The picture emerging from the recent chemical spill in the Rhine River is one of negligence, underestimation, confusion, and delay. This scenario seems to be a familiar feature of international ecological disasters. Four West European countries are trying this week to assess the ecological and financial damage caused by three waves of highly poisonous chemicals released into the Rhine. The waves of contamination flowing down the river were reported late last week. They were primarily the result of water washed into the Rhine during attempts to put out a fire earlier this month at the Sandoz chemical plant near Basel, Switzerland.
The Rhine, one of Europe's longest rivers, provides drinking water for some 20 million people. It begins in the Alps and flows through Switzerland along the French-German border, then through West Germany and the Netherlands. The chemicals that formed an approximately 25-mile-long slick have now reached the North Sea.
Environment ministers from these four Rhine River countries met yesterday to discuss damage from one of Europe's worst ecological disasters in recent years. In case of any emergency such as this, the four countries had earlier set up an international alarm system.
Yet, according to Walter Wallmann, the West German environment minister, the Swiss authorities assured them during the day after the fire that there was no cause for concern.
It was left to the West Germans, as the chemicals followed the flow of the Rhine, to raise the alarm themselves. The Swiss did not issue their own warning until the evening of the second day.
Communication was further confused, Mr. Wallmann says, because the Basel center for the alarm system had changed its telex number two days before the disaster without telling anyone.
The second, weaker wave of chemicals went unnoticed by the Swiss, until Germans downstream tipped them off to the presence of more chemicals.
Mainly pesticides, these chemicals destroyed virtually all plant and animal life in the upper reaches of the 770-mile river. An estimated 500,000 fish perished, among them 125,000 eels.
Some ecologists are talking of ``biological death'' that may never be reversible, although the West German government will only say at present that the ecosystem is ``very seriously damaged.''
In the lower sections of the river the fish survived, but the insects and organisms they live on were killed by the poisons in the water. It is feared that the remaining fish will die of starvation.
Drinking-water supplies from filter beds and springs along the length of the river have been shut down, and it is not yet known when they will again be usable.
The authorities are particularly concerned about large quantities of dangerous mercury compounds that escaped and could seep into the groundwater and drinking supplies.
The first wave of an estimated 30 tons of chemicals was washed into the river on Nov. 1 as firemen fought a huge fire in a storage shed at the Sandoz chemical plant in the Swiss city of Basel.
The second came a week later as contaminated water that had remained in the plant spilled into the river. It is not yet known what activated the second wave.
And 11 days after that, chemists detected a poisonous chemical in the Rhine that had not been present at the Sandoz plant.
It was then revealed that about 90 gallons of pesticides had been accidentally dumped into the river two days before the fire by the neighboring Ciba-Geigy chemical plant. The accident had been kept secret.
Both plants are being criticized for negligence.
The West German environment minister claims that the chemicals at Sandoz were stored illegally in a shed which, he says, was only licensed to house machinery.
The shed also lacked several of the basic security precautions for storage safety, such as heat- and smoke-alarms, sprinklers, and a catch basin to prevent water from spilling into the Rhine.
Wallman has also asked Swiss authorities for information following a report by West German chemical experts that potentially highly explosive natrium (sodium), chloric acid, and phosgene were stored nearby.
A spokesman for the West German opposition Social Democratic Party, which published the report, said that if these chemicals had caught fire, ``the catastrophy would have been indescribable.''
Nearly two weeks after the disaster, the effects of the spills are at the very least inestimable.