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Divided mining complex oxidizes amid multiple truths

Jul 5, 2019

More than just a bridge on the Ibër River splits Mitrovica, Kosovo.

In South Mitrovica, the sky mixes with flags from Kosovo, the United States and Albania. People exchange euros for espresso and rakia, a strong brandy of the Balkans. Cars blow past street signs labeled in both Albanian and Serbian, though the street names have changed so many times that people tell taxi drivers to stop at landmarks instead of addresses.

Across the bridge to the north, drivers and passerby read only Cyrillic letters of the Serbian language on street signs, storefronts, food labels, anti-Kosovo graffiti and billboards thanking Russian President Vladimir Putin. People exchange Serbian dinars for coffee and plum brandy instead of euros. Russian and Serbian flags flap against the wind and hang from every building in the city center.

Now Trepça is as divided as the city whose economy it used to power, and this split has created multiple truths and segmented production.

Serbians in Kosovo have collected themselves into enclaves throughout the country. A barricaded bridge divides North Mitrovica and the rest of northern Kosovo, which has a high Serbian concentration, from South Mitrovica and below.

The Trepça/Trepča mining complex spans both sides of this divided city, and before 1999, the two sides of Trepça/Trepča worked together. Zveçan/Zvečan, near North Mitrovica, received all lead concentrate, while South Mitrovica received all zinc concentrate.

A new production line churns in the south Stan Terg/Stari Trg flotation facility in South Mitrovica, next to equipment that has collected dust since the 1980s. Lead and zinc rise up from the muck and are pulled apart to what sounds like a dozen high-powered washing machines revolving at once.

Standing water leaking from an unidentified source fails to evaporate from the bottom floor. Most of the equipment is broken, too old to be updated and too expensive to be upgraded.

Forty years ago, the sound was 2-3 times more intense.

Across the bridge into the north of what used to be the same city, a former zinc smelter facility rusts in the sun. Two security guards only shake their heads from behind the gate at anyone who approaches. The gate entrance is locked, and no one visits.

In the 1980s, the Trepça/Trepča mining complex was the jewel of the Yugoslavia socialist regime. Over forty mines produced lead and zinc concentrates in addition to other minerals, though it often failed to profit because of overexpansion.

According to Trepça/Trepča’s records, its profits didn’t reach $15 million in the 1980s. A report from the Kosovo Stability Initiative says the Yugoslav Federal Fund stimulated most of Trepça/Trepča’s growth. During the socialist regime, the same report says Trepça/Trepča received $5 billion in total from the United States through this fund.

The metallurgy and smelting plants now are neglected in North Mitrovica, Kosovo—or Serbia. The answer to the question, “Are we in Serbia or Kosovo?,” depends on who you talk to and what side you are on, though Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo as a country and covets the area for its historical and religious significance to Serbians and the national Orthodox Church religion.

In addition to Serbian Orthodox churches throughout Kosovo that are protected as UNESCO Heritage sites, Serbia also claims to own 75% of the Trepça/Trepča mines.

Naim Gashi, a Radio Television of Kosovo (RTK) board member and macroeconomics professor at the University of Mitrovica, said that Serbia seeks to extend the border of Serbia past Trepça/Trepča as part of peace talks with Kosovo.

“Serbia intends to take these mines under its ownership through border correction,” Gashi said. “Unfortunately, the idea of border correction is supported by the President of Kosovo, who no longer has civic support.”

For years, Kosovo operated as an autonomous province of Serbia with an ethnic Albanian and secular Muslim majority that Serbia treated as second-class citizens. This former underdog majority now runs Kosovo after surviving several rounds of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, which led then-U.S. president Bill Clinton to urge NATO to launch a bombing campaign against Serbian soldiers on March 24, 1999.

Today, the north Bello Bërdo/Belo Brdo mine and the south Stan Terg/Stari Trg mine both produce lead and zinc concentrate but operate at a fraction of their former capacities.

Lead concentrate is an early version of lead metal (found in materials like batteries and bullets) and lead alloys (used to harden products such as pipes and storage battery grids). Zinc concentrate is an early step before it becomes the almost final form of zinc, used to galvanize steel and make chemicals in addition to other uses.

According to Xhafer Peci, who is the manager of the Stan Terg/Stari Trg mine in the south, four of the mine’s 12 levels are in operation, though he hopes to build a 13th level if foreign investment kicks in.

Rarely does the Stan Terg/Stari Trg mine earn a profit. It faced nearly $4.8 million in 2015 losses. However, it generated $2 million (USD) in 2017 profits after offering up for sale its industrial waste—which is almost a misnomer because it is rich with valuable minerals, such as gold, silver, cadmium and bismuth, with uses that span multiple industries—via open tender.

