The extent of the environmental disaster from the ongoing fire at the Vinča landfill in Belgrade is unknown as there are no measuring points for the presence of dioxins and furans in the air, but authorities in Serbia’s capital claim there is no cause for concern as the level of PM particles dropped. The city government said company Beo čista energija earlier took control over the facility but the private partner claimed it would only be able to rehabilitate it when it gets a permit.
The City of Belgrade established a public–private partnership in 2017 with a consortium of companies Suez and Itochu for waste management over 25 years. The endeavor is worth EUR 370 million of which EUR 290 million are loans from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the Development Bank of Austria (OeEB).
The private partners, which include infrastructure fund Marguerite II, boasted late last year of their Gold Award for the best utilities project from media organization Partnerships Bulletin. They were picked to build a municipal waste incinerator and a recycling plant for construction waste, and they took on the obligation to set up a new landfill and close the old one, active since 1970. It is one of the biggest unsanitary facilities of its kind in Europe.
But there are delays and fires are frequent, due to inappropriate disposal practices. The last one erupted in the afternoon on August 7, and social media users sounded the alarm.
Pokret Ne davimo Beograd zahteva od nadležnih institucija da objasne šta je uzrok velikog požara na deponiji Vinča, kao i da odmah, bez odlaganja proglase vanrednu situaciju i objave uputstva za ponašanje građana u toku esktremno velikog zagađenja vazduha. pic.twitter.com/qrbUJvzq5t
— Ne davimo Beograd (@nedavimobgd) August 8, 2021
Alert first ignored, then spun
Neither the city government nor the consortium, called Beo čista energija, made any statements until the next day, when due to the fire in Vinča half of Belgrade was covered in smoke. Blame-shifting immediately ensued, paired with looking for culprits elsewhere, while environmentalist organizations demanded from the authorities to impose a state of emergency on the local level and inform citizens in a timely manner on the health risk.
Belgrade Mayor Zoran Radojičić said air quality “varied”
Experts pointed out all sorts of waste are burning in the landfill and that a range of toxic and cancerogenic matters are being released, of which they mostly emphasize polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs), better known as kao dioxins, and polychlorinated dibenzofurans or PCDFs, mostly referred to as furans. Still, there is no official monitoring of the levels of the substances in the air.
Conversely, city officials stressed the fact that the presence of harmful microscopic dust – particulate matter or PM – in the air has dropped one day after the fire in Vinča started. They claimed there it is no cause for concern and that the fire is “under control.” But it may keep smoldering for a long time beneath the dirt and sand that the firefighters throw over the flame. Mayor of Belgrade Zoran Radojičić said air quality “varied”.
Beo čista energija expects permit this week
The wind changed its direction so the air isn’t extremely polluted anymore in the central part of Belgrade. But the station in Vinča, on the city’s outskirts, still registered the highest category of the presence of particles of the PM2.5 and PM10 types early in the morning, which means the air was dangerous for human health.
Deputy Mayor Goran Vesić and city-owned waste management utility Gradska čistoća claim Beo čista energija took over the responsibility earlier for the landfill, while the private partner responded that it only expects a permit from the Ministry of Environmental Protection this week to start rehabilitating the old one. Then the ministry fired back by saying it has no jurisdiction over the case and that the said permit that it needs to issue is for the new landfill while that it already “gave consent for the remediation and rehabilitation project.”
The company was first supposed to move in late last year, but the deadlines were breached due to factors that included a crack in the barrier holding the mountain of waste.
Beo čista energija warned already in October that some delays were possible due to pandemic-related equipment delivery issues. Vesić now said he expects the old landfill to be closed by the end of the year. That would mean the private partner actually doesn’t have authority over the facility.
Campaign against Don’t Let Belgrade Drown opposition movement
Activists from the Don’t Let Belgrade Drown movement visited the location in Vinča with member of the European Parliament Viola von Cramon from the European Green Party one day after the fire started. It prompted a group of politically biased media outlets to launch speculation that Don’t Let Belgrade Drown or other people from the opposition set fire to the landfill.
Dobrica Veselinović from Don’t Let Belgrade Drown told Balkan Green Energy News it was a proven tactic by the government to confront its opponents. “In this case, against the people who only said what happened. They put a political spin on it to damage the Don’t Let Belgrade Drown movement and add to the confusion. They didn’t say what happened but just insinuated that we caused it. Members of parliament from the ruling party then joined the campaign,” he said and vowed to press charges.
Veselinović: The private entity protected itself well and the entire risk is on the public side
Veselinović recalled how the movement’s activists held a performance after a fire of a similar extent started in 2017. It lasted for twenty or so days. They set barrel fires outside of the City Assembly of Belgrade to point out to the members of the local parliament that they are obligated to react. Satellite images show large fires have been occurring every few years in Vinča, he added.
Ever since the contract was signed it was clear that the private side protected itself well and that the entire risk is on the public side of the deal, and the city government is indeed the most responsible for the fires, Veselinović stressed. The contract appears to have been modified amid the coronavirus pandemic and that the deadlines were pushed back, but the authorities are hiding the information, he said.
Company blames people who collect secondary raw material at Vinča landfill
Beo čista energija said persons who collect secondary raw materials at the landfill were caught on camera just before the fire and insinuated that they started the fire.
“I think it is nonsense as experts say it is a much more severe and permanent deap-seated fire. It can’t be set just like that. There is always an active fire, as the landfill hasn’t been remediated,” Veselinović underscored.
Since the latest environmental incident in Vinča, a fire also erupted at a landfill in Novi Sad, the country’s second-largest city. Such events have become regular in Serbia in the past years at municipal waste disposal sites that aren’t managed properly. Almost a dozen have been registered this summer alone.