PODGORICA, Montenegro – Montenegro takes pride in its majestic Adriatic coastline and towering mountains rising from the sea, lined with rivers, streams and lakes. But the so-called Balkan Wild Beauty is now faced with the problem of waste disposal that is threatening both its natural wonders and its lucrative tourism industry.
Tons of hazardous and other waste is blemishing the spectacular scenery of Montenegro — a small country which declared itself an ecological state more than two decades ago — lying unprotected close to towns and villages, rivers and lakes, or newly-built luxurious sea resorts.
Like most Balkan countries in transition, Montenegro has done little over the past decades to deal with waste disposal and other environmental woes, allowing the problem to grow. As the country now seeks to join the European Union, it must deal with the issue to advance in its membership bid.
"We are far from being proud of our environmental situation," State Secretary for Environment Daliborka Pejovic said. "I am quite confident that the EU will not accept the countries which have unresolved problems with hazardous waste."
The problem is visible just outside the capital, Podgorica, where colonies of gulls and cormorants rest on the shores of two huge red mud basins of a fallen aluminum giant, which was once the pride of Socialist-era industry. The basins — along with thousands of tons of solid open-air waste — are located within the smelter complex, which is about 100 meters (330 feet) from Montenegro's main Moraca river, a tributary of the internationally renowned natural preserve of Skadar Lake.
Natasa Kovacevic, from local environmentalist group Green Home, said that the basins, which cover around 100 acres (40 hectares) with about 7 million tons of mud, are contaminated with hard metals and cyanide.
"We have at least five environmental black spots, along with some 350 identified and many more unidentified illegal dumps," Kovacevic said.
Down by the Adriatic coast, tons of hazardous grit have been piled in an old shipyard in Bijela within sight of Porto Montenegro, one of the biggest and most luxurious of all the yachting marinas on the Adriatic. The byproduct of ship-building can be used in road construction, but only after being processed at a waste facility — which doesn't exist in Montenegro, Kovacevic said.
She added that a better option for a small country like Montenegro — its population is just over 600,000 people — would be to export hazardous waste, rather than build a processing facility of its own.
Government official Pejovic acknowledged it would be "a long-lasting process."
Some citizens, such as 71-year-old Veselin Vujovic, are angry and skeptical.
"We are somewhere between an ecological state and an ecological catastrophe," Vujovic said.
Jovana Gec contributed to this report from Belgrade, Serbia.