Environment : Push for Growth Gives War on Pollution Short Shrift : The people of Eastern Europe seem almost resigned to living with filthy air and water. That's making it easier for politicians trying to spark an industrial boom.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Budapest residents switch on their radios each morning for the daily atmospheric report, they are pelted with persuasive arguments why they should never venture outdoors.

Air pollution in the Hungarian capital--as in many industrial areas of Eastern Europe--is so dangerous that like conditions in Western countries compel authorities to order people to stay inside.

Lead in the air and soil is usually 10 times the allowable levels, and sulfur dioxide from coal-fired furnaces exceeds international standards almost every day of the year.

Arsenic laces the drinking water, and carbon monoxide from the all-day traffic jam is blamed for inflicting asthma on 40% of the children in the urban center.

Environmental exposes have become so common that they no longer carry much of a shock. Newspapers record each new discovery of an illegal hazardous waste dump and the size of the mercury pool that has collected under a factory in the city of Miskolc.

Ecological doomsday has long been the reality in Eastern Europe, and some environmentalists fear the populations are so inured to their sullied surroundings that they no longer feel they have the power to change them.

"People have gotten used to hearing that carbon dioxide levels are twice as high as permissible, or that sulfur is 10 times the norm. They are saturated," said Zoltan Illes, one of Hungary's most vocal advocates of a more aggressive cleanup.

That resignation has opened a dangerous escape route for political leaders saddled with conflicting responsibilities to regulate pollution while trying to spur an industrial boom.

Environmental movements were instrumental in weakening the Communists' grip on power. But environmental concerns have been cast to the wayside in the rush for economic advance that commands national attention.

"No responsible politician in this region would deny the importance of environmental problems. But there are very few who think this is the top priority," explained Peter Hardi, director of the Regional Environmental Center in Budapest.

Leaders of the new democracies in Eastern Europe are simply responding to the unmistakable message that voters want to enjoy the conspicuous consumption of the West.

"The problem with the present leaders is that they got a mandate to create a better life, and a better life is measured in economic terms," Hardi said. "These governments lack the resources to fulfill that mandate, so they look for the least costly, short-term solutions."

In Hungary and elsewhere, polluting projects that drove frustrated citizens to march in the streets continue under the new democratically elected governments that have quickly discovered communism's dirty secrets are more easily exposed than overcome.

The new politicians are echoing the old regime's argument that cleanup funds can be raised only if there is an economic boom, which requires expanding the industrial activities that caused the mess.

"Ultimately, it will be economic activities that will bring us the money for environmental improvements," explained Vaclav Vucka, deputy environment minister for the Czech republic.

Social activists contend Eastern Europe has a unique opportunity to build in pollution controls when it refits huge segments of its industrial base with modern machinery to produce goods that will measure up to more exacting Western standards.

But little pressure for environmental reform is being brought to bear on government or investors, primarily because the region's frustrated consumers fear stricter requirements would slow down the transition to an era of plenty.

"It would be unfortunate if Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union followed the West down the path toward wanton materialism," the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute commented in an environmental report last November.

But the trend during this first year of political independence suggests they are doing just that.

Hungary has become a dumping ground for polluting products now banned in the West, like phosphate-loaded detergents, plastic foam food containers and beverages sold in non-recyclable cans and bottles.

The Ministry for Environmental Protection and Natural Resources is now also responsible for construction, which in the current build-or-bust atmosphere has added new conflicts of interest.

Recent joint ventures with European partners illustrate a worrisome tendency to lure investment without regard to environmental cost, said Illes, a deputy environment minister until December, when he was fired for accusing the new government of neglect.

Among the polluting enterprises welcomed for the sake of jobs and income were a German project to reclaim precious metals from spent batteries, which Illes said will further increase lead emissions in downtown Budapest.

The European Community is at work on an environmental code of conduct for investment in Eastern Europe. But at present there are few barriers to relocation of businesses rejected in the West.

Czechoslovakia's reformist leadership, once staunchly opposed to nuclear energy, has given the go-ahead for two new nuclear plants at Temelin and Mohovce, to supply the extra power needed for industrial expansion.

With hydroelectric generation already near capacity, Czech planners contend the choice is between new nuclear sources or more of the coal-fired power plants that have turned once-verdant forests into hideous skeletons.

Opponents complain construction of new power stations is unnecessary and would only encourage continued energy waste.

A study last year by Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories showed East European and Soviet industries use 50% to 100% more energy than the United States for each dollar of production, and nearly three times as much as West Germany and Japan.

