Air Clears Up in Eastern Germany

Pollutants have decreased during last three years as chemical factories and pit mines closed

GUDRUN WEZLAWECK doesn't need any statistics to tell her what she can see and smell for herself: The air in east Germany's most polluted region is much cleaner than it used to be.

"The windows aren't as dirty anymore, and it doesn't stink so," says Ms. Wezlaweck, waiting for her bus after quitting time at Leuna-Werke AG, the mammoth chemical manufacturer just south of Halle.

The numbers, though, confirm what Wezlaweck's eyes and nose report. Air quality in the former communist state's notoriously polluted Bitterfeld-Halle-Leipzig region has markedly improved - albeit, mostly because of factory closings.

Between 1988 and 1990, according to a government-commissioned study, industrial emissions in the region dropped by 17 to 42 percent, depending on the pollutant. TUV Rheinland, the private, technical-inspection company that did the study, estimated a further 7 to 20 percent drop last year. The main sources of pollution are chemical factories, as well as brown-coal pit mines, briquette plants, and incinerators concentrated here.

The biggest improvement has been in the category of dust, which has dropped by at least 60 percent since 1988, the report estimates.

By dust, Germans aren't referring to the light, household variety. They mean the black, gritty ash produced by the burning and manufacturing of brown coal, the area's chief source of power and heat.

During the revolution in the former East Germany, the devastated environment was a favorite topic at demonstrations in the cities of Halle, Bitterfeld, and Leipzig. But this subject has since been replaced in the public consciousness by a more immediate worry: unemployment.

"The reduction [in air pollution] has been accomplished exclusively through factory closings," says Gerhard Muller, at TUV Ostdeutschland, a subsidiary of TUV Rheinland here in Halle.

Although the environment played a role in some of the decisions to close plants, most of the factories buckled under the sheer weight of their own inefficiency. The wheezing, ancient chemical industry, which produced more than half of former East Germany's chemicals, is down to a fourth of its size, employing roughly 50,000 people compared with about 200,000 before the revolution.

"Everyone now has their own concerns about their future and their job. This is much more important to them than the question of the environment," says Tilman Langner of the Independent Institute for Environmental Questions in Halle.

"I think for the most part that people welcome the [ecological] improvement," Mr. Langner adds, "but they also want to protect themselves from the environmentalists, because they see these people as taking away their jobs."

According to Mr. Muller, "the most grave violations" of air pollution "don't exist anymore." But industrial emissions in the region still far exceed the standards in west Germany - in some cases by up to 100 times, according to the TUV Rheinland report. This region, in which 2.1 million people live, still produces as much ash and sulfur dioxide as all of west Germany produces, the study found.

Industry in east Germany has until 1996 to comply with west German environmental law. Muller is not sure that all companies will make the deadline. "Personally, I think there will be a certain deficit. There will be individual cases," he says. As an example he names a power plant in south Leipzig that needs "hundreds of millions of marks" to bring it up to par. "It's not clear who will pay for this," he says.

MUCH of the confusion lies in the fact that no one knows exactly who will eventually own the plants still remaining, or if they will even survive in the long run. For the most part, big industry here is still under the trusteeship of the Treuhandanstalt, the government agency set up to privatize the state-run concerns of the former East Germany.

The Treuhand is having trouble finding buyers for the outdated brown-coal power plants and chemical factories, which have technology that dates from the 1930s and '40s. Potential buyers don't want any responsibility for the environmental damage caused by the communists. The Treuhand is handling the issue on a case-by-case basis, with environmental cleanup being a factor in each negotiation.

Uncertainty about their future makes it difficult for managers on-site to make long-term investment decisions, says Rainer Albrecht, an environment specialist at film manufacturer ORWO AG, just outside Bitterfeld. Several buyers have expressed an interest in ORWO, but their interest proved to be a false alarm. Planning, says Mr. Albrecht, is not really possible.

Environmentalists warn that the big air-quality improvements of 1990 probably won't repeat themselves this year or even next. What remains to be accomplished in industry is technological retrofitting or new construction - both slow processes.

Meanwhile, in Leipzig and Halle, most of the air pollution comes from individual coal-burning ovens in apartments and small businesses. A natural-gas network is planned, but the pipeline won't reach Leipzig and Halle until next year. Retrofitting will then take several years after that.

Plummeting industrial production has not only meant a reduction in air pollution, but also in industrial waste. According to the Environment Ministry in Bonn, waste flowing into the Saale River, which runs through Halle, has dropped by 70 percent since 1989. Waste flowing into the Mulde River, which flows through Bitterfeld, has been reduced by 80 percent.

But lower production has done nothing to improve the region's other severe problems: old industrial waste, as well as household-generated waste. Both adversely affect water quality.

"Air is no longer problematic. The main problems are now water pollution and dumps," pronounces Gunther Eckstein, director of environment in Bitterfeld for the state of Sachsen-Anhalt.

While orange smoke has disappeared from the smokestacks of Bitterfeld, residents still have to live with a toxic lake in their midst. Once an old pit mine, over the years it has been entirely filled with raw industrial waste from the film and chemical factories here. These kinds of problems, according to the TUV Rheinland report, add up to an eventual cleanup cost of 17.8 billion marks ($10.8 billion) for the Bitterfeld-Halle-Leipzig region.

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