The Stan Terg/Stari Trg mine in the south sells its concentrate to the highest bidder for an entire year. Mineco won the open tender in 2019 and is an international company with facilities in Serbia, Bosnia and Russia that specializes in base metal mining, commodities trading and the smelting and refining of metals. Mineco receives the Stan Terg/Stari Trg’s 600 tons of lead and zinc concentrate that 650 miners and flotation workers produce every month.

This concentrate is produced from 10,000 tons of unrefined ore that Stan Terg/Stari Trg mines every month. In 1987, the same facility mined a maximum of 700,000 tonnes per month according to Qazim Jashari, who managed the Stan Terg/Stari Trg mine during the Yugoslavia regime and is the current manager of the Stan Terg/Stari Trg flotation facility. This specific building separates lead and zinc concentrate from the rest of the ore using chemicals that cause lead and zinc to “float” to the top of the mixture.

Ore and concentrate production in the north is less certain, since Serbian northern managers were unable to respond fully to information requests. But a 2017 report by Audit & Conto, a private auditing and accounting firm, noted that the north mines employ just over one thousand total workers.

Rade Nedeljković is a retired Serbian miner who worked in the Stan Terg/Stari Trg, Bello Bërdo/Belo Brdo and Cërnac/Crnac mines between 1976 and 2017. According to him, only 30% of workers are fully employed at a time since 1999, and they rotate who gets shifts and full-time pay. Everyone else receives a pension of 11,000 Serbian dinars, which equals about $105 in U.S. dollars, from Belgrade, Serbia.

Nedeljković also said that the Bello Bërdo/Belo Brdo and Cërnac/Crnac mines in the north do not directly sell concentrate but sell unrefined lead and zinc ore abroad, primarily to Macedonia where another unknown company finishes refining the unfinished product.

Kemajl Zeqiri, who is chairman of the Independent Commission for Mining and Minerals (ICMM) of Kosovo, denies the former miner’s claim that the northern mines do not produce or sell lead and zinc concentrate.

Zeqiri maintains that there is no market demand for ore.

“From an economic point-of-view, who will buy?” Zeqiri said. “Who will pay for the transport of more than 90% waste?”

The 2017 Audit & Conto report also reiterated that the north mines sell “lead and zinc concentrates and a smaller amount of lead due to the impossibility of final processing, so two semi-products are considered finished products and treated as final.”

Danilo Rakovic, the Chief General of north Trepça/Trepča, was not available for comment. Jovan Dimkic, a manager in the north, was not available for comment. Ivan Kovacevic, an inspector from ICMM who is assigned to the Bello Bërdo/Belo Brdo and Cërnac/Crnac mines, was not available for comment.

ICMM, which inspects mining facilities for safety concerns and issues licenses to all mines including those in the north, regularly grants licenses to both mines for the production of lead and zinc concentrate.

Companies that exploit mineral resources receive a special tax on mineral royalties. An ICMM license normally comes with a 10% discount on taxes on the total sum of mineral royalties for concentrate, which is considered a sub-product. Trepça/Trepča, however, is exempt from paying this specific tax.

The northern mines also receive permission from the Kosovo Ministry of Economic Development to sell concentrate.

“For sure, the separation is different in the north part,” Zeqiri said. “But in terms of legislation, in terms of licensing process, it is one Trepça.”

ICMM oversees all of Trepça/Trepča, but Kosovo legislation does not always align with reality. Management of Trepça/Trepča is still divided between north and south Mitrovica.

A new supervisory board—within the Trepça/Trepča corporation—was established a year ago with the intention of installing nine total board members that oversee all of Trepça/Trepča, which is a public company. But the board still waits for three representatives to join from the north.

Ardian Syla is a Trepça/Trepča chairman on the supervisory board and says northern managers reach out when they don’t receive Kosovo government subsidies, when they experience bank account issues or when their exports are not approved.

“Only when they have some problems, major problems do we get in contact,” Syla said. “Otherwise, we don’t have an everyday cooperation or everyday contact.”

While Serbia and Kosovo squabble over the land, Stan Terg mine operators hope for foreign investment to kick in. It would require an approximate $150 million investment to transform Trepça/Trepča into a complex that resembles a more sustainable version of its former glory.

Until this money appears, most of Trepça/Trepča’s 40 mines and other facilities—from smelting and metallurgy to battery production—will continue to oxidize in silence.

(Chloe Murdock is a reporting intern with KosovaLive this summer, in collaboration with Miami University in the United States)