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Slovak town’s environmental efforts show post-Communist creativity

January 22, 1997

CIFER, Slovakia (AP) _ Cifer was another polluted piece of the post-Communist mess in central Europe. Raw sewage was dumped on surrounding fields. The place stank. Its water was unsafe for children.

Then something unusual happened. Officials in this western Slovak town went out on their own and found financing to build a sewage treatment plant. Problems remain, but Cifer’s 4,000 people now can look forward to a cleaner, sweeter-smelling future.

Cifer is one small point of light in the smudged landscape Communists left behind from Poland to Albania and east to the former Soviet republics. It’s an example of how local officials took on a problem on their own and came up with a creative solution.

More and more, people in the region are aware of the mess they’ve inherited from the Communists, so local authorities have increasingly taken the initiative to clean up the environment.

Back in the Communist days, Cifer Mayor Jaroslav Valko had to ask the central government if he wanted something for his village an hour east of the capital Bratislava, near the Slovak-Austrian-Hungarian border.

``Now, it’s the opposite,″ said Valko, a sturdy man who has been mayor for 24 years. ``Now, we may do whatever we want, but we have to evaluate whether we can afford it.″

Seven years after dumping communism, the entire region struggles with ecological problems. Noxious clouds spew out over northern Bohemia from power plants that burn brown coal. Pedestrians in the capitals of Romania and Hungary gasp in smoggy exhaust from aging cars and trucks.

While local officials are taking steps to solve the problems on their own, some governments are also fighting back:

_A factory that produces lead in the northern Romanian city of Baia Mare now has a tall chimney to disperse emissions.

_Near Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the Japanese government is financing a project to neutralize waste from a lead and zinc plant.

_Filters have been added to industrial factories in Poland.

_Bulgaria has embarked on a project to boost the use of unleaded auto fuel from 50 percent to 75 percent by the end of the century.

And with World Bank help, Romania has started a project to protect the Danube River delta, where many species of birds and fish live.

As for Cifer, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a think-tank in Vienna, Austria, says the nearby Nitra River ``is mainly used for waste disposal. Fishing and water-based recreation are detrimental to health.″

Water-quality inspector Lubor Knazovicky said as a boy he swam in the Nitra, which empties into the Danube. But, ``as an inspector, I see what is dumped into it, and I don’t have the courage to do it anymore.″

Places like Cifer are important because much of the pollution comes not from large factories the Communists built but untreated runoff from farms and villages.

In Cifer, the water table is only 10 feet below the surface. The sludge taints local water supplies and eventually finds its way into the Danube.

Still, in countries where unemployment already is a problem, cleaning up may require factories to jettison more workers, an unpopular solution. Officials in Hungaria said factories often just choose to pay fines for polluting rather than clean up.

In Slovakia, Milan Matuska, the deputy environment minister, said his agency can provide limited help, but local people ``must find financial resources and technical solutions.″

Cifer officials reckoned they’ve done so, coming up with 40 percent of the $330,000 for the treatment plant from their budget. But instead of depending on the central government, Valko went to a bank to borrow the remaining amount, with a four-year payback.

Other municipalities are finding ways to innovate.

Japanese government grants are helping revamp the infrastructure of villages in west-central Hungary, where fertilizer factories, chemical works and power plants have damaged air and water.

Some have even found they don’t always need high-technology. One method is simply raising the price of water, which Communists kept far below cost.

In Cifer, wastes are collected by truck and taken for processing to the treatment plant, which is driven by a computer complete with color diagrams and treatment records.

The most obvious result of Cifer’s local efforts, Valko said holding his nose, is ``people won’t have to smell that stench anymore.″

But it still will take years before the ground water really is clean.

In the meantime, the village is planning a deep well and water distribution system and a sewage facility that will pipe wastes directly to the treatment plant.

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