Flat barges bearing merchandise by the ton daily deliver Europe's vital trade to ports along the Rhine River, running 820 miles from Switzerland through Germany, France, and Luxembourg and emptying into the North Sea near Rotterdam.
Once the finest salmon river in Europe, the Rhine today is so polluted by chemical salts that fish no longer live in it. Some experts say the Rhine may soon harm humans as well.
Salt may be only one of some 1,500 noxious substances European industry dumps into the Rhine. But it is easily the source of the most bitterness among nations.
Salt alone causes $50 million in damages annually to Dutch agriculture, notably to fruit, vegetables, and flowers in southwest Holland. Nearly two-thirds of Holland's overall water supply comes from the Rhine. The pollution also threatens the drinking water of 20 million Europeans.
Forty percent of the 50,000 tons of salt being discharged into the river by industry every day comes from one source: the French government-owned potash mines in Alsace.
The latest -- and most ambitious -- international effort to clean up, or at least to slow, the salt pollution is embodied in one of two conventions of the Bonn Agreement, which four of the five Rhine countries (Liechtenstein, Switzerland, West Germany, and the Netherlands) signed and ratified in 1976.
Among other things, it calls for the French potash mines to inject its salt wastes into a hot-water bed a mile below the earth's surface instead of into the Rhine. The French say doing that would only pollute their ground water in exchange for polluting the Rhine, so they have refused to ratify the Bonn Agreement.
This has so infuriated the Netherlands that at a session of the national parliament Dec. 3, the Dutch recalled their ambassador to France -- the first time such a move has been taken between countries in the European Community.
Two meetings of the five Rhine countries have since been held in Brussels -- one in December, the other in January. Both ended in frustration after the French, almost in outright defiance of the pleas of the other delegations, failed to come up with acceptable alternative solutions to those contained in the Bonn Agreement.
The French proposed to build a salt factory that would absorb some of the discharges from the Alsace potash mines.
"Unbelievable!" said a spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Transport and Water. "The really amazing thing is, the French want the other Rhine countries, which already have given $22.4 million to the potash mines to help them clean up their act, to help them build the new factory, an enterprise that would further harm the already suffering salt industry in Europe." There is a surplus of salt now, much of it being turned out by a factory in the south of France.
The French government has said it will continue to seek alternative solutions. They reportedly will maintain the injection technique but will also employ other elimination processes, such as storing dry salt and transporting it in barges for dumping at sea.
But it would take another three to five years for those solutions to become operational.
Meanwhile, after 25 years of Rhine pollution, negotiations among the five countries (the next one is scheduled for May 9 in Paris), some pessimists have begun to put their faith elsewhere. A private organization representing three Dutch nursery owners has taken the French potassium mines to a Rotterdam court. A victory there could set off a spate of similar suites against the French polluters.
For his part, a British member of the European Parliament, who before his election last June served in the Common Market's Environmental Protection Service, has composed an "Ode to Cologne," which he recently recited before the full chamber. One line runs: "What power divine would cleanse the Rhine?"