The Multinational Monitor

JUNE 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 6


Baltic Environmental Blues

by Henryk Urbanowski

Warsaw, Poland-As the scope of environmental degradation in the Soviet Union is revealed and the political space for opposition in the country grows, environmentalism is emerging in the republics as one of the most powerful elements on the political landscape. In Lithuania, people are beginning to stand up against what they view as Moscow's exploitation of their natural wealth.

The proposed Soviet-Italian joint venture ECO-LITA demonstrates clearly the gross disregard for safety and health that Moscow has displayed toward the people of Lithuania. In cooperation with the Italian ENI corporation, the Russians want to develop a petroleum refining plant in Lithuania to produce unleaded gasoline; the plant would have been the first of its kind in Eastern and Central Europe.

The details of the deal were long kept secret from the Lithuanians. When information finally became public, the authorities promised that a representative of ENI would hold meetings at which the affected population could ask questions and air grievances. These meetings never took place, however, as the Italian executives limited their visit to Lithuanian officials. According to Aidas Vaisnoris, secretary of the Lithuanian ecological movement, "Only a leak revealed that Lithuania will not profit by this investment." Vaisnoris says that the leak revealed that Lithuania would not benefit from the new plant because it "would have to pay Moscow in U.S. dollars" for the gasoline.

The central Moscow government has handled the introduction of nuclear power to Lithuania in a similar fashion. One of the world's biggest nuclear power plants, the Ignalina facility, is located in Lithuania despite the fact that there is no popular support in the region for the power plant. Opposition has been very strong, in fact, and protests against it in 1986 and 1987 were a catalyst for the emergence and growth of several Lithuanian social and political opposition groups, including Sajudis, the main political party leading the call for Lithuanian independence.

Both the planning for the plant and its operation have been extremely poor. It was built in the vicinity of a tectonic fault and of important artesian springs. A number of minor accidents have already occurred and have taken a serious toll on the region, according to a Lithuanian environmentalist. "Since Ignalina began operating in 1984, the temperature of the Druska River has risen noticeably. At the same time the number of the plankton varieties dropped from 100 to 20, while the fish disappeared."

What the Lithuanians fear most about the Ignalina plant, however, is that it is equipped with the same type of reactors as those used in Chernobyl. Local observers point out that "such reactors are not used in the West due to the fact that . . . security measures are extremely difficult to ensure in the event of human error." They say that it would be almost impossible for the staff to regain control of the situation once a potential accident has been set in motion. "In Western reactors, the station staff have six to seven hours of response time to deal with the problem. At Ignalina, the response time is as short as one minute, with [a] manual rather than [an] automatic control system."

The gigantic chemical plants and cement works, built during the last 20 years, cause further ecological damage, contributing to the devastation of nature in Lithuania and harming the inhabitants' health. These industrial installations are too big for the needs of the Lithuanian republic. In fact, only 20 to 30 percent of their production remains in the region, while the rest is sent to other parts of the Soviet Union. Moreover, Lithuania does not receive any financial rewards from this internal export, as the profits are returned to Moscow. In the opinion of many Lithuanians, "the big Soviet investments in the Baltic republics only served as a means of Soviet colonization of this region."

The protection against toxic emissions is very primitive in these plants. Among the giant polluters built by the Russians in Lithuania are:

  • chemical plants in Kedainiai and Jonava;
  • a petroleum refining plant in Mezeikiaia;
  • cement works in Naujoji Akmene;
  • a hydroelectric power plant in Kaisiadorys, which is destroying the natural ecosystem surrounding it and interfering with the Nieman River's capacities for self-purification; and
  • the biggest Baltic oil terminal, which has almost totally destroyed the biological life in what was one of the Baltic's richest ecosystems--the Courland Lagoon.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these factories is the chemical plant, in Jonava which produces ammonium nitrates, liquid fertilizers, nitro-phosphate and liquid ammonium. On March 20, 1989, 7,000 tons of ammonium exploded at the plant killing seven people and forcing the evacuation of the town's 34,000 inhabitants. Medical examinations of the children of Jonava conducted several months after the incident revealed that 96 percent of them had illnesses connected to the explosion.

The adults were not examined at that time, but observers say that those living in the vicinity of the plant are suffering from chronic eye disorders, respiratory tract and skin irritations even before the accident. At a similar plant in Kedainiai, some claim that 24 percent of the people living within three and a half miles of the chemical plant suffer from conjunctivitis. They say that complaints of eye and nose problems are commonplace in the town and that the Kedainiai region registers the highest number of cases of cancer among both men and women in all of Lithuania. Lithuanians complain about other plants in the region as well.

The residents of Lithuania are not accepting these environmental threats passively, however, and support for the environmental movement is growing quickly. In fact, the periodical Zauliuj Lietuna (The Green Lithuania), established in 1988, already has a circulation of 50,000 among a Lithuanian-speaking population of only two million.

Environmentalists have been especially active in opposing pesticide use. A report published by the Lithuanian Green Party titled "The Ecological Situation of Lithuania" claims that "Every year Lithuania uses about 80 different brands of pesticides, for a total of 9,000 tons over 2.5 million hectares of land." Currently, there are no attempts being made to grow crops without pesticides, and little has been done to implement biological anti-pest techniques such as integrated pest management.

Popular concern with the effects of pesticides is high, however. When the Green Party conducted a boycott of milk, for example, which it believed was contaminated with pesticides it was able to reduce the demand for milk by 30 percent in one week. That forced the authorities to introduce quality controls and to raise product standards by a third.

The environmentalists have also been very successful in translating the widespread environmental concern into political support. In the "poll of political sympathies" carried out in July 1989, the Lithuanian Green Party received the greatest support of any party. On a scale of 100 it received 80, surpassing Sajudis by 10 points. On March 11, 1990, a candidate of the Lithuanian Green Party was elected to the Parliament. This was the first such candidate to gain office in Central and Eastern Europe.

As Lithuanians discover their political voices, they have also found a forum in which to protest the central government's exploitation of the region's environment and endangerment of the public's health. If the strength of the Green Party and its affiliated organizations continue to grow throughout the Soviet Union, citizens of the republics may soon be able to enact real environmental and health protections. If not, the influx of international investment and the introduction of new polluting technologies to the country will exacerbate a problem which is already at crisis proportions.

Henryk Urbanowski is a journalist, economist and ecologist. He is chairman of the Political Council of the Polish Green Party (democratic option).

Table of Contents