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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.

March 19, 1991|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUDAPEST, Hungary — 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.

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