See also: From a Distance,
The Long Russian Night
EUROPE'S ENVIRONMENTAL NIGHTMARE: HARD ROAD TO RECOVERY
Eleven European nations are paying a terrible price for their long
years under the communist yoke. Leading a world effort to help undo
the damage is Florida State University.
by Frank Stephenson
Visitors to a 100-year-old oil refinery in southern Poland, near the town of
Katowice, are asked to step inside if they get the urge to smoke.
To western ears, the request sounds at first like a lame joke. But the polite
hosts are serious: A careless toss of a dying match or Marlboro on the oil-
soaked grounds could set off an inferno. Coursing through the 250-acre site
are shallow ditches filled with oil- and gasoline-slicked water, dug to keep the
worst of the volatile run-off from several hellish-looking sludge pits
But contained from what? Scientists who've studied the site have found the
ground to be contaminated to depths reaching dozens of feet. Groundwater
sampled from nearby wells stinks of oil and other gunk.
"In some places, the topsoil is so saturated (with oil) you could almost mine
it," says Mike Kuperberg, a researcher at Florida State University. Last May,
Kuperberg was part of a Florida State team that coordinated a U.S.-led project
at Katowice to demonstrate clean-up technologies now applicable to such
monstrous messes. Should it ever find the money, presumably the Polish
government will be inclined to use such western know-how to reclaim the
refinery and the dozens of sites just like it which make Poland's Upper Silesia
region one of the most frightfully polluted corners of the planet.
As the world now knows, Poland is hardly alone in its environmental
misery. Since the collapse of communism and Soviet dominance of the
region in 1989, conditions in Poland's sister states-principally Hungary, the
Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria-still shock reporters and
scientists who visit the region for the first time. From the Rhine Basin
flanking East Germany to the northern shores of the Black Sea, scientists have
now documented a swath of environmental carnage that holds 100 million
central and eastern Europeans in its depressing grip.
"What we're up against here are problems of, in some cases, unprecedented
scale," says Dr. Roy Herndon, whose Florida State institute Kuperberg works
for. "Considerable progress is being made to address these problems, but
frankly, some of these won't be solved in our lifetimes, if ever."
To fairly characterize the environmental woes of Central and Eastern Europe,
says Herndon, one must imagine a vast region where postcard scenes of
sunny, mountainous countryside and hurtfully beautiful villages lie scattered
amid pockets of truly nightmarish pollution. If such pockets somehow could
have remained isolated during the past 50-odd years of production-at-any-cost
central planning, world opinion on the region surely would be something
other than what it is-typically a blend of contempt and pity.
Finland, for example, blames the region's grossly inefficient and high-sulfur
coal-burning power plants for producing fully half of its polluted air. Such
migratory headaches stem from backward municipal as well as industrial
operations that plague the region-every day, roughly half of the human and
industrial waste from the two million inhabitants of Budapest slides
completely untreated into the Danube, which also serves as the city's primary
source of drinking water. Downstream in the Romanian capital of Bucharest,
the city's daily raw deposit to the same river is closer to 100 percent.
Herndon is not unlike dozens of other western European and U.S. scientists
who have become professionally intrigued with the monumental clean-up
and containment challenges now faced by the former Soviet satellites-not to
mention the former Soviet Union itself. A nuclear physicist by training
(Ph.D. Florida State), for more than 20 years Herndon has directed an applied,
hazardous waste research program within the university's Institute for
Science and Public Affairs. He believes, as do other specialists in dealing with
assorted toxic substances turned out by industry and the military, that only a
coordinated effort by political, scientific and industrial leaders throughout the
world-not just on the European continent-has any chance at all of making
headway toward solving the region's woeful environmental debacle.
"We should view this as a world problem, because clearly, that's what it is,"
he said. "This is not just an environmental problem-it's an economic and
political problem that can pose serious global consequences for years to
What sets Herndon apart from other like-minded researchers in the West is
his stature within a growing, international community of scientists and
corporate leaders whose interests finally are dovetailing in a region
desperately in need of help from all quarters. Since 1992, Herndon and a
small group of researchers and graduate students have been at the helm of a
multinational effort to focus scientific and technical attention on the crisis.
That year, Herndon's 20-year collaboration and friendship with Dr. Peter
Richter, a physicist within the Technical University of Budapest (TUB),
culminated in the first, comprehensive forum for the exchange of scientific
and technical knowledge on environmental topics ever held in Eastern
Europe. Held in Budapest, the three-day symposium attracted scholars,
corporate leaders and environmental policy-makers from 40 countries. A
second meeting in 1994 drew 400 participants who gave scholarly
presentations on subjects ranging from aflatoxin to zinc poisoning. This
September, the biggest of the series is set for Warsaw. Already more than 550
manuscripts have been accepted for presentation from researchers
representing 57 nations, including the Republic of China.
