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Environment: Where The Sky Stays Dark

6 minute read
Frederick Painton

Officially, the ravages of pollution in Eastern Europe were classified information, Communism’s dirtiest secret. For more than 40 years, as the devastation mounted, only a few officials kept track of the toll. The people could see, smell and sometimes choke on contaminated air and water. They could watch the grime accumulate on their homes and see the vegetation die. But they could not speak about it or protest too loudly, lest they be harassed as dangerous dissidents.

Only now, as democratic revolutions take hold, is the full extent of Eastern Europe’s stunning ecological disaster emerging. Flying over Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany on an otherwise clear day, one can see whole valleys enveloped in a heavy blue haze from the belching smokestacks that disfigure the landscape. Littered across the East bloc, obsolete and unsafe nuclear reactors are decaying, each threatening a reprise of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. The Danube River and Baltic Sea are deadly sumps. Many lakes and streams are fishless, forests are dying, and blackened cities are decorated with pollution-eroded sculpture.

The pervasive grime does more than degrade the quality of life; it cripples and shortens the lives of human beings. Illnesses traceable to pollution consume more than 13% of Hungary’s health budget; at least 1 out of 17 Hungarian deaths stems from environmental causes. Around the East German industrial center of Leipzig, life expectancy is six years less than the national average. In the nearby town of Espenhain, 4 out of 5 children develop chronic bronchitis or heart ailments by the age of seven. Children in northern Bohemia, the heart of Czechoslovakia’s industrial region, are taken out of the area for up to a month each year as a health measure.

A major source of the pollution is the relentless burning of soft, brown high-sulfur coal, called lignite, which is the basic fuel of the East bloc. On cold winter days in Leipzig, the yellow-brown smog emitted by coal-fired power plants is so thick that drivers are forced to turn on their headlights during the day. In the triangle comprising southern Poland and northern Czechoslovakia, which is covered by a permanent cloud of emissions from factories and power plants, residents complain that the air is so bad that washed clothes turn dirty before they can dry on the line. For miles around the notorious Romanian “black town” of Copsa Mica, the trees and grass are so stained by soot that they look as if they have been soaked in ink. “Even horses can stay here for only a couple of years,” says Dr. Alexandru Balin, who works in a local occupational-health clinic. “Then they have to be taken away, or else they will die.”

Smoke from burning coal and car exhausts contains carbon monoxide, a host of carcinogens and sulfur dioxide, which helps form the acid rain that is withering Europe’s once lush forests. In Poland more than 50,600 hectares (125,000 acres) of woodland have been destroyed, and nearly half the remaining trees are damaged. More than 32,400 hectares (80,000 acres) of Czechoslovakia’s forests have been lost.

Eastern Europe’s majestic waterways, fouled by sewage, toxic chemicals and acid rain, are in no better shape. Fish catches in the Baltic Sea, long a dumping ground for industrial wastes from Poland, East Germany and Lithuania, are declining dramatically, and summer bathing is in jeopardy. The Vistula River, which runs through Poland, is so laden with poisons and corrosive chemicals that stretches are considered unusable for factory coolant systems, much less for drinking water. The Danube is endangered at every turning by runoff from nitrogen-rich agricultural fertilizers and by the industrial plants that discharge along its banks, from West Germany, where it rises, to Romania, where it pours into the Black Sea.

Among the more ominous environmental threats is the possibility of accidents at the two dozen Soviet-built nuclear plants in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria and Hungary. Last January the East German government acknowledged that in late 1975 a network of cables caught fire at its Greifswald complex on the Baltic Sea and nearly caused a reactor meltdown. Though a disaster was averted, the country is considering major cuts in its nuclear-energy output. In Poland’s Baltic ports, dockers refuse to handle Soviet-made parts for the country’s first nuclear power station, which has been under construction for a decade. It is doubtful that the project will ever be completed.

Not all of Eastern Europe’s pollution is self-generated. Since 1975, East Germany has earned about $600 million in foreign exchange by serving as a landfill for Western Europe, which has major pollution problems of its own. Every day hundreds of garbage-laden trucks cross the border from West Germany and West Berlin to dump their loads. Last year they delivered 5.5 million tons of household and construction rubbish — plus an additional 65,000 tons of garbage that contained dangerous substances. Smaller amounts of trash came from the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland.

One consequence is that in Ketzin, 20 km (12 miles) from Berlin, a 56- hectare (140-acre) pile of imported rubbish threatens to poison the groundwater. In January, after the city’s angry citizens discovered the source of the heap, they held a protest with banners proclaiming EAST GERMANY IS NOT TO BECOME EUROPE’S TOILET. After the demonstration, East Germany’s Environment Minister banned toxic-waste imports to Ketzin.

While East Europeans recognize their pollution peril, the effort to clean up the environment will inevitably clash with their desire to boost consumption of food and manufactured products. The revolutions against Communism were in part a reaction to a system that could not deliver the goods. The Paris-based International Energy Agency estimates that energy consumption in the region will rise 40% by 2005, as countries try to rev up production. Observes Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki: “People are impatient with the lack of commodities. They expect quick results from us.”

The Lenin Steel Mill, on the outskirts of Krakow in southern Poland, is a classic example of the dilemma. Yellowish-brown smoke from the mill’s grimy chimneys falls as corrosive dust or acid rain on the city’s ancient center. Sandstone statues and figurines are melting away. “We have done more damage to Krakow in 40 years of Communist rule than in the previous six centuries,” says Jerzy Sawicki, secretary of the Polish Ecological Club, one of many groups working to save the city. One way to curb the pollution would be to cut sharply the plant’s production. But even Solidarity, the trade union that led Poland’s struggle for democracy, balks at the idea.

Eastern Europe cannot hope to scrub itself clean without assistance from the West. A study by the West German Institute for Economic Research estimates that $200 billion would be needed over the next two decades just to deal with industrial pollution. West Germany plans to allocate some $500 million to clean up East Germany, and Sweden has approved $45 million for Poland. Such grants are not mere charity. Since nature erects no barriers across the air, land or water, the West knows that the heavy pollution to the East casts a grim shadow over the entire continent.


CREDIT: TIME Chart S. Hart


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