Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

East Europeans take up the chorus against supposed damage from acid rain

In Eastern Europe, as well as in Austria and West Germany, concern over the effects of acid rain is mounting. A few examples:

* Polish officials fear ''ecological disaster,'' saying 3 out of 4 Poles already live in a gravely polluted atmosphere.

About these ads

* Forests in Central Europe's Alpine range face annual losses of 1 to 2 million acres from acid rain, according to environmentalists.

* Two of Europe's last primeval wetland habitats of rare flora and fauna are endangered by the construction of power plants on the Danube, downriver from Vienna.

* Vast conifer areas in northern Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) are ''to all intents and purposes already dead,'' an environmentalist says.

* Chamois, a type of antelope living in Slovakia's Tatra Mountains, have been reduced to a third of their number in only two years.

* The pollution problem has been brought to Vienna's doorstep by the fading beauty of the Ring, the famous tree-lined Ringstrasse with which Emperor Franz Josef girdled t+G inner city eVPis urban beautification.

The Ring - always a supreme attraction for strolling in springtime or amid the tints of autumn - is losing almost half its 70,000 trees to blight already. Last year a million acres of Austria's forest were denuded by acid rain, environmentalists say. However, scientists are beginning to think the demise of forests is not caused by just acid rain, which is created by industrial outpourings of sulfur dioxide.

Austria's domestic industry emits 230,000 tons of sulfur dioxide annually. Another 660,000 tons are ''imported'' from neighbors.

About these ads

A massive environmental campaign against the construction of a power plant at Hainburg, east of Vienna, has prompted the government to appropriate $130 million in its 1984 budget for immediate and future ecological protection.

Specifically threatened by the Hainburg project is a forest that means almost as much to Austrians as their fabled Wienerwald (Vienna woods). It is the so-called Auwald, a region of creeks that delight canoe aficionados and of wooded islets that shelter storks, spoonbills, kingfishers, kites, and rare and threatened flora and fauna.

A few months ago, Britain's Oxford and Cambridge crews rowed in a boat race from Vienna to Hainburg to publicize the campaign to save the region. Austrians in tens of thousands are signing petitions.

Protesters admit that diverting the Danube River for the power plant will affect only part of the Auwald, but they are skeptical of government plans for artificial water systems. Such systems, they say, cannot compensate for life-preserving natural flooding.

Another environmentalist argument against the plant is that 80 percent of Austria's Danube potential is already harnessed. And the latest installation has not yet been put into operation because demand declined.

So the Hainburg plant, they insist, is not needed. Moreover, unusually low water levels farther down the Danube have greatly reduced the operation of the Iron Gates plant for months - so much, in fact, that Romania and Yugoslavia, which built the plant, are both plagued by acute power cuts.

Last week, Vienna's daily Kurier produced an alternative plan to move the proposed power plant some miles to the east of Hainburg. It would, the newspaper claimed, permit an undisturbed Auwald to be linked with existing protected areas , thus creating perhaps the biggest national park in Europe.

Similar environmental protests are heard in Hungary, which is working with Czechoslovakia on a power project at Bratislava, the Slovak capital, just beyond Hainburg. Again, a riverside of rare natural beauty is being threatened.

This project is part of a postwar plan to bypass the Danube shallows between Bratislava and Budapest so that bigger vessels might sail all the way from the Black Sea through the heart of Europe to the North Sea. But one crucial part of the route - the Rhine Main-Danube section in West Germany - is still far from finished.

After years of delay, Hungary and Czechoslovakia recently agreed to resume the construction of the Bratislava power plant. But there is still little enthusiasm for it in Hungary, which apparently feels that money can be better spent on plants generated by coal and oil.

In developing countries, trees are cut by the poor and hungry for heat and cooking. In Europe, however, many say that forests are being destroyed by the chemical ravages of often impetuous development.

In both Germanys, vast wooded regions are already lost or under threat. West German foresters recently warned that already 25 percent of all trees are diseased, and that future damage may cost $500 million a year.

Austrian forest experts say a third of all trees in the Alps are now infected. In Eastern Europe, a major cause of deforestation is the cost of and technological lag in pollution prevention.

Development, said Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski recently, has taken ''a huge loan from nature.'' Too often, he said, governments had bragged about the ''conquest of nature'' regardless of its ecological costs.

''It is sad,'' he said, ''that so much emphasis was put on lofty imponderables and so little on down-to-earth tangible manifestations of concern, love, and respect for nature, for the land . . . which, after all, is all we have.''

In Czechoslovakia, the forests in northern Bohemia are being ravaged rapidly by mining and agriculture. The continuous intensification of strip mining of low-grade brown coal for power and domestic heating purposes and the increasing chemicalization of agriculture are taking their toll. In this region, too, were spas such as the one at Karlovy Vary, popular among the European nobility in the 19th century. These spas were turned over to industrial use after World War II.

Now, says a Czech friend recently there, ''You cannot breathe the air any more at Karlovy Vary. It stinks!''

In Western Europe, the environmental threat is no less serious. But public opinion can apply some brake.

The Prague government instituted protection laws with heavy fines on polluting enterprises. But such is the obsession with production and pressure on managements to fulfill and overfulfill the economic plan, that they often budget in advance to cover anticipated pollution penalties, and do nothing about protecting the environment.

East European tourism adds to the problem. Because it is a prime source of Western hard currency, hunters with hard currency may be allowed to bag a stag or a bison in Poland or a chamois in Slovakia, though all are registered as threatened species.

For the same reasons, tourists in cars and buses are allowed to pollute the air with exhaust fumes and make noise that exceeds legal decibel limits in supposedly protected regions such as Slovakia's High Tatra Mountains.

A Vienna newspaper recently conducted an opinion poll that revealed that Austrians, although as keen as other people on modern living, still put their environment second only to concern for jobs.

East Europeans, just as environmentally minded, don't, unhappily, get that sort of opportunity.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.