Keeping watch on the Rhine

The river Rhine, it is well known, Doth wash your city of Cologne;

But tell me, nymphs, what power divine

Shall henceforth wash the river Rhine? TO know that the words are from the Romantic poet Coleridge is to realize that the Rhine's pollution problems did not start yesterday. Nor did they start Nov. 1, when some 30 tons of toxic materials leaked into the river after a fire at a chemical plant outside Basel, Switzerland.

But this leak, which scientists are already ranking with the major European ecological disasters of recent years, underscores the need for a closer environmental watch on the Rhine.

Charges that the Swiss company in question, Sandoz, was lax in safety standards at the storage facility where the accident occurred have been denied by the company; the matter will presumably bear more investigating.

And even if - perhaps especially if - Sandoz is found not to be at fault, Europeans will have to think again about the wisdom of manufacturing and storing such dangerous chemicals in densely populated areas. What part of Europe, after all, is not densely populated? The Rhine, a veritable main street through Western Europe, carries barge traffic as well as steamers laden with tourists gawking at ruined castles; it is also a significant source of fish and water.

Environmentalists are concerned about long-term damage to the ecosystem, particularly from mercury deposits that may build up in the silt along the river.

It is clear that the response of the Swiss authorities has left something to be desired, despite their insistence that they shared information as soon as possible. The Swiss met in Zurich Wednesday with French, West German, and Dutch officials in an attempt to share information and defuse criticism.

Headline writers and graffitists, punning on the French spelling of Basel, have complained in letters writ large of ``another Chernob^ale.'' This is not only an implicit charge of Swiss stonewalling, but a reminder that there is really only one world to pollute - or protect - and that one knows no political boundaries.

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