Clearly, the initiative has found an eager audience, namely a core group of
scientists, engineers and industry leaders starved for information on how best
to attack pressing problems in a region beset by environmental emergencies
on all fronts. Already the exchange has set in motion a number of
government/university/industry partnerships that hold promise for
relieving some of the region's most vexing environmental maladies.
"For nearly five decades, the free exchange of such information between East
and West just didn't exist," says Herndon. "Now that it does, the response
has been tremendous. This effort now is institutionalized, with a life of its
The Florida State University Institute for Central and Eastern European
Cooperative Environmental Research (ICEECER)-the team's full name-is
now an internationally recognized forum for the exchange of scientific and
technical knowledge on environmental issues of critical importance to
Europe's former communist states. In 1993, the effort caught the attention of
DOE officials who had been trying to forge links to the region since the mid-
'80s. Impressed with Herndon's bootstrap efforts in Hungary, DOE signed a
five-year cooperative agreement-worth up to $10 million-with Florida
State, directing Herndon's group to spearhead the agency's initiatives in
identifying and testing clean-up technologies in the region's most
DOE's primary interest in working with Herndon's team is directly tied to the
agency's mission in research and development related to environmental
clean-up operations in this country, says DOE Deputy Assistant Secretary Dr.
Clyde Frank. The agency, which runs the nation's nuclear weapons
processing and manufacturing complex, is faced with enormous challenges in
dealing with radioactive and chemical contamination-Uncle Sam's own
coast-to-coast Cold War keepsake.
Frank says DOE also shares an interest with the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency in finding the best, most cost-efficient methods for
cleaning up non-nuclear waste problems that pose health threats both here
and abroad. The terrible environmental insults inflicted on Central and
Eastern Europe during the last 50 years present a unique opportunity to test
assorted clean-up technologies, Frank said, which for a number of reasons
can't be duplicated anywhere else.
"One of the main incentives is cost-saving," he told Research in Review.
"Over here in the U.S., everything is much more expensive to do. Working
in Poland, for example, we can get a lot more research done for a lot less
Florida State's primary role is to serve as a catalyst between scientists,
inventors, manufacturers, environmental managers and the like to meet and
form problem-solving partnerships. Pollution control companies in
America, England, Western Europe and Japan thus get a formal entrŽe into a
market that-at least from a standpoint of need-has no limit, while DOE
stands to benefit by stretching its R&D dollars and getting tailor-made
technologies that can be put to work in the U.S.
"Let's face it," says Frank. "Contamination is worldwide. Mercury in one
country is just like mercury in another. The mechanics of remediation vary
only with the chemistry and physics. So, what we do in Poland or Hungary or
South America is directly applicable to the U.S."
Surveying the Mess
Make no mistake: The Cold War had-still has-its very real casualties. As
the Iron Curtain began to rise across Europe's midsection seven years ago, a
scene never imagined by Marx, Engels, Trotsky or Lenin materialized before a
stunned worldwide audience.
On the European continent, the most disturbing legacy of a 45-year-old
ideological stand-off between the USSR and the U.S. may be seen in the
ruined topsoil, polluted lakes and rivers, fouled air and dead and dying
forests that scar 11 Eastern European countries stretching 1,200 miles from the
Gulf of Finland to the Adriatic Sea. To be sure, the arms race and its
concomitant pell-mell scurry to industrialize took its toll on the
environments of Western European countries as well. But by the early 1970s,
such nations as England, France, Italy and West Germany largely had woken
up to the consequences of their nest-fouling activities, picking up a cue from a
steamed-up environmental movement begun in the U.S. By 1975, the
governments of all EC (European Community) countries had adopted a
"polluter pays" principle that put the brakes on most of the worst kinds of
pollution in those nations, and in the process sparked a major growth
industry in pollution control technology that remains bullish today.
But the green revolution died quickly at the borders of the Soviet puppets.
For obvious reasons, the "polluter pays" principle didn't sell well in systems
where all industry is owned by the government. As a consequence, whole
regions of what was then East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia,
Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria resumed a descent into
Hidden from world scrutiny within their sealed, communist cocoons, the
captains of central planning throughout the region largely ignored
fundamental laws of science and economics in their continued rush to exploit
their countries' natural resources to meet industrial and strategic objectives
sent down from Moscow. Huge areas traditionally given over to farming, for
example, became subject to gigantic factory-building schemes, while other
areas ill-suited for agriculture were exploited for that purpose.
