EC NATO Willfully Triggered An Enviromental Catastrophe in Yugoslavia
By: Michel Chossudovsky
June 18, 2000
NATO WILLFULLY TRIGGERED AN ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE IN YUGOSLAVIA
Professor of Economics, University of Ottawa, author of "The
Globalization of Poverty, Third World Network, Penang, Zed Books,
In this report, Michel Chossudovsky provides conclusive documentary and
photographic evidence that contrary to the statements of various
international observers, the environmental catastrophe at the Pancevo
petrochemical plant was neither the result of 'collateral damage' (that
is, an accident of war) nor a case of criminal negligence (that is,
resulting from criminal disregard of consequences). Rather, the evidence
is compelling. NATO willfully blew up with meticulous accuracy
containers of toxic chemicals with the intention of creating an
At the outset of the War, NATO had reassured World opinion that "precise
targeting" using sophisticated weaponry was intended to avoid
"collateral damage" including environmental hazards:
"We do everything we possibly can to avoid unnecessary collateral
damage. We take it very seriously, work very hard at doing that, spend a
lot of time planning for the missions."1
At the Pancevo petrochemical complex located in the outskirts of
Belgrade, however, exactly the opposite occurred. "State of the art"
aerial surveillance and satellite thermal image detection were not only
used to disable Yugoslavia's petrochemical industry; they were willfully
applied to trigger an environmental disaster.
The air raids on the Pancevo complex started on April 4th 1999 and
continued relentlessly until the 7th of June. The Pancevo complex also
included an oil refinery facility (built with technical support from
Texaco) and a Nitrogen Processing Plant producing fertilizer for
Yugoslav agriculture. The petrochemical plant was bombed extensively (41
bombs and 7 missile attacks). The bombed areas were within less than two
hundred meters from residential buildings.
At the beginning of the war, workers at the plant were actively involved
in removing toxic materials from the site, emptying several large tanks
and containers of chemicals precisely to avert the risks of "collateral
damage". Little did they realize that NATO was watching them through
air-to-ground surveillance systems and satellite images. Using thermal
detection, NATO military planners knew which of the containers had been
emptied and which remained full.
How does this work?
All objects in the Pancevo plant --including the containers of toxic
chemicals-- emit infrared radiation. A thermal imager from a spy
satellite or an aircraft can detect infrared radiation emitted from any
object situated on the petrochemical plant and convert its readings into
a high-resolution video or snap picture.
The thermal imager can detect temperature differentials as small as 0.1
degrees centigrade which enables NATO planners to easily "categorize"
and distingush between full and empty containers. NATO warplanes were
equipped with various advanced imaging systems including
infrared/electro-optical sensors. Thermal satellite images were relayed
to the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy where the
bombing raids had been carefully scheduled. Other advanced surveillance
systems were used including small unmanned predator (UAV) drones and
high altitude U2 spy planes. In the words of a Pentagon spokesman, the
U2 "snaps a picture from very high altitude, beams it back in what we
call a reach-back, to the States where it is very quickly analyzed". And
from there, "the right targeting data" is relayed to the CAOC in
Vincenza which then "passes [it] on to people in the cockpit".2
NATO planners also had detailed information on the layout of the plant,
which had been designed and built on contract with a US multinational
engineering company Foster Wheeler (a firm specializing in the
construction of petrochemical and polymer plants). NATO knew exactly
where things were. In a cruel irony, US investment in Yugoslavia
(financed with loans from the World Bank) was being bombed by Uncle Sam.
Did the pilots sitting in the cockpit know that they were destroying a
plant which was "Made in America"?
