Environment a Proud River Runs Red

The watch on the Rhine is for pollution

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Throughout history, the Rhine has been Western Europe's most vital river, serving as both a source of inspiration and a critical strategic and commercial byway. German Composer Richard Wagner used the river as the backdrop for his monumental operatic cycle, The Ring. Otto von Bismarck boasted that the stirring song Die Wacht am Rhein was worth three divisions to the German side in the Franco-Prussian War. Flowing 820 miles from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea, the river cuts a particularly handsome course through Germany, winding past vine-covered hills dotted with castles and plunging through a craggy gorge at St. Goarshausen. Legend claims that it is here the mythic nymph Lorelei lives, combing her golden hair and luring boatmen to their deaths with her siren song.

Last week the proud waters of Western Europe's great natural thoroughfare were contaminated, its legendary banks littered with thousands of dead fish, eels and waterfowl. The pollution was the result of a fire at Schweizerhalle, Switzerland, near Basel, in a warehouse that stored some 1,200 tons of deadly agricultural chemicals. Firemen attempting to put out the blaze accidentally washed some of the chemicals into the river, where they soon formed a 35-mile- long trail that moved downstream at 2 m.p.h. Before long, all four countries that share the river -- Switzerland, France, West Germany and the Netherlands -- were affected by the spreading scourge. By week's end it was clear that Western Europe was undergoing its worst ecological accident ever.

The disaster affected thousands of Europeans. Up and down the river, villagers who depend on the Rhine for drinking water were forced to get their supplies from fire trucks. In Germany, farmers from Karlsruhe to Dusseldorf scrambled to remove livestock from grazing pastures near the river. In Strasbourg, France, sheep that drank from the Rhine died. Police in Basel and other cities banned all fishing in the river and its tributaries until further notice.

Anger grew quickly as government officials and citizens criticized Swiss accident-prevention policies and Sandoz, the company that runs the plant where the accident occurred. In West Germany ex-Chancellor Willy Brandt recalled the deadly 1984 accident at a Union Carbide plant in India and extravagantly labeled the catastrophe "Sandoz-Bhopal."

The cause of the fire that precipitated the spill remains a mystery. While Sandoz hints at arson and others speculate that it might have been the work of terrorists, authorities are still searching for clues. The deadly effects of the Nov. 1 blaze, however, are frighteningly clear. Scientists estimate that up to 30 tons of chemicals went into the Rhine, including herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers as well as some 4,000 lbs. of toxic mercury.

For the residents of Basel the accident was a nighttime terror. It was just after 3 a.m. when civil-defense sirens sounded and police cars with loudspeakers began driving down streets, warning people to keep their windows shut. The admonitions, however, were only in German, the city's main language. "The Italians and Turks were all opening their windows to see what was going on," recalled Claudia Wittstich, a Basel art professor. When dawn broke, the city was cloaked in a cloud of sulfurous fumes. Chemical dyes swept into the river during the fire turned the Rhine red.

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