Traditional centers of industry-hearts of the region's extensive mining,
power-generation and metallurgical operations-were scaled up dramatically,
with virtually no thought given to controlling hazardous waste. As a rule,
dams and other water management operations were built willy-nilly, in ill-
planned attempts to support ambitious new agricultural and industrial
projects. Adding heavily to the region's environmental burden was a far-
flung Soviet military complex, representing thousands of sites where fueling
operations, weapons testing and troop training were practiced in total absence
of environmental protection measures of any kind for four decades.
By 1980, cracks in the Soviet sphere of influence in the region were becoming
plainly visible to outsiders, partly a result of a terribly befouled environment
that had driven living conditions to intolerable lows in the more
industrialized countries. Poland, for example, with its massive, non-stop
coal-fired industries, had become one of the most polluted countries on the
continent, with a population forced to breathe a self-generated, poisoned
atmosphere five times dirtier than anything seen in EC countries. Such
environmental wretchedness-a symptom of a worn-out, unworkable
economy-ultimately played a significant role in the rise of Poland's
Solidarity free trade union, which helped bring about the complete collapse of
the propped-up Soviet state in 1989.
Since then, journalists of every stripe have documented the environmental
horrors that continue to plague the region. In some cases, entire villages in
Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic (Czechoslovakia split into two
countries in 1991) have been abandoned because of poisoned water supplies
or contaminated farmland. Acid fog and rain-distilled poison from
countless sulfur-belching smokestacks-are turning hundreds of square miles
of mountain forests into barren rockpiles. In the Czech Republic alone, such
atmospheric contamination has damaged or destroyed fully 70 percent of that
country's woodlands, according to a recent study by the Worldwatch Institute.
A 50,000-acre tract of devastated forests in Poland's Sudety and Beskidy
Mountains, downwind of 12 soot-spewing power plants, has been declared an
ecological disaster area.
From East Germany to Bulgaria's border with Greece, nothing a visitor sees or
smells is more emblematic of the region's environmental dilemma than bad
air. The worst offenders are power plants and enormous steelworks, some of
which still operate on technology born in the 1930s. Trips to highly
industrialized cities as Katowice, Poland and Ostrava, in the Czech Republic,
can be "like walking into a time machine," says John Moerlins, an economist
and associate director for Herndon's Florida State institute.
"What you see in many places over there looks just like Pittsburgh did 40
years ago," he said. "We've had the benefit of two decades of environmental
regulation in this country. They've had virtually none."
Compounding the lack of controls (for the most part, devices such as
electrostatic precipitators and emission scrubbers-technologies that keep
smokestack companies in the U.S. operating-are still rare commodities in
the region) is an industrial base built by a socialist system in which there was
never an incentive to save energy or collectively owned resources, said
Moerlins. As a result, both the methods and machinery of manufacture tend
to be grossly inefficient and thus highly polluting.
For example, a 1992 study found that up to 40 percent of the energy used by
Polish industry was wasted-representing the unnecessary burning of up to
35 million tons of (typically high-sulfur) coal annually. As a case in point, the
study showed that producing one ton of rolled metal in Poland took 22 man-
hours, compared to only five in such highly developed countries as West
Cities throughout Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic-generally
regarded as the most progressive states in the region-still lack rational
systems of energy distribution and consumption. Centrally controlled coal- or
oil-fired boilers feed hot water and steam heat directly to homes and
apartment houses, regardless of demand. Individual metering of residences
is rare-the only way to control temperature in many Budapest apartments is
to open and close windows. Lack of insulation in underground pipes and in
buildings themselves adds volumes to the waste: An energy audit of a city
boiler plant in Krakow in 1992 showed that it took more than 1,000 calories
from the central boiler to produce one calorie of heat in a nearby building.
As if the airborne assault from factory smokestacks wasn't enough, adding to
the tainted air hanging over cities is a noxious bouquet of chemicals supplied
by automobiles, said Moerlins. In Budapest, for example, fumes from the
city's antiquated fleet of Lattas, a popular, Russian-built car that runs on a
two-cycle engine akin to that of a lawnmower, contribute to a choking smog
that often envelops the entire city, home to 60 percent of the nation's
"On weekends in Budapest, when most people are off the street, the air is
generally OK. But by noon Monday, car exhaust is typically at such a level
that it burns your eyes."
Many of the town's citizens routinely carry face masks, to ward off the worst
effects of officially declared "sulfur dioxide alert" days. A health feature
frequented by those suffering from respiratory ailments are "inhalatorium"
booths, where patients sit in clouds of clean steam mist, in hopes of purging
Smoke and ash from chemical plants and coal-burning factories throughout
the region do much more mischief in the environment than make the act of
breathing occasionally hazardous to human health. Fallout from pollution
thrust into the atmosphere includes an assortment of heavy metals, notably
cadmium, zinc and lead, all of which can cause serious health problems at
high or moderate levels.
