Environment: Where The Sky Stays Dark

The lifting of the Iron Curtain reveals the planet's most polluted region

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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."

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