ALONG the pocked banks of the Mulde River, Klaus Petrovsky navigates around small churning pools of luminescent goo, carefully sidestepping gurgling, spumy runoff from an ancient chemical complex nearby. Across the turbid river, a cloud of orange-yellow vapor rises from a tangle of patched and rusty pipes.
"There's a different leak and a different smell every day," says Mr. Petrovsky, an inspection engineer at the air-quality control office in Bitterfeld, a town southwest of Berlin in former East Germany.
A few hundred miles to the southeast in northern Bohemia, the heart of Czechoslovakia's coal mining and industrial region, acid rain and strip-mining have transformed once verdant fields and forests into a moonscape.
In Romania's notorious "black town" of Copsa Mica, 150 miles north of Bucharest, houses, trees, and grass are so coated with soot from a nearby chemical plant that the town looks as if it had been soaked in ink.
Along the most congested, exhaust-fume-filled streets in Budapest, the amount of lead found in the blood of toddlers is barely considered safe for brawny factory workers. And throughout Eastern Europe infant mortality rates are reported higher than the European average. Miscarriages are common, and life expectancy is 10 years below the European average, according to recent studies.
From the Baltic to the Black Sea, the new democratic governments of Eastern Europe are facing an ecological disaster, a nightmare legacy of four decades of communist mismanagement.
Environmental studies now indicate that the damage done to eastern Europe, long suppressed under communist rule, is even more devastating than previously suspected.
Experts say it will take decades to clean up the East-bloc mess and that the costs will be withering - an almost impossible burden for cash-strapped countries struggling to implement painful economic reforms.
In eastern Germany alone, new studies indicate that more than $125 billion will be needed to bring the region up to standards long in place in western Germany. The IFO Institute for Economic Research in Munich said in a report released April 15 that water, air, and ground contamination in many parts of former East Germany "have reached catastrophic proportions."
The Bonn government has already earmarked millions of marks for ambitious cleanup projects, and officials contend acceptable standards can be achieved by the end of the century.
"The environmental gulf between eastern and western Germany will be eliminated by the year 2000," says Germany's optimistic federal environment minister, Klaus T 154&gt;pfer.
Residents in eastern Germany can at least count on deep coffers in Bonn to improve their lot. A similar pace will be much harder to attain for Germany's impoverished eastern neighbors.
But help has been promised. The European Community and the United States have pledged substantial assistance, and many cleanup projects are now under way.
The EC's Phare program is currently funding several programs, including the construction of sludge disposal units at Prague's sewage-treatment plant, silt dredging at Hungary's popular Lake Balaton resort, and water-quality monitoring stations along the disastrously polluted Elbe River in eastern Germany. Throughout the region, untreated sewage is routinely pumped directly into rivers and coastal waters. Industrial wastes and runoff from the excessive use of fertilizers on vast farm cooperatives compoun d the problem.
A Regional Environmental Center was set up in Budapest last year with the help of a $5 million grant from the United States and matching assistance from the EC and the Hungarian government.
The center is meant to be a clearinghouse for information about the environment throughout eastern Europe. "We are building a system to quickly identify environmental problems and trends," says Peter Hardi, the center's executive director. He says the center is already involved in more than 250 projects. "We're finally starting to make some progress."
Many of the worst polluters, like the sprawling and leaky former Chemical Combine in Bitterfeld, are being gradually shut down.
More will certainly follow as obsolete and uncompetitive state-run enterprises in Eastern Europe continue to collapse as market economies take over.
In addition, programs to replace the widespread use of lignite coal are being put into place. Decades of reliance on the cheap, plentiful, but dirty coal to fire furnaces and power plants has taken a staggering toll on cities and towns. Residents trudge through thick, acrid hazes that sting the eyes and choke the throat. Buildings and monuments are black and pitted.
ADMISSION standards for automobiles are also being phased in, and new laws are being drafted to force companies to comply with more stringent environmental controls.
In Bulgaria, the government has promised to invest $15 million to upgrade safety at the nation's lone nuclear-power plant, considered to be one of the most dangerous in the region. Throughout the former East bloc, dozens of unsafe and obsolete nuclear reactors are still on line.
Officials in Western and Eastern Europe caution that some of the damage may be irreparable.
"We knew the situation over there was bad, but not this very, very bad," Erica Terpstra, a politician from the Netherlands, told a recent environmental conference in Florence, Italy.