West Pays Price for Dumping on East. TOXIC MOUNTAIN
L"UBECK, WEST GERMANY
EVERY day, hundreds of trucks rumble over this border crossing into East Germany. Their destination: Europe's largest hazardous waste dump - just across the border. ``It's up to the East Germans how they use their land,'' says one West German who lives nearby. ``But it's a trick - a very clever trick.''
The sprawling, 500-acre waste pile is outside West German jurisdiction, near the East German village of Sch"onberg. But it wouldn't exist, if it weren't for business from the West.
The East Germans earn badly needed hard currency from the dump, which attracts shipments from as far away as Sicily and Spain, so they don't complain. It's residents on the Western side of the border who are upset.
Officials in L"ubeck say the project could foul underground water in the whole region. Plus, most of the trucks that go to Sch"onberg cross through their picturesque city.
But Sch"onberg is just part of a much larger problem.
Western Europeans ship an estimated 800,000 tons of hazardous waste to the East bloc for disposal every year, according to officials of the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva. Add to this the less-dangerous household waste sent East, and the figures jump dramatically. Sch"onberg takes in more than 2 million tons annually.
Some Western experts argue that Eastern countries, strapped for cash to deal with their own environmental problems, could cut corners in handling imported waste. Indeed, this appears to be one of the factors which make dumping in the East so attractive - it's relatively cheap and simple.
A global convention to control hazardous waste transport and dumping could be signed as early as this March. That document - the focus of a UN-initiated meeting in Luxembourg last week - was prompted mainly by leaders of developing countries, who worry that their nations are becoming the dumping grounds for the industrialized world.
Sch"onberg - an ironic name, since it means ``beautiful mountain'' - shows how difficult it is to control this trade, even inside Europe.
One L"ubeck official says talking to the East Germans about the issue has proven ``unproductive.'' Undaunted, the city has filed over 230 lawsuits against West German state governments that send waste to Sch"onberg and companies that do the hauling. The city contends the shippers aren't handling waste in accord with West German regulations.
Last summer's election of a Social Democratic state government in Schleswig-Holstein - which encompasses L"ubeck - has renewed the campaign. State officials, elected on an environmental-protection platform, have vowed to stop sending waste to the dump.
One concern is with the dump's construction, says Hansludwig Gerlach, L"ubeck's top environmental official. It is lined with a 160-meter (525-foot) thick layer of gravel and clay, which is supposed to keep contamination from seeping into the groundwater. Water that leaks out of the waste pile itself is pumped back over the mound. ``So you get a real mix,'' says Dr. Gerlach.
There is, moreover, little chance for Western officials to monitor the facility. Last May, when a fire broke out at the dump, the city of L"ubeck wasn't allowed to send an inspector, or even firemen to the scene.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of L"ubeck, a visitor can watch the steady procession of trucks going to and from East Germany - each marked with the telltale ``A'' for Abfall, the German word for ``waste.''
Gerlach estimates that 5 percent of the dump trucks that come back over the border empty from Sch"onberg deliberately skirted West Germany on their way in. This has officials worried.
Several years ago, two trucks were stopped at the border. Under questioning, the Austrian drivers admitted they'd just ferried chemical waste from Italy - through Austria, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany - well out of their way to reach Sch"onberg.
``When someone is willing to pay the extra costs of sending a truck over all those countries - it must be devilishly toxic,'' says Gerlach.
East German officials are reluctant to talk about the issue, other than to acknowledge that the site exists. A Monitor request to visit Sch"onberg was denied.