AFTER the Berlin Wall fell, environmentalists saw Eastern Europe as a place where ``green'' thinking could become an integral part of building a new society. But political and economic objections to environmentalism have slowed progress in the East.
``There were really high hopes for making a fundamental structural change,'' says Margaret Bowman, director of the environmental program for Central and Eastern Europe at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C. But ``instead of leapfrogging over [the United States], they're getting in line behind us.''
But some communities are moving to solve their ecological problems. One is Glogow, Poland.
``Now, we mainly deal with environmental problems,'' says Jacek Zielinski, the city's mayor-president, in his pleasant, well-lit office. ``Waste disposal. The solid-waste utilization. We are financing construction of a really big landfill.''
In Glogow, the biggest project is an innovative, American-inspired plan to clean up its water.
Glogow's problem is dust loaded with metal. The dust blows in from a huge copper-smelting and processing plant on the outskirts of town. The Polish government listed Glogow's pollution as one of Poland's five ``ecological catastrophe'' areas.
The dust settles on houses, cars, and streets. When it rains, it gets washed into the city's sewage treatment plant. This 1960s-era plant uses traditional methods to clean up the water. But it creates huge amounts of sludge so loaded with toxic metals that it has to be buried.
Glogow is proposing to revamp the system. The plan calls for the waste water to go from the treatment plant to aerated settling ponds, where the material is broken down naturally over several months. From there, the cleaner water would be sprayed on crops and then move through the soil, further purifying itself. The system would not only reduce the amount of sludge, it would also recharge the groundwater, in chronically short supply in this part of Poland.
Jack Sheaffer, president of his own Chicago-area consulting firm, is the leading proponent of this water-reuse system. ``Of course, there are other solutions,'' Mr. Zielinski says. ``We liked Mr. Sheaffer's idea that sewage is a resource out of place.''
But the regional environmental authorities are not convinced the system will work. They are expected to make their decision early this year.
``Everything depends on their decision,'' says Jozef Kott, director of Future Water Glogow, the Polish-American joint venture that came up with the plan. Mr. Kott hopes to market the plan to other polluted, water-short communities in Poland.
Glogow is not the only place where new environmental technology is making inroads. Chemical plants in the Polish towns of Bydgoszcz and Oswiecim are running demonstration projects showing how companies can reduce costs by minimizing the wastes they create. In one year, Chemical Works Bydgoszcz implemented waste-minimization programs that should save $1 million a year. The program, run by the World Environment Center, is funded by the US Agency for International Development.
These programs stand in sharp contrast to other parts of Eastern Europe. In the Czech Republic, most of the environmental leaders who entered the government are now gone. When several of them expressed their concerns about the situation in an open letter to the government in November, Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus called them ``idealistic'' demands and warned they ``would suffocate the economy immediately in the early stages of its transformation.'' Eastern Europe, mired in an acute economic transformation, is not finding a shortcut to the debate over the costs of ecological cleanup.
``It's not surprising,'' says Richard Liroff, director of the Central and Eastern Europe Program at the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. ``A major preoccupation of governments and individuals is making sure that people have food on the table.''
``A lot of the answer really hinges on economic recovery - there is no getting around that,'' adds Stanley J. Kabala, director of international programs for the Center for Hazardous Materials Research at the University of Pittsburgh. ``Some of it is just going to take time: 10 years, 20 years. It took [the US] that long and we're still battling over it.''