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Central Europe: Practical Solutions Found For Environmental Problems

Warsaw, 28 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Officials at an international symposium on environmental contamination in Central and Eastern Europe have said the region has made significant environmental progress during recent years and is moving from the stage of identifying problems to that of solving them.

Environmental experts from some 40 countries, took part in a recent three-day symposium (Sept. 15-17) in Warsaw. The meeting was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, Florida State University and several international organizations.

The biannual gathering is the outgrowth of the collaboration of two scientists, Roy Herndon of Florida State University and Peter Richter of the Technical University of Budapest.

"The key purpose is to bring East and West together and create a forum for creating alliances," Herndon told RFE/RL in an interview in Warsaw. "It's good to see that those who were talking about the problems six years ago are now solving them."

One problem discussed extensively at the conference was that of phytoremediation, which could prove useful in extracting metals from soils. The process is being developed through joint research by Florida State's Institute for Central and Eastern European Cooperative Environmental Research, the U.S. Energy Department and Poland's Institute for Ecology of Industrial Areas in Katowice. Another joint project involves microbe research. "One of the key issues in this symposium is how go get out certain metals from surface soils," Herndon said. "Microbes that can live in toxic environmental can be used to biodegrade toxic hydrocarbons."

Herndon said the first alliances were created among participants from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, but the symposium for the first time includes substantial representation from Eastern Europe, including Belarus, Ukraine and 20 participants from Russia.

"We are still on the early part of the growth curve and there is a long way to go, but we are definitely on that part of the curve that is now solving problems," Herndon said. "My expectations are that within five or 10 years we will see noticeable improvements. As the economies of these countries improve they are going to be able to put more of their domestic product into cleanup."

Ewa Marchwinska, director of the Katowice-based Institute for Ecology of Industrial Areas, spoke of another joint project involving the cleanup of a refinery near Katowice. "It was a terrible lagoon full of toxic materials two years ago," she told RFE/RL. "Now it's green with grass."

Marchwinska said that the improvement in environment has important economic significance. Investors do not want to locate their enterprises and build plants in polluted areas.

"They apply for clean land, in most instances get it, and are afraid to invest in the polluted areas," she said. "Such a land is cheaper but they are that authorities might burden them with the cleaning costs,"

Anna Kalinowska, an official in the Polish Ministry of Environment in charge of contacts with NATO, told RFE/RL that the admission into the Alliance creates new tasks for the government.

"We have to create rules for Polish and foreign troops which will be exercising in Poland," she said, "protection of the environment will be the focus of these rules." But a NATO official attending the symposium said that the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - the three Central European countries slated to gain membership next year -- will benefit environmentally by joining.

Denitz Beten, chief coordinator of the NATO Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society, told RFE/RL that areas used for military exercises will be subject to environment-friendly standards. She said that commanders will be issued maps marked for areas of special protection. "The main targets are not only to clean up what has already been damaged, but to prevent pollution in the future," Beten said.