THE ENVIRONMENT

A TERRIBLE PRICE

Neglect in East Germany is poisoning the heart of a continent

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 17 1990
THE ENVIRONMENT

A TERRIBLE PRICE

Neglect in East Germany is poisoning the heart of a continent

ANDREW PHILLIPS September 17 1990

A TERRIBLE PRICE

THE ENVIRONMENT

Neglect in East Germany is poisoning the heart of a continent

In the middle of a scrabbly field between the East German towns of Bitterfeld and Wolfen, water rushes along two shallow canals towards the muddy Mulde River. As the late-afternoon sun glints off the surface of the water, it momentarily reveals a pattern of otherworldly colors: dark reds, fluorescent yellows and sparkling blues. The effect might almost be beautiful—but the penetrating chemical stink that rises up and grips the throat sends out a different message. The placid canals are draining the effluent from some of the worst-polluting industries in Europe, and the sinister rainbow is just the visible sign that tons of deadly chemical waste are still being poured into the poisoned heart of a continent.

East Germany was once the industrial pride of the socialist world. Its planners pushed the idea that big is beautiful: ever-higher smokestacks, ever-larger steel mills and ever-expanding production. The relentless drive to produce made the country richer than any of the other once-Communist nations, but at a terrible price. East Germany is one of the most polluted countries in Europe—and nowhere is it more contaminated than in the Bitterfeld-

Wolfen region, 120 km southwest of Berlin. By a uniquely unlucky combination of circumstances, the 75,000 people who live in the two small cities five kilometres apart are surrounded by some of the worst-polluting enterprises in the country: East Germany’s biggest complex of chemical works, a sprawling film factory and vast open-pit coal mines. Reiner Kleber, a surgeon and environmental activist in Bitterfeld, suggests half seriously that the only solution to the area’s problems may be a radical one. “Pave it over and start again,” he jokes. Such black humor is inspired by Bitterfeld’s nightmarish litany of woes. It begins in the air, with the dust and sulphur dioxide produced by mining and burning the soft brown coal that fuels the industries and heats the homes of East Germans. The black dust forms a crust on cars and houses, while the sulphur fumes eat away at the redbrick buildings. Levels of both pollutants are 15 times greater than the already high average for the rest of East Germany. The result is a kind of darkness at noon. During the long winters, say local people, the sun rarely breaks through the grey-brown haze that hangs over the town.

But while the filth in the air is most visible, even more damage is being caused below the ground. Long before the Second World War, the area was the centre of Germany’s chemical industry, and its poisonous byproducts were disposed of with few controls. And even though West Germany imposed strict limits on dumping by the 1960s, the Communist East did not. For another quarter-century, industry buried its wastes in unmarked dumps and poured toxic byproducts into canals and rivers. Since last December, after East Germany’s democratic revolution, environmentalists have been trying to catalogue the damage. Günter Eckstein, director of the area’s badly overworked environmental protection department, says his staff has located 90 toxic dumps so far. “There are probably hundreds of others,” he says wearily. “No one knows for sure.”

In fact, while authorities agree that the area’s problems are severe, none can say with confidence just how bad they are. East Germany did not have the type of sophisticated pollution-monitoring equipment manufactured in the West. And the political climate strongly discouraged active investigation of the problern. Eberhart Strauber has been head of environmental protection for the giant ORWO film factory in Wolfen for 13 years. In the early 1980s, he recalls, his staff prepared a lengthy study of the plant, along with recommendations for cleaning up the worst sources of pollution, and sent it to government planners in East Berlin. “We were told almost immediately to destroy all the copies,” Strauber says now.

“It would have cost too much and slowed down production.

Everything was produce, produce, produce—and to hell with the rest.”

Despite a shortage of reliable studies, however, there is little doubt that high levels of pollution have harmed the health of local people. Reiner Kleber, the Bitterfeld doctor, says that many children suffer from chronic bronchitis, skin rashes and other complaints directly related to dirty air and water. “If they are sent away for a few weeks to somewhere clean, they start to improve right away,” he said during a break in his rounds at the local hospital. “But bring them back here for a couple of months, and they’re as bad as before.” As a result, all children in the area are now sent away to a seaside or forest camp for at least four weeks a year to let them breathe clean air. But even that may not reverse all the damage. Kleber's surveys have shown that Bitterfeld’s children tend to be shorter than the East German average by about half an inch. “It

is becoming an area of old people,” he says. “The young want to leave; they don’t want to raise their kids here.”

Faced with such problems, officials in Bitterfeld and Wolfen confess that they feel almost helpless. In the short run, they say, all they can do is to close the worst-polluting factories and

cut back on coal mining. The plants already shut down include a cellulose factory that poured 20 tons a day of waste organic material into a disused mine pit—resulting in a halfmile-long, shimmering pool of stagnant, stinking liquid known locally as “Silver Lake.” But

closing factories cannot be the only solution. The chemical complex and coal mines provide 40,000 jobs in the area, and most workers are unwilling to join the unemployment lines in the cause of a clean environment. Says Günter Eckstein: “They know we have an ecological disaster on our hands—but no one is prepared to exchange it for an economic disaster.”

Still, there is some hope. West Germany has pledged about $700 million to help East Germany clean up its environment, and the treaty between the two countries that went into effect on July 1 aims to bring Eastern industry up to Western ecological standards by the year 2000. Already, the East German government has set up a commission, along with Western experts, to study the Bitterfeld-Wolfen area and draw up plans for its revival. In his office in Wolfen, Eckstein ticks off what is needed: modem pollution-testing equipment; scrubbers to clean

smokestack emissions; devices to extract the most potent pollutants, such as mercury, from water before it is dumped; and much more. But what the area really needs, he concedes, is to replace its filthy industries with entirely new factories. And that could well be beyond the financial means of ev^n West Germany for a generation or more.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Bitterfeld