Acid leak Trepca cannot be stopped

PRISTINA, Sep 15, 2000 -- (AFP) More than 130 soldiers and specialists have so far failed to stem the flow of sulphuric acid from a rundown battery factory into a river near Mitrovica, northern Kosovo, a UN spokesman said Thursday.

The acid has now been leaking from the factory for three days.

Frank Benjaminsen, press officer for the United Nations presence in the Yugoslav province, said a team of eight French civil protection workers arrived in Kosovo Wednesday night to try to deal with the problem.

But he added: "There is no way to stop the leak."

The tank from which the gas is leaking originally contained 600,000 liters (156,000 gallons) of sulphuric acid, said Benjaminsen.

On Wednesday afternoon only 200,000 liters remained, he added.

More than 130 soldiers from the multinational KFOR force and workers from UNMIK, the UN civilian administration, were working Thursday to try to neutralize the acid. Wearing protecting clothing, they were applying thousands of tonnes of lime.

Some of the non-neutralised acid had nevertheless escaped into the Sitnica river, and from there into the river Ibar, which runs through Mitrovica.

On Wednesday, the water in the Sitnica was found to have a pH level of two, said Benjaminsen. The pH scale measures the level of acidity or alkilinity in a liquid: drinkable water normally has a pH level of 7.4, but pH two is highly acidic.

The town's population has been advised not to drink water from the river nor go near it.

The battery plant is at the Trepca industrial estate, in the southern, ethnic Albanian majority part of Mitrovica, which has been divided since the aftermath of Kosovo's 1998-1999 civil war between Albanian and Serbian sectors.

The leak started on Tuesday. It happened just a day before a major exercise was due to start at the plant to prepare civilian and military emergency services to cope with any disaster in the ageing factory.

On August 14, the Zvecan lead smeltworks, also part of the Trepca complex, was seized by peacekeeping troops and shut down for repairs after lead levels 200 times the permitted safe maximum were measured in the town.

The smeltworks was only a kilometre north of Mitrovica.

Original article