30 Years of Research in Review

Cleaning up After Communism

by Roy C. Herndon

The environmental wake-up call that sounded in the U.S. in the mid-70s triggered a social and political upheaval that radically changed the way American industries conducted business and sent a message of hope to an emerging environmental consciousness worldwide.

America, though, was in far better position economically and politically than most countries to reverse its polluting ways. In regions of the world still under the yoke of communism, for example, the environmental movement faced implacable difficulties.
A GEOPROBE, a state-of-the art tool for analyzing subsurface pollution, is deployed near an oil refinery sludge pond in Poland.

When the Iron Curtain finally collapsed in November 1989, the world saw for the first time the great environmental cost of decades of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe (see "Hard Road to Recovery," this magazine, summer96). Throughout the region, emphasis on production at the expense of the environment led to severe degradation of air and water quality, coastal areas, soils, sediments, crops and forestlands.

For most of the last decade of the 20th century, countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, and the former East Germany struggled to absorb the enormous economic costs associated with massive environmental clean-up. Facing much of the same problems that plagued major U.S. industrial regions 40 years ago, such countries also had to deal with an almost complete lack of regulatory incentives essential for stopping some of the worst pollution and for opening the door to Western help in the form of capital and investment.

The upshot is that the new millennium will see a cleaner, safer Europe, thanks to the opening up of markets, partnerships with indigenous scientists and clean-up companies both in Europe and in the West, and most importantly, pressure by the European Union to meet certain environmental milestones for membership. The "environmental voice" in the former European communist bloc is now more loudly heard in parliamentary and other political forums at all levels of government. The press, which in the past was typically not an independent voice, now plays a significant role in bringing about necessary environmental changes.

Though the clean-up work in Europe has far to go, the great strides already made on that continent testify to what can be done when governments finally realize the true cost of dirty air, water and soil to their economic and political survival. The same environmental expertise that now is cleaning up Central and Eastern Europe is available for export around the globe, to heal environmental wounds associated with past political systems. Many environmental scientists agree that some of the world's worst pollution occurs in the People's Republic of China. Reportedly, only about 30 percent or less of the 27 billion metric tons of waste water discharged in China each year is treated in some fashion and air pollution exceeds environmental standards by hundreds of percent. The central city of Lanzhou, for example, a hub of petro-chemical and machine production, is recognized as one of the planet's most polluted cities with the least breathable air in the world, according to the World Resources Institute. Nine out of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, in fact, are reported to be in China (the other is in India).

In China the philosophy for achieving economic gain has been to follow the pathway taken by most of the developed western countries-often summarized as "first get rich, then get clean". Taking all costs into account, the World Bank estimates that the pricetag in China for pollution may be close to 10 percent of the GDP. The country's pollution goes beyond its significance for China alone-because of its magnitude, it's a significant threat to environments around the globe.

Roy C. Herndon (Ph.D. Physics, FSU) is director of FSU's Institute for International Cooperative Environmental Research (www.iicer.fsu.edu). He can be reached at: rherndon@mailer.fsu.edu or phone: (850) 644-5524.