Floods Leave Environmental Woes in their Wake | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.08.2002
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Floods Leave Environmental Woes in their Wake

In the eastern German town of Bitterfeld, which has been a center of chemical production for more than a century, experts warn that the area's ground water is in danger of chemical contamination.


The area around Bitterfeld is known as the "poison blister"

As flood waters continued to flow through parts of industrial eastern Germany on Monday, environmentalists warned of possible ecological chaos as chemical plants were threatened with rising waters.

Partial evacuations have been instituted in the chemical-producing town of Bitterfeld in Saxony over the past few days. On Friday, Greenpeace issued a statement saying that many of the 350 companies located in Bitterfeld had not taken adequate measures to assure safety in their chemical plants.

“In Bitterfeld they’re working with chemicals that can become highly explosive upon contact with water,” said Greenpeace chemical expert Manfred Krautter. Greenpeace called for production to stop in the city’s chemical factories but was apparently unsuccessful in this attempt.

By Monday, city officials said the danger of flooding at the chemical factories was residing. However, that was not the only concern in one of the most toxic areas of the former East Germany.

The "poison blister"

The area has had an active chemical industry for the past century, and has become known as the Bitterfeld poison blister (“Giftblase”). Chlorine, various acids, nitrates, phosphates, bleach, sulfur and mercury were among the chemicals used for making pesticides, artificial fertilizer, paints, and other chemical products over the years.

“You’ll find everything that was produced in the last century of industrial history under the ground and that’s about 5,000 products,” said Harald Rötschke, head of the regional agency reponsible for toxic clean-up, in an interview with the German news agency DPA.

“There’s nothing comparable in western Germany and even in Europe as a whole it would be hard to find something similar, especially when it comes to the mixture of toxins,” Rötschke said.

The area where groundwater is contaminated stretches approximately 25 square kilometers (15.5 square miles), 6 to 10 of which are severely contaminated. And Rötschke estimated that it would take several decades to clean the groundwater in Bitterfeld.

Damage estimate remains unknown

Meanwhile, German Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin said on Monday during a special meeting of the Bundestag’s environmental committee that it’s impossible to estimate the extent of the flooding’s ecological damage.

He said results from water tests in the Czech Republic, where chemical factories were endangered by flooding, are expected on Wednesday.

In addition to the danger from chemical factories, water safety experts pointed out that contamination is also expected from damaged gas and oil tanks as well as from carcasses of animals killed in the flooding. This will necessitate heavy testing of tap water and food supplies in the flooded areas, experts noted.

Groundwater contamination was not the only area of concern to environmentalists. Over the weekend, an expert from the League for Environmental and Natural Protection (BUND) called for a halt to further development along the Elbe River. Ernst Paul Dörfler said on ZDF television that development along the Elbe had made the river narrower and faster.

Dörfler said money earmarked for further riverside development should be used instead for much-needed flood protection measures.

Politicians take note

Climate experts, meanwhile, said that the reasons behind the flooding remain unclear and warned against blaming global warming before extensive research is completed. The catastrophe has provoked a political debate about German ecological and energy policies.

Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who instituted the “ecology tax” on everything from fuel to electricity as a means to foster conservation, said over the weekend that he would not support raising the tax to pay for flood damage, which has had been suggested by the General Director of the United Nations environmental program, Klaus Töpfer.

Opposition candidate Edmund Stoiber, by contrast, wants the next planned increase of the ecology tax to be abandoned.

While environmentalists publicly pointed to the many disasters resulting from the floods, privately some said they hope the flooding will serve as a wake-up call to the world on the eve of the Earth Summit planned in Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4.

Until recently, the environment was such a low priority among German voters that Schröder had decided to send Trittin and the minister for economic cooperation and development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, to the international conference. The summit is expected to attract some 65,000 participants from around the world and follows up on last such conference in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago.

That would have made Germany the only European country not to send its chief of state to the conference. The recent floods, however, have turned environmental issues into an election issue and Schröder is facing an uphill battle in his fight for reelection. The chancellor now plans to attend the conference for a half day on September 2.

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