Targeting Industrial Sites

Industrial sites have often been targeted in conflict, not only those directly connected to military production, such as sites manufacturing explosives but also petrochemical, mining or nuclear facilities. Even if not targeted directly, sites using or storing toxic industrial chemicals may be damaged or loss of power or oversight may lead to chemical releases. Conflict related insecurity can see sites and chemical stores abandoned or looted, placing communities and the environment at risk.

Case study: Panćevo, Serbia 1999
Smoke plume from fires caused by the bombing of the Pancevo oil refinery. Credit: UNEP

Smoke plume from fires caused by the bombing of the Pancevo oil refinery. Credit: UNEP

NATO’s air campaign in Serbia caused widespread damage to civilian infrastructure as well as to industrial sites that NATO argued were of critical importance to the Serbian military. One of the many sites targeted was Panćevo, which NATO claimed was dual civilian military use as it was involved in the production of explosives and fuels.

The Panćevo petrochemical complex near Belgrade included a fertiliser plant and oil refinery. Two airstrikes were carried out on the petrochemical and fertiliser plants and seven strikes were carried out on the oil refinery. They led to the release of 2100 tonnes of highly toxic ethylene dichloride and eight tonnes of metallic mercury. 460 tonnes of vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a precursor in plastics production, were burned, which released hydrochloric acid, carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The incident is also thought to have resulted in the release of phosgene gas.

In addition, 250 tonnes of liquid ammonia was released into a wastewater canal by staff as a precautionary measure, after it was feared that a direct strike on storage tanks would have devastated the site and surrounding area. The canal discharged into the river Danube and fish deaths were reported up to 30km away. It is thought that 80,000 tonnes of oil and oil products were also burned, releasing sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and PAHs into the atmosphere.

Panćevo had long been one of Serbia’s most polluted industrial installations and baseline data on pollution prior to the strikes was absent. Nevertheless, the decision by NATO to target Serbia’s industrial infrastructure had a limited effect on the outcome of the conflict while placing communities and the environment at serious risk from long-term pollution.

Key issues
  • History has demonstrated that short-term military gain has consistently superseded consideration of the potential public health and environmental impact of targeting industrial facilities, and aggressors may have little prior intelligence on the chemical hazards present on sites or the pollution control measures in place.
  • In spite of the serious risks of localised and transboundary harm, the weakness of international humanitarian law allows such sites to be targeted.
  • Serious consideration is needed on whether the deliberate targeting of industrial installations can ever be justified.
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