A large number of the containers had been emptied. By using thermal
images, NATO was able to identify which of the tanks were still filled
to the brim with toxic chemicals. Among these noxious liquids were
containers of ethylene-dichloride (EDC), ethylene, chlorine,
chlorine-hydrogen, propylene and vinyl chloride monomers (VCM). Well
documented by environmentalists, the VCM monomer used to produce
plastics (eg. PVC resin) is a dangerous cancerogenic contaminant (see
photo 2). Vinyl chloride also has the potential to cause neurological
and liver damage, as well as damage to the fetus causing serious birth
If NATO's intent were solely to disable the plant without risking
"collateral" environmental damage, they could have done it by smart
bombing the equipment and machinery. Why did they also decide to hit
with utmost accuracy the tanks containing noxious liquids?
The "smart bombs" were not dumb; they went where they were told to go.
NATO had scrupulously singled out the containers, tanks and reservoirs,
which still contained toxic materials. According to the petrochemical
plant director, NATO did not hit a single empty container: "This was not
accidental; they chose to hit those that were full and these chemicals
spilled into the canal leading to the Danube". Moreover, according to
the plant director, the ethylene-dichloride (EDC) spillovers had
contaminated 10 hectares of land on and in the vicinity of the plant. 3
When the smart bombs hit their lethal targets at Pancevo (see photos
below), noxious fluids and fumes were released into the atmosphere,
water and soil. The containers were deliberately blown up or perforated.
The soil at the petrochemical complex is still soaked with toxic
ethylene-dichloride. According to a report of the Regional Environment
Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC):
"More than one thousand tons of ethylene dichloride spilled from the
Pancevo petrochemical complex into the Danube [through the canal which
links the plant to the river]. Over a thousand tons of natrium hydroxide
were spilled from the Pancevo petrochemical complex. Nearly 1,000 tons
of hydrogen chloride spilled from Pancevo into the Danube River"4
Eight tons of mercury also escaped from the petrochemical complex
spilling into the soil. The wastewater treatment plant was also bombed
thereby contributing to exacerbating the ecological impacts. 5
NATO military strategists knew precisely what they were doing and what
would be the likely consequences. At the neighboring oil refinery, two
NATO missiles had hit on April 4th the refinery's control rooms killing
three staff members. The strikes had set the plant on fire, reducing it
to a toxic wreck. The objective was not to avoid an environmental
disaster. The objective was to create an environmental disaster (see
photos). NATO was expecting that by ruthlessly bombing Pancevo among
other civilian sites, this would intimdiate Belgrade into accepting the
Rambouillet Agreement including its infamous Military Appendix which
essentially gave NATO the right to occupy all parts of Yugoslavia.
In the wake of the bombings, the Greens from Germany and experts from
the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) as well as other
groups visited the Pancevo plant. The UNEP report dismisses the
environmental impacts caused by the bombings while underscoring in its
main conclusions that Pancevo and other petrochemical plants in the
country were an ecological hazard prior to the bombings due to lax
environmental standards.6 The UNEP report is a carefully worded
cover-up. It whitewashes NATO; it downplays the seriousness of the
environmental catastrophe, while placing the blame (without supporting
evidence) on the Yugoslav authorities. Tacitly upholding the legitimacy
of the Western military alliance, UNEP's findings are in overt
contradiction with those of other scientific studies including that of
the Regional Environment Center for Central And Eastern Europe (REC)
prepared for the European Commission (see footnote 4).
The complicity of UNEP --a specialized agency of the UN with a track
record of integrity-- is yet another symptom of the deterioration of the
United Nations system which now plays an underhand in covering up NATO
1. Statement of General Charles Wald of the Pentagon, Department of
Defense Press Briefing, Washington, 12 April 1999.
2. Department of Defense Press Briefing, Washington, May 14th, 1999.
3. Interview conducted by the author in Pancevo, March 2000.
4. See the report of the REC entitled Assessment of the Environmental
Impact of Military Activities During the Yugoslavia Conflict at
5. Interview conducted by the author in Pancevo, March 2000.
6. The UNEP report entitled The Kosovo Conflict: Consequences for the
Environment & Human Settlements prepared for the European Commission can
be consulted at