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Word Is Out: East Europe Is A Disaster Area

NOW that the communists have been swept from power throughout Eastern Europe, information about the ecological problems here is becoming known: Wind surfers at Lake Nechranicka in western Czechoslovakia call their vacation spot ``Chimney Lake'' because of the view of smokestacks from the water.

In the central Romanian town of Copsa Mica, soot spewed from two big factories has covered the landscape with a black layer of grime for about 15 miles around.

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One-fifth of the water in East Germany is considered by authorities too polluted to be used and one third of all animal and plant life there is considered to be in danger of extinction.

Along the mountains that straddle the borders of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland, acid rain has reduced thousands of acres of once-proud forests into a blasted desert of shattered stumps and broken branches.

Without exception, the countries of Eastern Europe are reaping the bitter harvest of 40 years of communist policy that pushed heavy industry at the cost of environmental protection.

A broad swath of territory stretching from East Germany through northern Czechoslovakia into Poland and Romania is an ecological disaster area. Forests have been decimated by acid rain, open-pit mines scar the landscape, water and soil are poisoned, acrid smog hangs heavy in the air much of the year, and life expectancy is 15 years lower than elsewhere in the region.

In many cases, factories were built for political reasons in unsuitable places, such as in natural beauty spots, near historic towns, or on farmland.

``It's a typical example of communism without a human face,'' says Jaromir Benes, an archaeologist in Most, a Czech town in the heart of the ``grime belt'' near the border with East Germany.

Western sources say that while East European countries produce about one third of Europe's gross domestic product, they produce about two thirds of the continent's sulphur dioxide, the main ingredient of acid rain and smog.

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According to West German studies, it will take at least $200 billion and 20 years' work to bring East European industry up to Western environmental standards - without dealing with the pollution damage that already exists.

The environment is becoming a key issue in the new, noncommunist political scene.

In Czechoslovakia, overall the worst affected country, President Vaclav Havel has made environmental protection a top priority of his government. A recent poll here showed that more than 40 percent of the population would be willing to accept a cut in living standards to finance ecological action.

Virtually all the political parties here - including the communists - include strong ecological planks in their platforms. At least 10 percent of the population is believed to support the fledgling Green Party.

A document prepared by Civic Forum, the umbrella political organization formed by Mr. Havel and others who led the anti-communist revolution last fall, said that ``on the average, 25 metric tons of pollutants fall every year on every square kilometer of our territory, while in Sweden it is only 0.6 tons. For this reason, too, we rank among those countries in Europe with the highest mortality rate, including deaths caused by cancer. ...

``More than 30 percent of our territory, including our capital [Prague], is ecologically devastated,'' the document said. Last November, an official report concluded that nearly 60 percent of forests in the Czech lands and Moravia (central and western regions) were damaged, and over 20 percent in Slovakia.

The town of Most, at the edge of the Erzgebirge Mountains, is a symbol of the tragedy of the entire region. The town is sited on top of a vast basin of lignite, a low-quality coal used all over Eastern Europe to fuel factories and heat homes.

Widespread use of lignite, which has high sulphur and ash content and low heating efficiency, is one of the prime causes of air pollution. The coal is mined in huge pits stretching for miles that have created a surrealistic, devastated landscape reminiscent of the scenes of hell in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch.

``They call it a lunar landscape, but on the moon there is no pollution,'' comments Egor Kratochvil, a former dissident who now is Czechoslovak ambassador to Norway.

Since World War II, according to local sources, the lignite mines of northern Bohemia have swallowed up about 150 towns and villages - among them old Most itself, which was demolished in the 1970s.

Where once stood a Gothic town dating back to the 13th century, there now stretches a huge open-pit mine. The local population was moved to a newly built town nearby consisting mostly of drab apartment blocks. Only one building from the old town was saved: At considerable expense, a 16th-century church was transported half a mile from its original position, steeple and all, and now stands next to a factory alongside the pit.

Surrounding Most - besides the mines - is an industrial belt of power plants, chemical plants, refineries, and glass factories. It's an area where air pollution was first recorded over 100 years ago, and where virtually all industry uses outdated, polluting equipment.

Air pollution is so bad that the local branch of the Green Party supports the use of nuclear power as a cleaner alternative.

Towns in the region - including the once-fashionable spa of Teplice - often sound ``smog alerts'' in fall and winter when the thick, orange-gray smog is so thick at times that local authorities close schools and tell people to stay home except to go to work.

``As soon as there is a smog alert, I send my family away to southern Bohemia,'' says Jaromir Benes. ``It is very depressing to live here. There is danger for both one's health and one's spirit.''

Adds Kateryna Susitska, a worker at the Civic Forum office in Most, ``People who work here get higher salaries than elsewhere in the country, and are given an annual bonus of 2,000 crowns [about $100]. We call it `burial money.'''

The pollution problems do not respect national borders, but so far there has been little international cooperation aimed at solving them. Under communism, criticism and complaints created friction between East bloc countries that to some extent still exists.

With prevailing winds coming from the west, the Czechs say that 50 percent of their acid rain is blown in from East Germany.

The Poles - whose industrial region in the south around Katowice is one of the worst-polluted regions, and whose communist authorities in the 1950s had the lack of foresight to build a huge steel works next door to the ancient city of Krakow - put up loud complaints about Czech plans to build a coke-making plant just over the border.

A dispute between Czechoslovakia and Hungary - where the ecology movement took off earlier than here - over a Danube River dam and hydroelectric power plant project has raged for years.

Solving the problems will take enormous effort and financial resources.

So far, East and West Germany have initiated a three-year cleanup plan and Sweden has promised Poland $45 million in environmental aid over the coming three years.

Experts say the first priority will be to ensure that new industrial development adheres to high ecological standards. The antiquated factories and coal-burning power plants that sprawl across the ``grime belt'' will have to be shut down or modernized.

This will undoubtedly create problems, particularly for the tens of thousands of workers who may end up out of jobs. The jobless would include not only miners and factory workers in the area itself, but also those in factories that depend on lignite.

Despite these enormous problems there is a sense of cautious optimism in Czechoslovakia that there will be improvements. ``Look at London,'' says Jaroslava Moserova, vice president of the Czech national council. ``It was horribly polluted with smog, but intensive operations have cleaned it up. It can be done.''

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