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Environmental problems are explosive issue for East bloc

Outside Marcela Malikova's window, a black blanket lies suspended over the town. Stepping outside, she recoils from the stench. ``I worry so much about Filip,'' she says, pointing to her seven-month-old son. ``I can't even take him outside.''

Marcela's situation is all too common. Over the past two decades, pollution has turned much of Eastern Europe into an ecological disaster zone of dying forests, contaminated rivers, poisoned farmlands, and crumbling cities. This three-part series will examine how the environment has become an explosive political, economic, and social issue in all East-bloc countries.

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``Our environmental problems are not just simple environmental problems,'' explains Valtr Komarek, director of Czechoslovakia's respected Institute for Economic Forecasting. ``They show the bankruptcy of the traditional socialist model of industrialization.''

Not long ago, Eastern European officials dismissed pollution as a product of capitalism. Communism, they explained, eliminated the profit motive, the main cause behind industrial pollution, and as the owner of all factories, communist governments could impose uniform purity standards.

The truth turned out to be the exact opposite. High-sulfur brown coal, largely obsolete in the West, continues to be the primary energy source for the most heavily polluted countries - Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. East-bloc cars based on 1960s models lack antipollutant devices, and East-bloc agriculture relies on high-phosphate fertilizers.

A cramped geography aggravates these practices. Unlike the huge land masses of the United States or the Soviet Union, which can absorb much pollution, Eastern European countries are squeezed into a narrow, heavily populated corridor.

But the main culprit could be the communist system itself. A factory manager is judged on how much he increases production, not on how much he limits waste. Fines levied against polluters remain low, and, in any case, the government as the owner of all property ends up paying the penalties. For these reasons, it is in the manager's interest to dump anything and everything into the river and air in order to meet the plan.

``We thought we could eliminate pollution through central planning,'' says Peter Reminyi of the Hungarian Environmental Protection Office, ``only to find that central planning puts the plan above everything else.''

This emphasis on planning over people is illustrated in the northern Bohemian town of Most. In 1964, officials discovered that the town was sitting on a rich deposit of coal. To get at it, they made a logical, if extreme, decision. They knocked down the entire town.

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Not surprisingly, pollution problems mounted. Strip mining released clouds of sulfur water into the air and left a gaping kilometers-long hole next to the new apartments built to house displaced residents.

``We were so involved in building the new town that we didn't pay much attention to the environment,'' admits Frantisek Patek, President of Most's District Committee. ``When the snow started turning black in town, we knew we had to do something,'' he said.

Town authorities have instituted wartime-like conditions. Residents are advised to go every weekend to the countryside. Children are taken away for weeks to cleaner south Bohemia, and at the worst pollution times, schools are ordered to keep children inside and limit their physical exercise.

Throughout the countries of the East bloc, longer-term antipollution measures are finally being taken. Within the last decade, the East European countries have established environmental protection agencies, tightened up their environmental codes, and increased their spending on cleaning up the environment. Despite Hungary's severe economic difficulties, Mr. Reminyi says his agency's budget will increase by six fold under the country's new five-year plan.

Modest successes are visible. A decade ago, swimming was banned in Hungary's Lake Balaton, because of dangerous chemical waste from nearby farms. Now Reminyi says that the vacation spot's water is ``first class.''

Even in Most, residents and officials report some improvement. Thanks to a vigorous tree-planting program, the town's surrounding forests have stopped dying. Desulfurization equipment and air filters have been bought for municipal heating plants, and a program has been started to convert residential heating from coal to natural gas and to restore damaged buildings.

But ecological problems continue to mount. For every house restored in Most, many more deteriorate. Production remains the priority. Authorities are unwilling either to shut the coal mine or to promote energy savings by raising prices.

``Everything is being done too slowly,'' complains Frantisek Ruba, the 27-year-old founder of Brontosaurus, a youth ecological group in Most. The group's name, that of an extinct dinosaur, signals urgency. As Mr. Ruba explains, ``We better do something quick or we too will be extinct.''

Instead of moving fast on conservation, the East European countries are promoting nuclear power as the ``clean'' solution to their pollution woes.

All are engaged in crash construction programs based on Soviet technology. By the turn of the century, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Hungary hope nuclear fuel will satisfy about half of their energy needs. But as the nuclear accident at Chernobyl showed, Soviet-style reactors may themselves be environmental hazards.

Officials admit that additional safety measures taken since the nuclear accident have pushed up costs.

Even so, many East Europeans continue to worry that their reactors lack necessary safety equipment.

``By promoting nuclear power, we are substituting one danger for another,'' says Janos Vargha, leader of the Danube Blue, an independent Hungarian ecology group. ``We don't even have the proper devices to measure radioactive emissions.''

In the end, many environmental experts agree that Eastern Europe faces a stark choice. Either the region's communist regimes must change the way their economies are run and commit a larger share of their resources to environmental protection or those regimes will find their countries suffocated by pollution.

The trade-off admittedly will be difficult to accept, either politically or economically. It means nothing less than a decrease in productivity, price rises, even a perceptible decline in the material living standards of populations.

So far, the authorities may not have taken the really tough decisions. But Marcela Malikova has.

``We're moving'' to a cleaner town, she announces. ``This place is not safe for families with children.''

First in a three-part series. Next: The role of citizens.

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