Poland Table of Contents

Poland suffered as heavily as any other East European country from the environmental negligence inherent in the central planning approach to resource development. Although some warnings reached the public during the 1980s, the communist regimes typically had portrayed economic activity in the capitalist countries as the true enemy of the environment. Investigations after 1989 revealed that enormous damage had been inflicted on water, air, and soil quality and on forests, especially surrounding the industrial centers in Upper Silesia and the Kraków region. But because the economy had depended for over forty years on unrestrained abuse of Poland's natural resources, environmental planners in the early 1990s faced the prospect of severe economic disruption if they abruptly curtailed the industrial practices causing pollution.

Environmental Conditions and Crises

In 1991 Poland designated five official ecological disaster areas. Of the five, the densely concentrated heavy industry belt of Upper Silesia had suffered the most acute pollution. In that area, public health indicators such as infant mortality, circulatory and respiratory disease, lead content in children's blood, and incidence of cancer were uniformly higher than in other parts of Poland and dramatically higher than indicators for Western Europe. Experts believed that the full extent of the region's environmental damage was still unknown in 1992. The situation was exacerbated by overcrowding; 11 percent of Poland's population lived in the region. With 600 persons per square kilometer, Upper Silesia ranked among the most densely populated regions of Europe. In 1991 the region's concentrated industrial activity contributed 40 percent of Poland's electrical power, more than 75 percent of its hard coal, and 51 percent of its steel.

A variety of statistics reflect the effects of severe environmental degradation in Upper Silesia. In 1990 the infant mortality rate was over 30 deaths per 1,000 births, nearly five times the levels in some countries of Western Europe; some 12,000 hectares of agricultural land had been declared permanently unfit for tillage because of industrial waste deposition; and between 1921 and 1990 the average number of cloudy days per year had increased from ten to 183. Average life expectancy in southern Poland was four years less than elsewhere in the country.

Water and air pollution affect the entire country, however. A 1990 report found that 65 percent of Poland's river water was so contaminated that it corroded equipment when used in industry. After absorbing contaminants from the many cities on its banks, the Vistula River was a major polluter of the Baltic Sea. River water could not be used for irrigation. In 1990 about half of Poland's lakes had been damaged by acid rain, and 95 percent of the country's river water was considered undrinkable. Because Polish forests are dominated by conifers, which are especially vulnerable to acid rain, nearly two-thirds of forestland had sustained some damage from air pollution by 1990. In 1989 Polish experts estimated total economic losses from environmental damage at over US$3.4 billion, including soil erosion, damage to resources and equipment from air and water pollution, and public health costs.

In 1988 about 4.5 million hectares, or 14.3 percent of Poland's total area, were legally protected in national and regional parks and reserves. But all fourteen national parks were exposed to heavy air pollution, and half of them received substantial agricultural, municipal, and industrial runoff.

A special environmental problem was discovered when Polish authorities began inspecting the military bases occupied by Soviet troops for forty-six years. Uncontrolled fuel leakage, untreated sewage release, noise pollution from air bases, and widespread destruction of vegetation by heavy equipment were among the most serious conditions observed when inspections began in 1990. The government of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki was late in pursuing the issue with the Soviet government, however, and in 1991 the Soviet Union continued its longstanding refusal to pay fines and natural resource usage fees required by Polish law. In 1992 the Poles dropped all demands for compensation as part of the withdrawal protocol.

Environmental Groups

The burst of political activity in the late 1980s and the early 1990s included establishment of over 2,000 organizations with environmental agendas. A precedent for such groups was set in 1980, however, when the Green Solidarity movement forced closure of an aluminum plant in Kraków. The diverse groups that appeared in the next decade achieved some additional successes, but lack of cohesion and common goals deprived the movement of political influence. No environmental group or party was represented in the Polish legislative branch in 1992.

Among the objects of protest in the 1980s were Poland's lack of a national plan for dealing with ecological disasters; construction of a Czechoslovak coking plant near the Polish border; continued reliance on high-sulfur and high-ash coal in electric power plants; and the severe environmental damage caused by Soviet troops stationed in Poland. In 1986 the explosion and resulting fallout from the Soviet Union's Chernobyl' nuclear power plant galvanized environmental activism, which in Poland was dominated by the professional classes. But environmental groups faced several obstacles. Volunteer recruitment, a critical aspect of organizational development, was hindered by the necessity for many Poles to work two jobs to survive. Refining practical operational priorities proved difficult for organizations whose initial inspiration came from broad statements of environmental ethics. And the agendas of the many activist groups remained fragmented and dissimilar in 1992. Meanwhile, the most influential political parties were split between advocates of preserving jobs ahead of protecting the environment and those who saw unchanged economic activity as the paramount danger to the health of workers and society. Public attitudes toward environmental problems also were divided. In a 1992 nationwide survey, only 1 percent of Poles cited the environment as the country's most serious problem, although 66 percent rated environmental issues "very serious." By contrast, 72 percent cited economic issues as the country's most serious problem.

Government Environmental Policy

Poland established a Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources in 1985, but the new department exerted little authority. Between 1987 and 1988, for example, government investment in environmental protection increased by only 6 percent. In 1990 the initial postcommunist environmental timetable was to achieve "substantial" reduction of extreme environmental hazards in three years and to reach the level of European Community (EC) requirements in seven to ten years. In early 1991, the ministry drafted a new state ecological policy, the core of which eliminated the communist rationale of "social interest" in the arbitrary consumption of natural resources. Instead, the new policy fixed responsibility for the negative results of resource consumption at the source. The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources officially identified the eighty enterprises causing the most pollution and promised to shut them down if pollution were not reduced. The role of nongovernmental environmental organizations in policy making was recognized officially for the first time. In late 1991, a State Environmental Protection Inspectorate was established, with broad powers to regulate polluting industries. Penalties for environmental damage also were increased at that time.

At the same time, government policy steered carefully away from measures that would sacrifice economic development, and policy makers debated the appropriate standards for comparing immediate economic growth with the estimated longer term gains of beginning a rigorous cleanup program. Accordingly, in 1990 the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources adopted a policy of "ecodevelopment" emphasizing modernization and restructuring measures that theoretically would curtail pollution while they streamlined production operations. The policy included distribution of information to the public to gain acceptance of economic sacrifice for environmental improvement; linkage of environmental law to the new market mechanism slowly being created; promotion of an awareness in Western Europe of the transnational impact of Poland's air and water pollution; and application of foreign capital and technology to environmental cleanup problems. At the end of 1990, Western banks began opening credit lines for Polish environmental protection, and plans for some multinational ecological enterprises included Poland. In 1991 the United States government agreed to forgive part of Poland's debt in exchange for domestic investment in pollution control.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress