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Archive for December 2020

Hope and the environment: the Bitterfeld story

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The lignite workers (from the Leipzig art gallery)

It is difficult to remain upbeat when looking at environmental issues.  The Doomsday Clock has been reminding us that we are near the abyss. Even as rational a figure as environmentalist Barry Commoner was quoted as saying “if you can see light at the end of the tunnel, you are looking the wrong way.”

And yet, there are other stories.  The story of Bitterfeld, a city in the former East Germany, is one of those, and it’s a remarkable one.

Bitterfeld was in the middle of the “black triangle” of the GDR, a chemical industry hub that made a number of chemical feedstocks, solvents, dyes, and finished products such as soap and pesticides, all synthesized from the locally abundant brown coal.  The extent to which it was polluted was pretty much unknown, though, until near the fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist regime.  A 30-minutes documentary, Bitteres aus Bitterfeld, filmed and smuggled in 1988 under the nose of the Stasi (the East German secret police), exposed the whole hideous truth.

Bitterfeld: no trees surviving in the June picture

In the movie the narrator intones “Bitterfeld is falling in ruins, black with soot, it stinks.  It is considered the dirtiest town of Europe.”  Indeed, at the time the movie was made, only one in ten of the tall smokestacks have any sort of pollution control device.  Raw wastewater from the chemical plants, all sheen and strange colours, are dumped directly into the river Mulde, which is by then biologically dead.  Hazardous chlorinated waste, some from toxic military products, is leaking from a poorly maintained landfill. The degree of respiratory diseases among the inhabitants is between five to eight times higher than that of the province, itself already a concern.  Employees suffer from a variety of industrial poisoning; some suffer from bone decay, while other have large bony growths in their wrists.  The government of the GDR was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem; in the words of Joachim Radkau, “by 1980 the GDR leadership was in the grip of sheer fatalism.”  

Excerpts from 1988 Bitteres aus Bitterfeld

I was not able to see the actual documentary, but I found an excerpt, above.  It is in German only, but the images are eloquent enough. (If you want even more depressing, there is a documentary that was made shortly after the wall came down, in 1990, about the health problems of the children of Bitterfeld, at 

It has been thirty years since the wall came down.  The polluting industry has been shut down.  New industry has replaced it, and pollution controls have been installed, as well as sewage treatment in the city.  Not all the new industrial initiatives were successful, and some of the locals resent the arrogance of the West Germans.  But the environment has been a clear winner.  Trees grow in the city.  The river Mulde is alive; fishermen brag of their catches of northern pike, tench, perch, bream, even eel.  The Silbersee, a large lake mostly artificial, left behind by lignite mining, is now a popular tourist facility.    

The two videos posted below show the situation now.  Considering the situation just a few decades ago, it is mind-boggling that fishing, swimming and sailing are common activities around Bitterfeld.  There is a saying that goes “people often overestimate what can get done in a short time, but they always underestimate what can be achieved with enough time.”  This applies nicely to environmental worries, I think.  Nature is resilient; we have to keep at it and give her time to heal. 

Written by enviropaul

December 14, 2020 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Uncategorized