Official analysis confirms pollution with heavy metals in Koroška

Ljubljana/Mežica, 30 August - An official analysis has confirmed excessive levels of heavy metals, especially lead, in the soil in the Meža Valley after the northern region of Koroška was hit by catastrophic floods in early August, officials told the press on Wednesday after a resident posted on social media similar results of tests he commissioned himself.

Post-flood devastation.
Photo: Boštjan Podlogar/STA
File photo

The official analysis of flood silt in the upper Meža Valley, between Črna na Koroškem and Dravograd, was conducted by the Jožef Stefan Institute.

In the 11 samples of the silt and mud deposited by the Meža River the acceptable levels of potentially toxic elements, including zinc, cadmium and lead, which are present in the Meža Valley because of a lead and zinc mine, which was closed in the early 1990s, have been exceeded, Tea Zuliani from the institute said.

Janja Turšič from the Environment Agency said the results showed really high contents of lead, cadmium and zinc in the soil. In all of the samples lead levels in particular exceeded the critical level.

Data from samples taken in the upper Meža Valley in recent years showed that the soil in the area had been contaminated with lead in the past, as well as cadmium and zinc. However, the results of the latest analysis suggest that this material has moved downstream. In fact, the soil along the Meža River has very similar concentrations of these metals as the samples taken after the floods at the beginning of August, Turšič said.

"These results are not surprising," said Ivan Eržen, head of the National Institute of Public Health (NIJZ). More than 20 years ago, a study was carried out to determine the impact of the environment on the health of the population, which found that the impact was significant, especially in young children, who are very sensitive and are still developing. At the time, almost 80% of the children who took part in the study were found to have excess levels of lead in their blood.

Subsequently, a programme was launched to address this issue, including efforts to reduce people's exposure and intake of lead. In the 15 years of the programme, significant improvements were recorded.

The NIJZ is striving to continue this programme as part of the post-flood efforts. Immediately after the floods, people were urged to protect and wash their hands when dealing with the silt or mud. They were also urged to sprinkle surfaces with water to avoid dusting and close their windows. Children were banned from helping with the clean-up.

The Agriculture Institute advises that all crops affected by flooding be thrown away, Eržen said.

Tanja Bolte, head of the environment directorate at the Environment Ministry, said that activities regarding a new programme of measures to address the pollution issue in the upper Meža Valley were already under way. Probably the programme will need to be expanded to include not only Mežica, Črna and Žerjav but all other municipalities as well.

When the area is cleaned, an analysis will be conducted and measures prepared, she said.

Head of the Environment and Energy Inspectorate Mirana Omerzu also confirmed media reports that the floods exposed another environmentally-problematic practice from the past - empty car battery cases buried into the riverbank of the Meža in the town of Mežica.

The inspectorate launched a procedure against battery producer TAB Mežica over this, she said. The company said that these were empty car battery cases that had been produced for a foreign company around 1980 and thrown away for not meeting the quality standards. The broken plastic battery cases were dumped there 40 or 45 years ago, the inspectors found.

Omerzu said measures would be taken in line with the law after a full investigation.

TAB CEO Roman Burja said today that the group's production facilities in Žerjav and Črna were not functioning due to maintenance work when the floods hit at the beginning of the month. No leakages have been detected, he said.

However, the company's warehouse of car batteries in Šentjanž was flooded and a large number of battery cases were seen floating in the Drava. Burja asserted these too were empty battery cases.

Commenting on the excessive levels of heavy metals found in the Meža Valley, he said that the valley had more than 350-year mining history, so it was difficult to point a finger at just one stakeholder. "We know there were several deposit sites in the valley and it is difficult to say exactly which caused the contamination."

Samples of the sediments, mud and soil have also been taken in other areas affected by the recent floods, including along the Kamniška Bistrica, Sora, Gradaščica, Sava, Krka, Mura, Drava and Savinja rivers. The results are expected to be in next week, Turšič said.

© STA, 2023