Czechoslovakia and Poland won some plaudits from Worldwatch for at least coming clean with the extent of their problems. Poland's environment ministry has published a "hit list" of the 80 most polluting industries that must be gradually brought into line with health standards or face closure. The Czech and Slovak republic ministries have published reams of previously secret data and the federal environment minister has been pressing for broader recycling, even if it slows the rush to rejoin the West.

"Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania are moving somewhat more slowly," Worldwatch criticized.

In the blackened Romanian village of Copsa Mica, where a rubber factory has spewed carbon dust for miles around, authorities decided last year to move the population rather than shut down the crucial industry. But the relocation has been shelved indefinitely due to a lack of funds.

Romania's oil refineries in Ploiesti are a scene from futuristic novels of earthly devastation, their orange flames reflecting eerily off an ever-present gray cloud that plunges the city in perpetual twilight. In Bucharest, acrid coal smoke burns a pedestrian's throat and nostrils.

"So far, there has been no pressure on the government to discourage polluting (energy sources)," said Emilian Simian, an energy specialist with the Ministry of Industry and Resources.

As times get tougher for East European families faced with rising prices for steam, gas and electric heat, many are burning coal in furnaces and fireplaces at home.

While the plethora of environmental disasters is daunting, a few efforts have been made at improving environmental behavior.

Czechoslovakia has scrapped plans for a coking plant in the devastated border region with Poland, and production of synthetic tire cords has been reduced at a factory in Lovosice to cut down on toxic effluent.

Hungary has stopped construction on the Nagymaros dam that would have wiped out rare wetlands along the Danube River. Czechoslovakia, however, is going ahead with its part of what was to have been a two-dam project.

Environmentalists acknowledge that money is scarce in the region, but they point out numerous missed opportunities for discouraging polluters or rewarding those willing to change.

There is no moratorium or prohibitive tax on sales of cars with grossly polluting two-stroke engines--the Trabants and Wartburgs manufactured in East Germany that comprise 50% of Hungary's fleet. Nor are there barriers to importing diesel autos being sold off to the East ahead of a 1992 law that will ban those vehicles from European Community states.

When Hungary boosted gas prices to more than $3 a gallon in late October, the government refused to commit one forint (then worth about 1.6 cents) of the increase to fund a rebate program to encourage drivers to buy cars with catalytic converters.

Vucka, the Czech deputy environment minister, argues that many East European regions cannot ensure steady supplies of unleaded gasoline, which makes it illogical to pressure drivers to buy cars that require such fuel.

The whole complex of taxes and rebates needs revision, if environmentally conscious driving is to be encouraged.

Currently, the gas-oil mixture needed to power the most polluting cars is considerably cheaper than unleaded or regular gas.

The Hungarian government slaps a 25% service tax on most car repair bills, even for replacement of two-stroke engines or tuneups to reduce their harmful emissions.

The slow pace of environmental legislation is partly attributable to the staggering workload of the East European parliaments. But the fledgling green movements complain that fighting pollution has become politically unpopular because it is viewed as slowing the consumer paradise for which East Europeans long.

Government officials seem largely convinced that the initiative for improvement will have to come from the West. But foreign aid for Eastern Europe's cleanup has been slow in coming. The United States already faces budget difficulties because of a deepening recession, and both it and its West European allies will be footing hefty bills for the Gulf War.

The World Wildlife Fund has suggested that Western governments offer debt-for-environment swaps that would reward Eastern Europe for choosing a cleaner path toward prosperity while dismissing debts that will in any case be difficult to recover.

Environmentalists add that what is needed most is courageous leadership willing to stand together on the hard decisions about their nations' futures.

"It's a big risk for politicians," said Illes. "Look what happened to (former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz) Mazowiecki. He was honest about how difficult the years ahead would be, so no one voted for him and now he's out of power."

Dirty Air

The combination of coal dependence, few pollution controls and energy inefficiency has resulted in levels of sulfur dioxide in Eastern Europe that are among the highest in the world. Ranked by emisions per dollar of gross national product (GNP) and emissons per capita, East European countries are the most heavily polluting. Nitrogen oxide emissions--caused by automobile exhaust, factories and power plants--are also high. (1988 figures)

SULFUR DIOXIDE EMMISSIONS, SELECTED COUNTRIES, 1988

Emissions: In thousands tons Britain: 3,664 Bulgaria: 1,030 Czechoslovakia: 2,800 East Germany: 5,258 Hungary: 1,218 Poland: 4,180 Romania: 1,800 Soviet Union: 10,124 United States: 20,700 West Germany: 1,300

Emissions Per Capita: Britain: 64 Bulgaria: 144 Czechoslovakia: 179 East Germany: 317 Hungary: 115 Poland: 110 Romania: 78 Soviet Union: 35 United States: 84 West Germany: 21

Source: Worldwatch Paper 99, Worldwatch Institute, November, 1990

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