By 1992, five villages in Poland were permanently evacuated because of soil
soaked with dangerously high levels of heavy metals, some of which are
readily taken up by crops. In 1990, a coal-burning power station in Slovakia
was found to be depositing between a half and one ton of arsenic daily into
the countryside to a distance of 20 miles. Such contamination is potentially
far more destructive than air pollution, because once the stuff settles onto the
ground it tends to stay there, until it leaches into surface and groundwater
supplies, which scientists say is exactly what is happening throughout Eastern
The region's water woes defy simple explanation and belief. The World
Health Organization, in a report released last year, estimates that 12 percent of
the population of Eastern Europe (or about 10 million people) don't have
access to safe drinking water. Part of the reason is that for centuries, the
continent's lush river system has been taken for granted as an open sewer.
For the large part, it still is: As of 1993, upwards of 40 percent of the domestic
and industrial waste generated in all of Europe was being dumped untreated
into rivers, lakes and nearby oceans, according to one study.
As one of dozens of appalling examples, in Bulgaria, a country with roughly
the same area and population as Pennsylvania, nearly all of the country's
rivers were polluted by the 1960s. By the late `80s, the country was still
dumping 60 million tons of waste (two-thirds of which was pig and other
livestock excrement) annually into its rivers and streams. A battery of huge
chemical plants, together with uranium mining and gigantic agricultural
concerns concentrated in the country's Bourgas region on the Black Sea coast,
has created streams of wastes of astounding toxicity. Just last year, Bourgas
Bay was described by scientists as a cocktail of organic pollutants that had
effectively destroyed traditional fish spawning grounds in the bay. High
levels of heavy metals were found at all depths, and even the beaches around
much of the bay reportedly were found to be highly radioactive.
Such travesties, says one official from the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency, stand as mute testimony to the U.S. government's crackdown on
polluters in this country years ago. Still irksome to many business and
conservative political elements, the regulations didn't come any too soon, as
EPA's multi- billion Superfund project, begun in 1980, so ably demonstrates,
says Dr. John Haederle, director of international activities in EPA's Region I
headquarters in Boston.
Consequently, Americans today "simply wouldn't tolerate" the kind of
environmental abuses that he sees as commonplace in Eastern Europe and in
Russia, he said.
"People here take for granted the strides we've made in this country. They
forget about the days when the Cuyahoga River (in Ohio) would actually
catch on fire. In this country, we've largely forgotten about how things used
to be and how far we've come."
The Health Question
That Eastern Europe has an environmental crisis of colossal proportions on
its hands is now old news. The question yet to be fully answered is how such
monumental pollution is impacting human health throughout the region
and in neighboring countries.
"The health issue is really what this is all about, of course," says Herndon.
"Everyone involved understands that the central goal of any effort like this
has to be the ultimate restoration of a clean, safe environment for the
citizens-and future citizens-of Central and Eastern Europe."
Entire sessions of the two multifaceted symposia Florida State has
orchestrated since 1992 have been given over to health-related research. A
good deal of time and space is reserved for discussions of Western-style risk
assessment, now the cornerstone of environmental clean-up efforts in all
developed countries. Basically, the approach is a science-based method of
trying to ascertain the degree to which humans can live safely in the presence
of various kinds of contaminants, with the view that total eradication of all
anthropogenic (human-caused) pollution is impractical if not impossible,
both technically and economically.
Risk assessment is hardly without its critics, and from all quarters.
Environmentalists balk at the notion of officially sanctioned, acceptable levels
of contamination, saying they give polluters too-easy outs, while some
conservatives accuse risk assessors of blowing minor problems out of
proportion, thereby wasting money and costing jobs. Not a few scientists hold
the methodology suspect for what they view as its frequent reliance on
assumptions as opposed to scientific fact.
But for all its imperfections, modern risk assessment is the only practical tool
available for evaluating the danger to humans obliged to live in less-than-
pristine environments, says Dr. Christopher Teaf (Ph.D. Arkansas), a risk
assessment expert and chief toxicologist with Florida State's Center for
Biological and Toxicological Research, a unit Herndon also oversees. Teaf
also serves as an associate director of the European research institute.
"Risk assessment is a way of balancing whatever problems you face against
social and economic considerations," he said. "It's the only reasonable,
practical way to get to the next step, risk management, which is developing
cost-effective clean-up strategies based on what you know about the health
consequences of a particular contaminant and what resources you have to
deal with them."
Herein lies the rub for the whole of Central and Eastern Europe. Without
good data, risk assessment and management efforts are meaningless. A nearly
universal lack of monitoring data throughout even the most severely
impacted areas-coupled with skimpy analyses of the amount and kind of
contaminants affecting a given site-has stymied progress in risk assessment
and thus continues to slow up remediation efforts.
Since the fall of communism, health professionals working in the region
have been on a campaign to come up with answers, to find links between
commonplace diseases-mainly heart and respiratory ailments and cancer-
and pollution. Isolated studies of such associations abound- in Krakow,
heavy air pollution is blamed for 10 percent of lung cancer cases in women in
that city; in Copsa-Mica, Romania, lead- and cadmium-laced fallout from
local steelworks is suspected of causing lowered IQ and abnormal heights and
weights in children.
But in the main, health officials remain frustrated, unable to get the kinds of
exposure data they need to show clear, cause-and-effect relationships. Denied
such information, planners are forced do the best they can with what they've
got in setting priorities on how best to spend scarce clean-up money.
Even without bulletproof statistics, however, health officials say it's possible
to look at broad indicators to judge the relative safety of human habitats.
Among the best is life expectancy, an indicator based on generally reliable and
fairly accessible statistics.
In its summary report last year, the World Health Organization (WHO)
reiterated findings that show a striking difference in life expectancies between
eastern and western European countries. This gap, which began to open up
in the 1960s, is widening, "mainly because of the rather sharp deterioration of
health in most of the newly independent states (NIS) of the former USSR and
some countries of Central and Eastern Europe," the report said. Meanwhile,
life expectancy in every other European country "shows a further steady
Specifically, the study found that overall life expectancy for both sexes in the
west is 75.6 years, compared to 69.6 in the East. In the NIS countries-
remnants of the USSR-average life span was found to have "dropped to the
lowest levels seen in decades."
In every major cause-of-death category WHO examined, from cardiovascular
diseases to cancer, the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, along with the
NIS countries, show an ever-widening gap with their western neighbors.
More than half the difference is attributed to heightened levels of
cardiovascular diseases, possibly aggravated by smoking and exposure to
elevated levels of carbon monoxide. Lung cancer is on a steady rise
throughout the old Eastern bloc, a phenomenon WHO attributes to a
skyrocketing rate of smoking (the region's new free-market economies are
paying off handsomely for U.S. tobacco companies).
When the statistics are added up, "premature mortality" (which WHO
defines as dying before age 65) is roughly three times higher in Eastern Europe
than in the west. The organization predicts that this disparity will continue,
and life expectancy in some countries may continue to fall, as it has in
Hungary since 1989.
This statistic brings it all home to TUB's Richter. On a recent visit to campus,
he talked about the bauxite mining operations outside his native Budapest,
and how millions of tons of red mud-a byproduct loaded with heavy metal
residues-lie hemmed in makeshift holding ponds, ready to make an already
bad situation even worse.
"Our life expectancy is eight to 10 years shorter than what you have in the
U.S.-shorter also than in England or France," he says. "There is an
indication it's related to our environmental problems. Yet some of these are
so very hard to deal with."
Richter believes one of the largely unaddressed problems not only in
Hungary but throughout the region is pollution in the workplace-poor
indoor air and water quality forced upon workers.
"In some ways, this is more critical than what goes on outside," he said. "You
can characterize the soil of a field or the water of a lake or river, but it's very
difficult to get into a workplace and do measurements because companies
aren't often willing to let this be done. This is a very serious situation, and
one thing we're focusing on in our symposia."
No sooner did the last Russian tank clank out of Eastern Europe in 1990 than
the door to an arena of environmental awareness spring wide open from the
Baltic to the Black Sea.
Florida State's foray into the plight of the former Soviet satellites-which
actually began well before the communist "utopia" collapsed-quickly
became one of many Western initiatives aimed at helping the countries of
Central and Eastern Europe deal with the burdens of sudden independence.
Even faced with economic disaster from the switch from central planning to
market-based economies, such countries as Poland, Hungary, East Germany
and Czechoslavakia kept their sights firmly on a common goal-salvation
from environmental catastrophe. By 1990, numerous cooperative programs
aimed at addressing the region's environmental dilemma had sprung up,
linking governments of the East with those of the West. Outside
government channels, environmental activists from Albania to Latvia
formed dozens of grassroots, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that
launched environmental public awareness campaigns. Massive outlays of
western capital for various environmental programs began pouring in from
such sources as the World Bank, the United Nations, international trade
organizations and the U.S. government.
