If planners in communist-era Yugoslavia had prized public health over industrial might, perhaps they would not have built a massive oil refinery, petrochemical complex and fertiliser plant upwind from the humble city of Pancevo, 20 km north of Belgrade.
If Nato, when it bombed Serbia in 1999, had prioritised the protection of Pancevo’s civilian population above the destruction of these facilities, perhaps it would not have smashed them all at once. The resulting infernos unleashed what local residents grimly quip was like a “science experiment” of intermingled toxins, wafting into town and seeping into the nearby Danube river.
But the 75,000 residents of Pancevo and 45,000 in surrounding villages must live with the toxic legacy of their 20th century as it is, not as they would wish it to be. Many are determined that the current century should be kinder to them. Hence, green activism – which barely registers a blip elsewhere in Serbia – is locally on the ascendant.
Few people in the Balkans have campaigned more justifiably for an environmental clean-up. Last year a survey commissioned by the European Commission and the Council of Europe called Pancevo “the ecological black hole of Europe”.
In January, an air quality study conducted by the Italian National Research Council’s Institute for Atmospheric Pollution found that benzene levels in Pancevo’s industrial zone were 10 times greater than the European Union limit of five micrograms per cubic metre of air.
Residents complain of physical suffering. “Sometimes you feel like your stomach is upside down, you have a headache, you’re slow, drugged,” says Nenad Zivkovic, a reporter for Pancevac, the city’s weekly newspaper.
Nonetheless, local campaigners say they have struggled to persuade the government that their plight is urgent. They disagree with political leaders in Belgrade on how best to measure pollution. Outside interventions such as the Italian study have so far failed to bring the two sides into full agreement.
Aleksandar Popovic, the Serbian government minister in charge of environmental affairs until earlier this month when he switched to energy and mining, says Pancevo has created “its own rule” for measuring pollution, contradicting standard EU methods the government prefers to observe.
Where Pancevo’s emergency warning system measures hourly averages of pollutants, including benzene, EU limits are based on annual averages. In Pancevo’s urban zone, the annual average benzene contamination last year was almost nine micrograms per cubic metre – excessive but still within the EU’s limit for industrial zones, says Mr Popovic.
“Benzene is carcinogenic only if you are exposed to a very large amount over a very large amount of time, years and decades. So we can go through 120, 160, 1,000 [micrograms] inhaling it briefly, and nothing will happen to us,” he says.
Local activists are unmoved. Zoran Stanizan, a high school teacher who has spearheaded a series of public protests, says that recent hourly averages have exceeded 220 micrograms per cubic metre, a level considered seriously unsafe by residents. Under such conditions, “the clouds of pollution sometimes look like British fog”, he says.
Mr Popovic and other ministers assert that Pancevo’s environmental clean-up has moved forward with remarkable speed. For example, all but 19 of the oil refinery’s formerly leaky 140 storage reservoirs, which the government calls the main source of unwanted emissions, have been rebuilt, air tight. Yet state officials receive little credit for their efforts, locally.
Instead, they have been hit by efforts to shame them into faster action. Last November, when Boris Tadic, the Serbian president, made a rare appearance in Pancevo, local officials sounded the city’s emergency warning sirens upon his arrival. The incident placed the president in an awkward position, but Mr Stanizan claims it yielded a flurry of positive attention from public officials, including a fresh visit from Mr Popovic and money for emergency repairs.
Much work remains to be done. But, if nothing else, Pancevo’s siren story shows that some Serbian citizens, arguably Europe’s gloomiest cynics, have started to believe again that they can directly influence their elected leaders.