Cleaning up toxic past, Montenegro town pioneers a green economy

21 Jan 2011

After two decades in the toxic shadow of a closed lead and zinc mine, a small town in northern Montenegro is seeding a greener future as it cleans up an industrial dump and restores its pristine natural surroundings.

What was once a threat to human health, the environment and economic growth is now being reinvented as an eco-tourism hub, as part of a three-year United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) environmental project to remediate sites blighted by industrial pollution in the Western Balkans.

The ‘Brskovo’ mine in the municipality of Mojkovac operated for 25 years before it was abandoned in 1991, leaving an open dump with some 2 million cubic metres of contaminated mud and water. The remaining stagnant waste was full of chemical and heavy-metal leftovers from the refining process, called ‘tailings’, mixed with storm water and tons of untreated sewage from ruptured mains.

“It looked like a small artificial lake, but was called the ‘silent killer’ of the town,” said Borko Vulikic, UNDP Montenegro’s project coordinator for the Mojkovac site. “From years of breathing chemical dust, lots of people have contracted cancer and lung disease.”

Stretching across 45 acres from the town’s residential heart to the adjacent River Tara, the dump also threatened to spoil the area’s verdant natural landscape – known for its mountains and national parks that the Tara cuts through.

Seasonal floods twice nearly broke the protection dam holding back the toxic waste from the river, in what could have caused an international disaster taking waste as far as the Danube.

“The community was psychologically affected, and no one slept when there were floods,” said Vulikic. “The dump caused residents to leave, closed the small factories that were here, and scared away developers and investors.”

The UNDP-coordinated cleanup is helping to turn the page on that negative legacy, removing investment barriers and allowing the productive public use of the dump’s prime location.

After draining the water from the toxic pool, the project team stabilized the waste with lime, leaving solid turf on a synthetic base that has now been capped and will be topped with clean soil and grass. The local government says the cleanup has succeeded in making the area safe for visitors and residents, posing no threat now that the site has been stabilized and sealed.

To make the most of the reclaimed site, Mojkovac is planning to build a vast sports and recreation commons extending from both banks of the Tara, based on winning designs from an international competition.

Protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Tara River Canyon is the deepest and longest in Europe, as well as one of the cleanest, attracting droves of tourists whom Mojkovac is already starting to draw downriver.

Over the last two years, Mojkovac has successfully introduced kayaking to the Tara – its crowning touristic achievement that has brought a surge in visitors, economic opportunities, and a national award in 2010 for best practices in local development.

“We realized there was huge potential in Moykovic, but we had to change the way people thought about the area by promoting nature tourism,” said Vulikic. “When we started talking about kayaking and biking, we were considered dreamers, but after the first concrete changes and opportunities, now everyone has high hopes for tourism to become the main motor of development here.”

The cleanup also had a positive impact on the prospects for a healthier community, resulting in the construction of the first modern wastewater treatment plant in Montenegro, which began service in November 2009. The plant will provide sanitation to Mojkovac’s population until at least 2020, and much longer with some minor upgrades.

In 1991, the same year as the ‘Brskovo’ mine closed, Montenegro’s parliament declared the country an “ecological state”, reaffirming the shared right of its people to a healthy environment and calling for the prevention of ecological disasters.