Five years after taking over a steel mill in central Serbia, residents of Radinac town are calling for the facility to be shut down due to the dust contaminant it releases. 

The facility, Smedrevo, emits fumes of red-hued smoke that leave the municipality covered in dust described as “greasy” and troubling residents’ daily lives.

The emission was so bad that the people of Radinac now cannot dry their laundry outdoors and need to use vinegar to cleanse the reddish stain from the dust, 70-year-old resident Zoran told Reuters.

“Water cannot wash it off,” said Zoran, who is struggling with throat cancer. “We do not go out. We do not dare.”

The pollutant was not good for local health either.

“The air in the town is far below European standards for 120 days per year,” said Nikola Krstic, head of the environmental group Tvrdjava (The Fort). “Red dust is greasy, it sticks to lungs, makes breathing difficult.”

Krstic said an analysis of the red dust in September showed a high concentration of heavy metals.

The mill was taken over by Chinese steelmaker Hesteel in 2016 for $53 million as it was on the verge of bankruptcy. According to the Associated Press, the transaction was part of what Serbian officials praised as a “steel friendship” between both nations despite warnings from environmentalists about how Chinese-owned companies manage green standards.

Data from a local health body revealed that cancer rates between 2011 and 2019 increased significantly, quadrupling from 1,738 to 6,866 cases. Radinac township hosts only around 100,000 people.

The plant’s manager for environmental protection denied that the cancer rates could be linked to the dust, suggesting other factors such as NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999. Nonetheless, she reassured the pollution will reduce as soon as next year when the construction of three other plants is finished. 

“We are all citizens of Smederevo. … Would we be working despite pollution, against ourselves and our children?” the manager defended.

Being a European Union candidate, China sees Serbia as a desirable target to facilitate its Belt and Road economic and political initiative. As a result, the AP reported that the communist regime has tried to strengthen its influence on the country by offering investments and exports of its military equipment.

As glamorous as the offers are, critics said the plant deals with Chinese-owned companies are usually untrustworthy with opaque tenders or cost details, outside of environmental issues.

According to Reuters, some Serbian officials have grown frustrated with these companies’ reckless attitudes toward green standards.

“Not only must polluters be fined, … if they cannot reduce pollution … they must halt operations,” said Zorana Mihajlovic, Serbia’s mining, and energy minister.

The outlet noted Belgrade has grounds to demand responsibility from the Chinese–operated firms over the pollution they cause.

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