At the urging of George Bush, in 1989 Congress passed the Support for Eastern
European Democracy (SEED) Act, which among other things directed the
Department of Energy to assess Poland's capability of modifying its industries'
dirty and inefficient combustion equipment to burn clean fuels such as
natural gas. Although vestiges of central planning mentality still linger in
Poland, today the country's progress in revamping its industrial
infrastructure is being viewed as a model for the rest of Eastern Europe,
according to a report in Chemical and Engineering News.
Last May's project at Katowice, coordinated by Florida State and backed by
DOE, was the first large-scale demonstration to emerge from the university's
early initiatives in neighboring Hungary. More than 100 business,
government and university representatives turned out to witness the latest
in a variety of U.S. technologies applied to soil steeped in hydrocarbons-oil
and its many derivatives.
But as another spin-off of the Florida State-led initiative shows, technology
transfer isn't a one-way street from West to East. At the first symposium in
Budapest in 1992, the work of a group of Czech scientists came to light and
almost immediately caught the attention of American scientists working on
the same problem-how to remove radioactive contamination from large
volumes of wastewater. The meeting led to a DOE contract, administered
through Herndon's institute, with the scientists at the Czech Technical
University in Prague. A similar DOE-funded contract soon followed with
Richter's research group at TUB. Such work is expected to culminate soon in
a European-led demonstration project on contaminated DOE sites in this
country, Herndon said.
"These examples typify DOE's interest in the region. The agency is eager to
find solutions wherever it can to pressing problems right here at home."
Of late, DOE is feeling stepped-up pressure from Congress to get cracking on
the cleanup of dozens of U.S. nuclear weapons research and testing sites,
home to tens of thousands of nuclear warheads and millions of cubic yards of
hazardous and radioactive waste. On some sites, such exotic garbage taints
drinking water at levels well above safety limits. Estimates on the bill for this
titanic cleaning job have touched a trillion dollars.
Whatever techniques European scientists may come up with for dealing with
their own nuclear nightmares may very well be applicable over here, and
cheaper to boot.
"Congress is basically telling DOE that if it can spend $50,000 in Poland, for
example, to produce a technology that could wind up saving $50 million in
the U.S., then do it."
DOE is banking on its designated "lead horse" in East Europe-Florida State-
to tie together partnerships that will benefit the U.S. in other ways, principally
by opening doors for American companies to Europe's market for
environmental technology, which is potentially boundless. In 1993, for
Central and Eastern Europe this market was estimated to be worth $36 billion,
with forecasts it would hit $55 billion by the year 2000.
Dozens of U.S. corporations are lining up to pitch their environmental wares,
which are obliged to go up against tough competition from England, France,
Germany and Japan. Congress has charged DOE, the EPA and other agencies
with going after such business in the name of beefing up American industrial
That's one reason Herndon's symposia feature large, international trade
shows, which are carefully integrated into each conference. All exhibitors
present scientific and technical papers, right alongside academic researchers,
and then get the chance to demonstrate their products to a ready-made
audience. Such American firms as AMS Corporation, an Indiana-based
distributor of environmental sampling and analytical equipment, and
Atlantic Environmental Services of Connecticut, already have parlayed their
conference participation into new customers in Prague, the Czech Republic,
the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Denmark, Herndon said. Both
companies are scheduled to exhibit at Warsaw `96.
"The trade fairs are where some of the most exciting interaction at our
conferences takes place," he says. "People get to see and hear firsthand how
others are dealing with the same problems they are. Then they meet experts
who specialize in solving those very problems. In the end, it's always going
to be people coming together in settings like this to get things done."
The Long Road Back
In the heart of Europe's greatest wetland, the Danube Delta-a 1.4 million-
acre marshland lying mainly in Romania-lies an ugly scar. Healing slowly
now, it remains a wretched reminder of the days of Nicolae Ceausescu, the
Romanian despot who was finally overthrown and shot by his disgusted
subjects in December 1989.
Ceausescu's foul legacy in the delta was his 20-year-long attempt to convert
much of this delicate ecosystem into farmland, a purpose for which it was
eminently unsuited. He failed, but not before inflicting massive damage to
nearly a quarter-million acres of land which Western biologists have long
recognized as some of most naturally valuable property on earth-when left
Nothing better illustrates the staggering dimensions of Eastern Europe's
environmental crisis than the Danube Delta, suffering from decades of
mindless abuse. The traditional nesting-ground for more than 160 species of
aquatic birds, the delta's famed bird population is a ghost of what it once was,
thanks to drainage ditches, dikes, river channelization and mounting
pollution. In just the past 20 years, the delta's once-robust fishery has been cut
by half. Recent studies, reported in American Scientist, show that the delta's
waters are in an advanced state of eutrophication-the oxygen-sucking
process of rot-and the diversity of fish, plankton, insects, mollusks, aquatic
plants and every other form of life except algae and bacteria is on a steady
Considering what the delta is up against, it's a testament to the tenacity of life
that anything lives there at all. This vast lowland is the settling pond for the
storied Danube River, which courses 1,800 miles through Central and Eastern
Europe, making it the second longest river (behind the Volga) on the
continent. The river stumbles through 30 dams in nine nations, and
dutifully picks up these countries' revolting garbage every day.
