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Floods Bring Relief to Friends of Elbe River

Europe: Environmental activists are thrilled that plans to dredge the German waterway for shipping have been sunk by summer's deluge.


DESSAU, Germany — It came from the heavens with thunder and lightning and a deluge of biblical proportions.

Much as one would imagine a miracle, the rescue of the Elbe River--which had been creeping along for a decade--culminated this summer when the skies opened and washed away deeply unpopular plans to dredge the central stretch of the waterway for shipping.

Just a month before the deluge, Germans reveled in the Elbe's newfound purity with a mass "Bathing Day" along its 700-mile length. They rejoiced that the river, which for centuries had been celebrated in art, history and literature, had recovered from the reckless industrial development of the Communist era. And they railed against the dredging plan, whose proponents sought relief from overwhelmed freight trains and truck-clogged highways.

Then came the torrential rains, wiping out billions in property and killing at least 20 people. Environmentalists and scientists are blaming the flood on global warming from harmful gases released by automobiles, airplanes and industry. Suddenly, long-ignored warnings are being heeded that messing with the natural order of things can lead to destruction.

"The political lobby pushing to dredge the river has completely fallen apart since the floods," says Ernst Paul Doerfler, a writer who has spearheaded an Elbe cleanup mission for the last decade for the Assn. for Environment and Nature Protection. "Even the chancellor has recently come out against the project."

Now the regional development priority is on projects more in harmony with nature.

"The Elbe is the last free-flowing major river left in Europe," says Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the environmentalist Greens party. "It doesn't even make economic sense to dredge it, and I'm sure after this catastrophe that the project will be reconsidered."

Until recently, the waterway that once provided a backdrop for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the Brothers Grimm was so befouled that it could poison a person's blood. Quicksilver from chemical plants in Bitterfeld and paper-mill effluent from Dresden had made their way to the mainstream, slowly choking to death millennium-old oaks with the byproducts of hell-bent industrialization.

"There was so much lead in the soil from industrial waste that we had to remove the surviving animals from the [game preserve] to prevent their dying from lead poisoning," horticulturist Ludwig Trauzettel recalls. "And people couldn't sit on the grass. It was so infused with chemical waste, it had to be disposed of in sealed containers."

But Europe's filthiest river has proven extraordinarily forgiving. As the factories and energy plants that had powered the East German economy shut down after Germany's 1990 reunification, they took their poisonous effluents and workplaces with them.

Gone, almost overnight, were the oil refineries, the coal-fired electricity plants, the smoke-belching steel factories and the pesticide-spewing farm machinery that had been dumping waste water into the river throughout the rapid industrial buildup that followed World War II.

West German industries also played a part in the Elbe's 20th century pollution. At the river's broad outlet into the North Sea, at Cuxhaven, biologist Heinrich Reincke has been monitoring the river's flow and water quality for the last two decades. He notes, as a nearby example, the massive Dow Chemical plant in Stade that was dumping toxins at the rate of 12 tons a day in 1980. Subsequent changes in environmental regulation and technology improvements have reduced that to less than 440 pounds daily, he says.

Along the length of the Elbe, industrial cleanup and shutdown led to a virtual halt in the dumping of heavy metals. The construction of better sewers and drainage cut nutrient waste by 70%.

The most telling of the Elbe's recent turning points, though, was the river-long "baptism" held July 14, in which thousands of swimmers gleefully waded into the waters from the sandy shores and city piers along the river. The mass bathing event is expected to be an annual activity.

One of the few surviving stretches of river in Central Europe spared the concrete flanking and locks built to facilitate shipping, the Elbe is a scene of bucolic serenity as it flows lazily from the urban centers of Dresden and Magdeburg. Dessau and other smaller riverfront cities along the Mittlere Elbe, or Middle Elbe, nurtured hopes after the cleanup of returning to the tree-shaded banks and reedy estuaries that their grandparents fondly remembered as weekend idylls.

Those dreams seemed shattered amid the roaring, churned-up torrent that swept through the central reaches in mid-August. But scientists such as Reincke say the damage will be short-lived. In fact, the muck-covered towpaths and riverside trails are now mostly clear again as the sun returned after the deluge.

Locals say the region's most attractive sights are dependent on a clean Elbe--a point the dredging enthusiasts now seem unwilling to counter.

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