* Belgrade opening environment talks with EU
* Clean-up likely to extend beyond planned accession
* Cost will be heavy burden for years
By Aleksandar Vasovic
BOR, Serbia, May 30 For cattle in the Serbian
village of Slatina, drinking from the Borska Reka river is
likely to prove deadly.
A stream of yellow and brown sludge comprised largely of
toxic waste, the Borska Reka has for a century been a run-off
from a nearby copper mine and is one of Serbia's most polluted
It also symbolises the multi-billion-euro environmental
problem that heavily indebted Serbia must tackle in its next
phase of talks on joining the European Union.
The Borska Reka is so polluted with copper and other waste
from the RTB Bor mining and smelting complex that 60 percent of
the Bor municipality's arable soil is irreparably contaminated,
said Nebojsa Buzej, a local environmental activist.
"Cattle drop dead, chickens drop dead, nothing grows along
riverbanks, people in the area are dying from horrific cancers
and sudden heart attacks ... we cannot possibly enter the
European Union with such a river," he told Reuters.
Later this year, Belgrade and the EU plan to open talks on
Chapter 27, the area of membership negotiations which covers the
environment and climate change.
The cost of successful completion of these talks, according
to Serbian government data, is around 10 billion euros ($11
Serbia's government will have to find up to 8 billion euros,
or 8 percent of its gross domestic product, to comply with the
provisions of the chapter. Another 2.5 billion euros will be
made available from EU funds if it joins in 2020 as planned.
Some say Serbia cannot meet that deadline and the
environmental problems could delay membership. More likely,
government and EU officials say, Serbia will join and complete
the clean-up later. Either way, the cost will add substantially
to a debt burden that Serbia's 7 million people are already
struggling to carry.
Neighbouring Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, has asked
the bloc to extend its deadline for environmental recovery to
In February, Serbia adopted laws paving the way for Chapter
27 talks, including setting up a Green Fund that will be
operational in 2017 to help it meet the cost of the clean-up
from the state budget, said Stana Bozovic, state secretary at
the Ministry of Agriculture. The Fund would be financed partly
by environmental fees and taxes.
"In addition to that, the industrial sector, companies, will
have to invest another 1.3 billion euros (in cleaning up their
own facilities)," Bozovic told Reuters.
Serbia could borrow from official lenders such as
international development banks or seek to increase budget
revenues through the Green Fund, said Sasa Djogovic of the
Belgrade-based Institute for Market Research (IZIT).
It can also try to attract private investors as partners in
setting up recycling and waste treatment facilities. "If
authorities recognise the potential there, the country could
actually make good money," Djogovic said.
Bozovic said the government was negotiating deadlines with
companies for them to clean up waste and meet EU regulations.
"We could not set a fixed date for all (companies) because
in that case nearly 80 percent of them would have to be shut
down and that is something we want to avoid, hence time frames
and deadlines," she said.
In Bor, Blagoje Spaskovski, chief executive of the RTB Bor
copper complex, said a new smelter had greatly reduced air
pollution, but cleaning up the topsoil would remain an expensive
"The soil has been absorbing heavy metals during 110 years
of mining and smelting," he said.
Richard Masa, a senior member of the EU mission, said Serbia
would not comply in time for its planned accession and would
instead get a transition period likely to last until 2041 to
meet environmental requirements.
"This is expected by this Chapter ... Nobody is given an
easy ride (in negotiations)," Masa said.
But some in Belgrade say the size of the problem, coupled
with other accession issues, could delay Serbia's EU membership.
"The 2020 goal is ambitiously set and I cannot see EU
accession happening within the mandate of this government (that
ends in 2020)," Djogovic said. "Maybe the next government could
do it, provided there's enough EU appetite for enlargement."
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Giles Elgood/Ruth