Roughly 12 percent of Europe's population, or 86 million people, live in the
Danube's drainage area. Upwards of three-quarters of all the human and
industrial wastewater this population generates daily is dumped into the
Danube, completely untreated. Accumulations mount the further
downstream one goes, until the worst of the filth finally fans out in the delta.
Samples of delta mud show a kaleidoscope of pollution, including heavy
metals, DDT and other pesticides, a witch's brew of industrial chemicals
including polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs), solvents and lubricants, plus
high levels of phosphates and nitrates-fertilizer run-off from upriver
The problem doesn't end there. Unable to absorb the massive load of
nutrients it receives daily, the delta disgorges the overload directly into the
Black Sea, the final repository of waste from dozens of other sources. In 1990,
scientists found that the depth of the sea's chemocline (the level at which
water becomes stripped of oxygen and thus is largely stagnant) had risen from
185 feet to 120 feet over a period of just a few years. This rising dead zone was
described as a signal that the entire Black Sea may be headed for a biological
The predicament of the once-gloried Danube and its delta region symbolizes
the profound social, cultural and economic barriers that the nations of
Central and Eastern Europe are struggling to overcome in their bids to be
welcomed into the world's community of environmentally responsible
nations. Since the downfall of communism in the region, unprecedented
progress has been made in linking scientific, governmental and industrial
interests throughout the Danube basin in a united effort to combat the
ecosystem's decline. Toughened environmental laws in Hungary, Poland
and the Czech Republic are helping, along with increasing progress in selling
the "polluter pays" principle to industry. In 1993, for example, five Danube
countries reportedly raised over $450 million through fines levied against
heavy polluters. With continued subsidies, loans and outright gifts from the
West, the wherewithal to mount a serious clean-up campaign throughout the
Danube basin is the highest it's ever been.
Still, the river's demise continues, chiefly because of political, social and
economic squabbles among the nine nations through which the Danube
flows. No one is kidding themselves-the river that stirred the genius of
Johann Strauss 130 years ago is forever gone. But the money raised so far
toward correcting some of the worst abuses to this cherished resource is a
pittance compared to what's needed, scientists say.
"Wastewater treatment is a big investment for any city or country, but it's
especially a burden in Eastern Europe where the nations aren't particularly
rich," says Richter. "People know these discharges have been going on for
hundreds of years, and this has created a feeling that nothing bad happens, so
why not go on doing it?
"Nowadays, of course, the burden on the river is orders of magnitude higher
than it once was. Still, the fact is that treatment facilities don't bring a profit,
at least not right away-and that's the real problem."
The sudden disintegration of the Soviet bloc was cold water in the face of
every newly independent nation on the continent. The abrupt end of
government subsidies to artificially stable industries touched off unheard-of
inflation and unemployment figures throughout the region. Some countries
are making remarkable economic recoveries-notably the former East
Germany, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic-but others appear to be
still in a state of shock. Inflation in Romania and Bulgaria, for example, has
been running in the triple digits since 1993. Poland and Hungary are seen as
the brightest hope for economic turn-around, but even these countries are
struggling to catch up to EC countries. At the end of 1995, for example,
Poland's inflation rate was still hovering at 28 percent, with unemployment
at 15 percent.
"Without healthy economies, it's almost impossible for these nations to fund
the kind of environmental protection and remediation measures they
desperately need," said Florida State's Moerlins. "So, the real problem (for
cleanup) isn't how to find a technology to do the job, it's where to find the
money to pay for it."
Thus the reason Florida State's initiatives in the region so strongly promote
the virtues of risk assessment, he said.
"With the economic transition these nations are going through, money for
cleanup is so severely limited that the few resources available simply must be
allocated for what we call the `maximum advantage.' Risk assessment helps
us define exactly what `maximum advantage' is, so we can rank things in an
objective order of priorities."
A tall order, to be sure. Battlefield surgeons have a form of it called "triage"-
sorting casualties by type and severity of their wounds. Once established,
recovery will still require huge infusions of capital, and that's not likely to
come anytime soon from the albeit rapidly mending economies of some
Eastern European states, says EPA's Haederle.
