West Germany announces major effort to clean up environment

''It's the greatest victory in 13 years!'' exulted Peter Menkegluckert, Interior Ministry environment director, as the West German government announced its new ecological program at the beginning of September.

Nobody knows how the measures will actually be carried through, commented Eberhard Walde of the Green (environmental) Party's Bonn office much more skeptically.

The contrasting reactions of these two convinced ecologists reflect the paradoxes of the pollution issue here - and the novelty of the government's latest clean air program.

For the environment specialists in the Interior Ministry who have finally won a running feud with the pro-growth and more pollution-lenient Economics Ministry , it's a moment of triumph. The setting of clean air standards that will approach exemplary Japanese cleanliness, and the implied new precedent of national responsibility - even for pollution generated outside of Germany by West German firms - are dreams come true.

For the enfants terribles Greens who have recently lured enough votes away from the Social Democrats and Liberals to threaten indirectly the very survival of Helmut Schmidt's Bonn coalition, however, the new government measures are too little, too late. The Greens have not yet completed their detailed analysis of the new program, but they already suspect that the allowed exceptions may prove the new air standards to be little more than a Social Democratic-Liberal bid to steal votes back from the Greens in the crucial state election in Hesse at the end of September.

Whatever the interpretation, it's clear that the new government has now announced the first major new environmental program since the early years of the veteran 13-year-old coalition.

Specifically, sulfur dioxide in industrial air exhausts is henceforth to be restricted to 400 milligrams per cubic meter. Old coal power plants that do not meet these standards will be given 10 years to retrofit their equipment to get down to this level, or five years to shut down altogether. The electricity industry, which has until now been something of a sacred cow, is thus not to be exempted - even though the cost of electricity is officially expected to rise one or two pfennigs as a result.

The Greens remain unconvinced that the program will really be implemented. They say that a 350 milligram level of sulfur dioxide is technologically feasible and would have been preferable. They are also suspicious of the government qualification of the 400 milligram standard by the phrase ''as a rule'' - and the further provision that any exceptions allowed must still not exceed 650 milligrams per cubic meter.

Interior Ministry officials at the press conference announcing the measures categorically assured journalists, however, that any exceptions would be minor - that they would not simply be a loophole for wide evasion of the new standard. Positively, they hope that the new restrictions will help to reduce the much publicized damage to German forests by acid rain.

The research side of the new environment program includes integrated investigation of climate, to be sponsored by the Research Ministry. One of the more notable aspects of this project is to be the coalition of data on the environmental impact of West German multinational firms in production outside West Germany. A prime area for inquiry will be Volkswagen manufacture in Brazil and growing problems of deforestation in the Amazon. Until now, this has been considered none of West Germany's official business.

In addition, the West German government now has promised to push for a European-wide environmental impact assessment during Bonn's presidency of the European Community next year. Auto exhaust standards are also being raised, with the help of the Swiss example in setting tougher restrictions than general EC-levels - and the argument that if the West German automotive industry can turn out vehicles that meet America's stricter pollution safeguards, then it ought to be able to turn out the same quality vehicles for the German market.

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