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Western nations devise plan for environmental cleaning in Eastern Europe


LUCERNE, Switzerland -- After more than three years of hand wringing over the environmental disasters left by Communism, the rich nations of the West have adopted a common strategy to help clean up in Central and Eastern Europe.

A plan adopted last week by nearly 50 environment ministers from virtually all of Europe as well as the United States, Canada and Japan identifies the most urgent targets and lists projects deemed most manageable in the former East bloc, including western Russia.

The plan, called the Environmental Action Program, says air pollution is the most serious health hazard in the region, where lead, sulfur and soot have already affected the population. Second, it calls for improving and protecting drinking water, which is often laced with heavy metals or toxic chemicals. A third priority is to stop damaging nature in ways that may be irreversible.

Experts involved in drawing up the accord said it was also noteworthy for what it left out, such as projects on the wish lists of Eastern governments and Western environmentalists that could cost billions.

Cleaning up rivers and toxic dumps, removing hazardous waste or decontaminating former military sites, the plan says, have no priority, given the limited money in the West.

The program, prepared by the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development after discussion with all the governments involved, is likely to be used as a blueprint for environmental action in the East in the coming years. Experts say that while the program is not binding on any country, it will influence how Western donors lend and spend their money.

"It's a game plan and it says: It will be a lot easier to get money from us if you do the following," an American expert said.

While the program is the firmest commitment yet from the West that it will help clean up, diplomats said it also includes the bluntest message to date that the West does not intend to pay for redressing most of the environmental havoc caused under Communism.

An author of the plan said: "You'll see projects to clean air and drinking water. But there won't be a lot of talk about digging up waste; it will just have to stay there."

The idea is that the program will not have its own funds but will have the ability to generate loans and grants, some of which are held up in Western banks or government aid budgets because of what has been described as a shortage of data or skilled staff in the East.

At the three-day conference here, Western governments pledged a total of $30 million, including $10 million from the United States, to pay for technical preparation needed to get loans and projects under way.

The main emphasis of the plan is to think small. Inexpensive solutions, such as new filters, storage tanks and switching from coal to gas, it says, "can be more appropriate than massive programs, most of which will have a relatively low benefit-to-cost ratio."

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