Germany tries to figure out how to clean up mess Russians left behind

September 04, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

BERLIN -- When the last trainload of Red Army troops rolled out of Germany last week, the Russians left unanswered a major question: What to do with all the vacated real estate -- 1,026 tracts totaling 667,000 acres, pocked with tumbledown buildings, toxic dumps and many thousands of unexploded artillery shells?

Germany was studying this dubious windfall even before the Russians boarded their trains for home. In the past three years, Germany has had to spend $700 million just to keep the ground water safe. And now, officials have disclosed that, after inspecting 925 former one-time posts of the occupying Red Army, they have turned up 24,000 assorted environmental hot spots -- anything from oil spill sites to haphazard caches of chemicals for decontaminating people in the wake of a nuclear blast. About 3,000 of these locations are said to pose "acute danger" to the surrounding population.

And then there's the unspent ammunition.

"The Russian, in my experience, goes about the decommissioning of ammunition according to the principle of 'ocular isolation,' " complains Guenter Knueppel, a forestry official in Colbitz-Letzlinger Heide, a flatlands area where the Warsaw Pact forces used to stage major maneuvers twice a year. "He digs a hole in the ground, and if he doesn't see the ammunition anymore, it's gone."

German officials say any serious cleanup operation will cost billions of marks. And who has that kind of money? Certainly not private investors, as state and local governments in the former East have discovered, to their chagrin. They had hoped that private developers might turn some of the former Russian bases into resorts, industrial parks, low-in come housing estates, theme parks and nature preserves. But in most cases, the potential cost has proven too forbidding, and land in question too far removed from population centers for economic viability.

And so the most enthusiastic prospective occupant for the Russian lands is the German army, the Bundeswehr. It sees in the decrepit Red Army infrastructure an opportunity to expand its own physical assets that ought not be missed.

Already, the army is reclaiming 12 Russian training grounds, totaling 355,000 acres, for training purposes. One 55-square-mile MiG bombing range northeast of Berlin, known as Wittstocker Heide, is now used by the Luftwaffe for practicing tactical air strikes, ground-support sorties and other maneuvers.

This doesn't sit well with the neighbors. For decades, East Germans put up with the roar of Red Army tank columns and the shriek of low-flying jet fighters, and now that the Cold War is over, they wonder why they should accept more of the same from their own forces.

"People are really embittered," says Reinhard Lampe, a Protestant minister in the village of Dorf Zechlin, which lies on the edge of Wittstocker Heide.

Angry eastern Germans have responded to the army's arrival with candlelight vigils, bicycle protests, road blockades, petitions, a "Woodstock for Wittstock" benefit concert and even threats.

But these tactics have proved futile, and now the opponents have turned to the German judiciary, filing land claims and trying to win court orders to protect the ground water, or to have some military bases set aside as cultural heritage sites.

Most recently, the army planted the flag atop the 89-square-mile Colbitz-Letzlinger Heide, where it plans to build a high-tech center for tank maneuvers and laser-simulated tar get practice.

But state officials for Saxony-Anhalt argue that 45 years of Soviet and Warsaw Pact environmental insult, on top of years of Panzer drills in the Hitler era, have left the ground water at risk.

No problem, said the army. Not only would its tankers follow state environmental regulations; they would also bring with them federal funds to clear away the Russians' mess. The army estimated that a cleanup would cost $100 million to $200 million.

Saxony-Anhalt officials argued that they thought a proper job would cost $900 million, and entered high-level negotiations with their federal counterparts.

On the very day of the talks, the army moved onto the base.

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