born with entire organs missing. The deformities are frightening,” he said, asking not to be named.

The central Macedonian town of Veles is the site of a public health catastrophe. A smelter for lead and zinc—built barely 100 feet away from the nearest houses, in defiance of expert advice—has brought horror and suffering into the lives of the town's 60,000 inhabitants.

The children of 700 families in the town have serious health problems, and in the last five months alone, two have died of cancer.

Infertility and miscarriages are on the rise, while newborn babies are lucky not to be diagnosed with heart or lung disease, asthma, anemia, cancer or other major problems.

To local campaigners and health officials, the source of the problem is obvious: the town's lead and zinc smelter, which has shrouded Veles in pollutants for 30 years.

Yet there is no one to take the blame.

Compensation claims launched by the town's long-suffering inhabitants have revealed that the smelting plant has no single owner. Instead, ownership is divided between a number of companies. Critics say this was done to avoid creditors and complicate any claims for compensation.

Ace Kocevski, the mayor of Veles, told the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), “The smelter loses over 50 million euro a year, yet the state still makes its continued operation a priority.”

The smelter might not be turning a profit, but it is still turning out pollutants. The volume of toxic waste in the town is astounding. The latest measurements taken by the Macedonian Institute for Health Protection show that 62,000 tons of zinc, 47,300 tons of lead, and 120,000 tons of sulfur dioxide are released into Veles every year.

These figures far exceed the maximum level set by international regulations. Cadmium emissions in Veles are also more than 50 percent higher than they ought to be.

Little surprise then, that the town is also said to have the highest death rate in Macedonia. World Health Organization officials added Veles to their list of critically dangerous places in 2001.

Most at risk are the town’s children, who inherit deformities and ingest toxins, but lack the immunities to fight back. Rozeta Bosilkova, a pediatrician in Veles, said, “My patients do not respond well to any treatment, even for the common cold. This is because their defense mechanisms have been badly eroded.”

Sonja Gavrilova, who heads a pressure group, the Association for the Protection of Future Generations of Veles, records how two Veles families sent samples of their children’s hair to the Center for Microbiotic Medicine in Moscow.

“One sample displayed a concentration of lead seven times above the norm, and the other was five times above the norm,” said Gavrilova.

The Moscow Center is one of the few places parents can hope to have their children’s complaints treated. But few can afford to pay for the treatment.

Last year, Mayor Kocevski and the Veles municipality filed a lawsuit for the town’s inhabitants, asking for 25 million euro in damages from the state. They charged that the way the plant was run breached the Constitution and environmental legislation. But according to Kocevski, the claim is getting bogged down by constant demands for new evidence.

Kocevski has proposed that all agriculture and cattle farming in the Veles region be stopped immediately given the level of heavy metal pollutants in the soil. But detailed evidence of this pollution, which was produced with the help of the Vila Zora environmental group, was dismissed by the plant's managers as inaccurate and alarmist.

Macedonia’s minister for the environment, Ljubomir Janev, tried to break the impasse by saying the focus should now be on finding a solution to the problem rather than ascribing blame. “No more effort should be spent on convincing anyone there is pollution in Veles, or in looking for a culprit. We should be seeking solutions based on concrete measures for establishing an integrated preventive protection program,” Janev told Skopje’s pro-opposition Utrinski Vesnik newspaper.

The government has recently announced that it will set up a task force dedicated to solving the problem. But locals can be forgiven for doubting whether real improvements will follow the latest official proclamations. Earlier statements have yet to bear fruit.

The ministry responsible for the environment and urban planning organized a round-table in February this year, where one participant, Antonia Efremov, from the Agency for Technological Development and Economic Protection, suggested that Veles’ problems could be solved by upgrading the plant’s technology.

The United Nations Development Program recently donated equipment for use in monitoring the plant's emissions. However, Vera Ristova, the head of the Veles branch of the Republican Institute for Health Protection, which received the equipment, refused to tell IWPR whether it had been used yet or not.

As their health deteriorates, the anger of Veles’ inhabitants is growing. Kocevski told IWPR, “The inhabitants of Veles are the conscience of this country. Macedonia cannot hope to join the EU without addressing this problem.”

Mitko Jovanov is a journalist with Skopje’s independent weekly Denes. This item was originally published on the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s Web site.