Even as it admits a serious pollution problem, East Germany is substituting cheap brown coal for imported oil - a move that can only add to the polluted skies.
The trend is distressing to those Leipzig citydwellers who breathe the worst air in East Germany (and possibly in Europe). It is also distressing to West Germany, which is finally tightening its own restrictions on industrial sulfur dioxide but must still suffer the consequences of East German sulfur dioxide blowing over the border.
West German emission of the compound, which is suspected of being the chief culprit in the destruction of forests by ''acid rain,'' was 3.6 million tons in 1978, according to European Community figures. East German emission of sulfur dioxide the same year was 4 million tons, says the West German Environment Agency. Half of this comes from the Leipzig-Halle heavy-industry belt, according to statistics from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) in West Berlin.
This means, according to a recent DIW study, that East Germany has a concentration of sulfur dioxide that is triple West Germany's. In the mid-1970s, East Germany was spewing out 37 tons of sulfur dioxide per square kilometer, while West Germany was emitting 14.5 tons. Since then, the DIW estimates, East German emissions have increased by 25 percent.
By comparison, EC statistics for 1978 showed sulfur dioxide emissions totaling 4 million tons in Italy and 5 million tons in Britain.
East Germany officially admitted the problem of dying forests and polluted rivers in February, when for the first time the environment protection and water management minister, Hans Reichelt, discussed the issue in press interviews. At the same time East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia agreed to cooperate in cleaning up the environment. The East Germans have indicated the situation is especially bad on the East German-Czech border, where some 370,650 acres of woodland are said to have been destroyed.
The countermeasures announced by East Germany are generally deemed inadequate by Western ecologists, however. These include replanting damaged acreage with hardier ''smoke-resistant'' species of trees and fertilizing some 62,000 or 75, 000 acres of evergreen forest.
They do not include compulsory installation of scrubbers on the country's 300 power and heating plants and 21,000 industrial ovens. None of these units is equipped with scrubbers, as far as is known. Yet the vast majority of them are fired with sulfur-rich domestic brown coal.
In fact, East German pollution is expected by Western observers to get far more acute in coming years. The DIW estimates that consumption of brown coal will increase from 1980's 258 million tons to 300 million tons by 1990. Moreover , the increment will come almost entirely from Leipzig-Halle area brown coal, which has a sulfur content three times that of the Lausitz coal that has been favored up to now.
The planned expansion in the use of brown coal results in large part from the Soviet cut in oil deliveries to East Germany in 1982. Moscow made these cuts to increase its oil sales to the West for hard currency - and East Germany would prefer to minimize its Soviet oil purchases in any case because of the rising Soviet price.
Under the formula of averaging out world oil prices for the previous five years, East Europe has been importing heavily subsidized oil from the Soviet Union ever since 1973. That formula is beginning to work against East Europe, however: The price within the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance is rising an estimated 16 percent this year and could exceed the falling OPEC price.