Weekly Environmental News Wrap
Air Date: Week of April 23, 1999
Steve talks with author and journalist Mark Hertsgaard [HURTS-guard] about the environmental impact of the war in the Balkans, as well as disturbing news about a vulnerable nuclear stockpile outside Denver, Colorado.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. NATO's air war against Yugoslavia has been underway for more than a month now. Among the recent targets: an oil refinery and a petrochemical plant just outside of Belgrade. To talk about this and other news on the environment, I spoke with journalist Mark Hertsgaard. He told me that the environmental damage from the war in Yugoslavia is likely to be serious and long-lasting.
HERTSGAARD: There's certainly every reason to think that these explosions could have major consequences, because you're talking about blowing up into the atmosphere some very noxious toxic chemicals. Probably chlorine is coming out of one of those plants, and so that's now been spread across the countryside, and doubtless is causing a lot of civilian discomfort.
CURWOOD: And what about water pollution? If we're hitting oil refineries over there, is it getting into the water there?
HERTSGAARD: Apparently it is. There's been oil slicks along the Danube that are several miles long. The Belgrade officials have also said that because of the bombings, that they have begun to release some of the gas from the petrochemical facility into the river in order to keep it from being blown up into the atmosphere, making the best of a bad situation. It's important, I think, to realize that these are the kinds of inevitable consequences that you're going to have in a war of a modern type. The NATO forces are trying to cut off the Yugoslav supply of fuel, and so therefore you hit oil refineries. But that is going to have an impact on the surviving people in the area who have to breathe that air, the civilians who are caught in harm's way.
CURWOOD: There's another huge ecological impact, some would say perhaps the most important, and that's from the people who are trying to flee this. The refugees who are trying to get out of Kosovo. What kind of impact do you see happening there?
HERTSGAARD: I see 2 there. One is, of course this is beyond the human misery that is being experienced by these people, which is horrendous. But in terms of the environmental impact, you're going to have just -- whenever you have large numbers of people moving in refugee fashion across borders and camping out in the wild, you have problems of sanitation. And indeed, this is one of the oldest problems that we as a species have had, is to somehow try and keep our drinking water separate from our own bodily wastes. It's interesting, though, that I think in the 21st century, many environmental experts say look, if you want to see what the 21st century is going to look at, look at Kosovo now. But the refugees of the 21st century will be environmental refugees. They will be fleeing lack of clean water. They will be fleeing countries that have no forest left, like Haiti. That's part of the reason the people are running out of Haiti so fast, is that there is no way to really support a family there because all the forests have been chopped down. In China, now, we're going to begin seeing that. There's 300 cities in China that don't have enough fresh water for their inhabitants. Those people are therefore going to be on the move. And this is going to be a major issue for the international community in the 21st century.
CURWOOD: Now, there are concerns about a stockpile of uranium just outside of Belgrade, and that perhaps one of the NATO weapons could land on top of it. How serious do you think that threat is?
HERTSGAARD: It sounds quite serious. It's not a great deal of uranium that we're talking about here. There's an institute of nuclear science called the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Science about 10 miles from Belgrade. It has 60 kilograms of highly enriched uranium there, which would be enough only to make a bomb or 2. But on the other hand, if it gets hit with one of these high explosives by a NATO missile, it could certainly disperse that over the atmosphere and cause quite a bit of havoc. Now, of course, NATO says we don't have any intentions to target that. But NATO didn't have intentions to target the civilian train a few days ago that was hit, either. There are mistakes that happen in war, and you have to hope that this uranium lab is not one of them, in the same way that the petrochemical complex was hit. These kinds of facilities get hit in a conflict, and you have to realize that there is going to be serious environmental consequences from that.
CURWOOD: You know, along the lines of uranium, I wonder if we could talk about something that's a little closer to home. Outside Denver, in a place called Rocky Flats, there's a pretty serious story going on now, isn't there?
HERTSGAARD: Yes indeed. If international nuclear inspectors are worried about Vinca, they really should check into Rocky Flats. Rocky Flats is one of the 12 major nuclear weapons complexes in the United States, run by the Department of Energy. And there are 7 tons of plutonium stored there. There are 13 tons of enriched uranium. Takes about 15 pounds of plutonium to make a Hiroshima-strength bomb, so you're literally talking about an incomprehensible amount of nuclear material there inside of Rocky Flats. And the danger is that it is highly susceptible to terrorist attack, apparently. We know this because the Department of Energy's top official in charge of protecting the nation's nuclear materials says that he had been trying to get his superiors in Washington to take this seriously and had failed. And he was captured on tape actually talking to a whistleblower, who he was urging to go talk to the press. And so now some of us reporters have begun to cover the story and to try and raise a red flag about it, so that the officials in Washington can take the appropriate measures to protect that plant at the extent that it needs it.
CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is a journalist and author of Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future. Thanks so much for taking this time with us this week.
HERTSGAARD: Happy to cheer your day.
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