"It will take large, multinational sources of money to turn the corner," he
says. "Western capital has got to be the solution. All we can do right now is
to give them the tools, which they can use if and when they have the
One Major Step for Humankind
Herndon, Moerlins, Richter, Kuperberg, Teaf and other members of the
Florida State institute have surveyed sites from Russia to Germany's Black
Forest. In 1994, they conducted a NATO-sponsored workshop that assessed
the environmental messes left by a retreating Soviet army, which in its
contempt for its "hosts" dumped untold tons of oily waste and other poisons
on the ground on its way out. More than 170 heavily contaminated sites sit
in Hungary alone-thousands more lie scattered across the region,
representing one of the largest clean-up challenges on Earth.
Last year in Prague, the Florida State team held the first international
gathering of experts in the cleanup of manufactured gas plants (MGPs). Such
factories, which convert coal and oil to gas often using technology that dates
to the 18th century, typically produce coal tar and other byproducts that
contain some of the most carcinogenic compounds known.
Most MGPs in the West were shut down years ago-the last one in America
went dark in the 1950s. But cost estimates for cleaning nearly 2,500 U.S. sites
still contaminated range up to $75 billion, and may take another 30 years to
complete, experts say. Across Central and Eastern Europe, MGPs still operate,
though not nearly as commonly as they once did. Closed plants, sitting atop
piles of toxic waste, are being squeezed from all sides for living space-a
possible scenario for a Love Canal, European-style.
All of the above suggests yet another motive for western intervention into
the region. Humanitarian aid can assume many forms, none better than
what has begun in earnest with international cooperation in the newly
independent states of Europe. In what was largely viewed as the first
worldwide humanitarian response, in 1993 the governments of 21 nations,
including the U.S., adopted a strategic plan for meeting Europe's
environmental crisis head-on, and pledged $30 million in aid specifically
earmarked for environmental programs. This summer, the U.S. DOE,
together with the EPA and several other federal agencies, are scheduled to
launch a clean-up project in Ukraine aimed at reducing levels of radioactive
strontium and cesium-fallout from the 1986 nuclear accident at
Chernobyl-from milk supplies, a problem that continues to seriously impact
the health of Ukraine schoolchildren.
Most everywhere they look these days, Herndon and Richter are seeing signs
that humanitarian and economic aid are beginning to make positive
environmental impacts, particularly in Hungary, the Czech Republic and
Poland. Because of their remarkable progress in adopting market economies,
these three countries are n
ow in a "horserace to see who can get ahead quickest," says Herndon.
Richter's hopes for his native Hungary have good reason to be buoyed-right
now, the country is receiving upwards of 50 percent of the total western
investment in Eastern Europe, he said. A raft of American and Japanese
companies, including Ford, General Motors, IBM and Suzuki, have opened
up all-new factories in Hungary, helping to fill gaping holes in the Hungarian
economy left by now-bankrupt smokestack industries of the communist era.
Each of the new arrivals comes equipped with the latest in pollution control
gear, setting standards for older industries and for those yet to come.
"All of these new industries are being built with environmental safeguards
designed to meet standards for admission into the EC," Herndon said. "This
is a tremendous incentive for these countries to clean up."
Admission to the EC is a bonafide ticket to a world market that includes
potentially huge pay-offs not only in private investment but in tourism as
well. Already evident is stepped-up competition in the region for the tourist
dollar-Herndon's next symposium being a case in point. The Warsaw
meeting in September will be the first time the conference has stepped
outside Hungary, evidence of a steadily improving regional infrastructure
and an aroused marketplace now willing and able to compete for the tourist
trade for the first time in half a century.
"It's not environmental idealism doing this, by the way," says Herndon.
"This is being driven entirely by economics. People are simply tired of being
poor. They want more money and a better life."
Both Herndon and Richter are optimistic that's where life is finally headed
for millions of Central and Eastern Europeans, although it's likely to be a slow
process for most.
"In correcting all the region's environmental problems, we're just not going
to see anything change much overnight," Herndon said. "But we're already
seeing incremental improvements that eventually will result in major, long-
lasting changes for the better."
Within 20 years, Herndon believes the region's industrial base will include
components that match some of the environmentally friendliest found
anywhere, thanks to a new paradigm in environmental consciousness rapidly
developing between industry and government.
He's gratified to know, too, that Florida State University is helping to make it
happen. Richter, for example, said the conference series directly influenced
the passage last January of what many believe is the strongest environmental
bill in Hungary's history.
"What's interesting now is how this collaboration has become a recognized
and expected event among experts in all (scientific) fields, not just in Europe
but elsewhere," said Richter. "Nobody is doing anything like this on such a
comprehensive scale, and it's truly exciting to be part of it, because there's so
terribly much at stake."