The Danube gets a reprieve. Ecologists slow dam project that would impinge on primeval forest

Austria's newly aroused ecologists have won a temporary reprieve for the ``beautiful blue'' Danube. In the process they would like to start a permanent new era of environmental awareness and political action in their country.

Over New Year's Socialist Chancellor Fred Sinowatz declared that felling of trees in West Europe's last major primeval flood forest would not resume as planned Jan. 4.

And the 1,500 or so demonstrators who have been trying to throw themselves between the trees and the chain saws are hoping to stretch out this moratorium until the planned March referendum. Opinion polls suggest they stand a good chance of winning a popular vote then against construction of the controversial hydroelectric power plant at Hainburg near the Czechoslovak border east of Vienna.

By the standards, say, of the battles at Tokyo's Narita airport or Frankfurt airport's new west runway the Austrian confrontation has been pretty tame. But by Austrian standards there has been an unprecedented breakdown of consensus.

By rights, in what has been hailed as the ``Austrian model'' of society, everybody is supposed to talk things through to a compromise before taking any action. Once a decision is made, the minority of opponents is supposed to get out of the way.

This time it happened differently.

Middle-class youths, artists, and otherwise conservative academics are pitted against the perennial coalition government, business, and the trade unions. In a snowy melee just before Christmas, some two dozen protesters ended up in the hospital, some four dozen more in police stations. Cracks have appeared in the governing coalition that could endanger it.

Since spring public opinion has turned from indifference to a 50 percent distaste for disrupting the nature preserve around Hainburg.

It's all very ``un-Austrian,'' everyone agrees.

The whole thing began with the oil crises of the 1970s. Government and business economists wanted more energy that was not imported. The state concern Danube Power Inc., having been denied any nuclear plants in a referendum in 1978, wanted cheaper and cleaner sources for the 30 percent of electricity it does not now derive from falling water. The trade unions, in a recession, wanted more jobs.

Austria's rolling political consensus -- a grand coalition of Socialists and various conservatives has basically governed the country for three decades -- therefore authorized the building of a turbine plant that would produce 2 billion kilowatt-hours per year, or 5 percent of current electricity consumption. The project would entail the razing of hundreds of thousands of willows and poplars on a minimum four square kilometers of the 270-square-kilometer tract of the Stopfenreuther woods and swamp, plus rerouting 5.5 kilometers of the Danube.

As the plans became known, environmentalists objected strenuously. Last spring Britain's Prince Philip, in his capacity as president of the World Wildlife Fund, visited Hainburg and told startled reporters that Austria was risking its ``reputation in the community of nations.'' The award-winning Austrian painter Friedens-reich Hundertwasser ripped up the certificate of his state prize in disgust.

Some 20 grass-roots groups sprang up to start a petition against the power plant. They challenged the legality of speedy official approval of the project in the light of Austrian domestic nature protection law and the Berne and Ramsar international conventions protecting European wetlands as well as perhaps one-third of the species of fauna and flora found in the Danube riparian area. They argued further that the construction would result in irreparable damage to the area's sponging up of floodwaters, purifying of ground water, and providing of moisture for cropland in a 60-kilometer radius.

Specialists whose projections of the power plant's impact were first solicited, then rejected by the government, accused officials of suppressing negative reports and engineering more favorable ones.

For the first time, too, the leftist Alternatives and the middle-class Green List joined forces to oppose the hydroelectric plant, in what could be the birth of a new Austrian Green Party some five or six years after the West German Green pioneers. They asserted that there is no need for the new energy, since post-oil-crisis conservation has given Austria a glut rather than a shortfall. They maintained further that Danube Power's continued use of old projections of a 3.4 percent annual increase in electricity consumption is invalidated by the actual 1.5 percent increase since the mid-'70s.

By the time the tree cutting began shortly before Christmas, emotions were at a high pitch. A hard core of between 1,000 and 2,000 Austrian and German demonstrators camped out in the woods. The police assured the campers that the clearing operation was not going to begin after all, according to one German source, then cordoned off the construction site as the chain saws whirred. The irate protesters tried to break through the police truncheons but failed. The next evening in Vienna an unusually high 14,000 (police estimates) to 30,000 or 40,000 (organizers' estimates) turned out in a quickly called demonstration to protest against police violence.

After the holiday breather, round two opens this week with Cabinet discussions about where to go from here.

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