Chinese-owned steel mill coats Serbian town in dust

A few hundred meters from the huge furnaces of the Smederevo steel mill in central Serbia, the village of Radinac is covered in thick red dust.

Cancer rates here have quadrupled in under a decade, and residents want the Chinese-owned plant to either clean up or shut down.

Seventy year-old Zoran, a throat cancer patient who speaks with a voice prosthesis, said locals dry their laundry indoors and use vinegar to clean the dust from their cars.

“Everything is indoors. We are not going out, we do not dare because of the dust and pollution. We are breathing in all of that."

According to the local public health body, the municipality of around 100,000 people reported more than 6,800 cancer cases in 2019, up from just over 1,700 in 2011.

The plant was bought from the Serbian state for 46 million euros ($53 million) five years ago by China’s biggest steelmaker, Hesteel.

The company reject claims cancer rates are directly associated to the plant and say they have invested 300 million euros into technology and pollution reduction since the purchase.

Yet activists contend the steel mill is an example of Chinese-owned industrial firms ignoring pollution standards.

Campaigner Nikola Krstic said analysis of the red dust showed high concentration of heavy metals.

"I think that it is beyond comprehension that in 2021 we have to discuss the dust which is falling on our heads, black dust, red dust, which is greasy, which sticks to lungs, which makes breathing difficult, that we have to speak about slag, which is deposited wherever they find it convenient, to speak about air, which can be smelled and tasted, about people who have to dry their laundry in glasshouses, who have to wash crops before using them."

Serbia, a long standing candidate for EU admission with an uneasy relationship to the West, has forged close ties to Beijing with China investing billions of euros into the country’s infrastructure projects over recent years.

Serbia’s Mining an Energy Minister Zorana Mihajlovic told Reuters that if companies “cannot reduce pollution” they “must be fined” or “must halt operations”.

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