While East German planners placed great hopes in Leuna and Buna as drivers for the GDR’s economy, developing these sites came at a considerable cost to the environment. Both facilities caused significant damage to air, soil and water in the immediate vicinity and beyond. In fact, some have argued that the catastrophic state of the East German environment was a key factor in bringing people to the protests in Leipzig, a city badly impacted by the effects of the country’s chemical industry and home to the demonstrations which ultimately helped drive the SED from power..
In this last post on Leuna and Buna, we’ll look at the environmental damage which emanated from these two sites.
Sour Cherries and Other Environmental Costs
Virtually every aspect of everyday life in the region home to the chemical combines of Leuna and Buna was dictated by the presence of these factories and their rhythms. Tens of thousands of residents were employed in these facilities; transit schedules, day care and store hours ran to the plants’ shift schedules; cultural performances and free time activities took place in the combines’ own “Houses of Culture”.
But it didn’t stop there. Indeed, for those East Germans living nearby, these plants impacted the physical environment in the area, and by extension the health of those in it, in truly dramatic ways. Smokestacks filled the air with plumes of varying degrees of toxicity causing acid rain and depositing blankets of chemical ash and dust over vast territories while area rivers used as dumping spots for industrial effluents changed colour with production cycles or sat underneath thick blankets of foam.
While some newer, more environmentally-responsible production plants were brought online at Leuna and Buna in the 60s, 70s and 80s, a considerable portion of the both Works’ production was still created using dramatically out of date facilities from the pre-war era. Smokestacks at these older sites were typically not outfitted with any filtering devices whatsoever (those which had had such systems had lost them when they were removedby Soviet troops as part of reparation payments in the immediate post-war period). As a result, vast quantities of sulfur dioxide, calcium carbide and heavy metals were constantly released into the air contaminating it and the soil. The sites’ prodigious production of chemically-contaminated waste water was also a problem as treatment facilities could only process a fraction of the total amount created, meaning much reentered nature untreated. To put this into some sort of perspective, Buna alone deposited, on average, ten pounds (!!) of highly-toxic mercury into local waterways every day(“East Europe’s Dark Dawn” by Jon Thompson, National Geographic, June 1991, pgs. 69.).
Given all this, it’s not surprising that in my conversations with people who worked, lived or visited the area, the subject of the environmental degradation caused by Leuna and Buna never took too long to surface.
Micha B., whom we met last week, worked at Buna and resided in Halle-Neustadt and recalled in our conversation, “When the wind blew the wrong way, you could smell the factories all the way to Halle-Neustadt,” he recalled. “Most of the time, it went in the other direction, but when it didn’t, the smell would hang in the air and if you had hung your clothes outside to dry when that happened, they would pick up those odours of course.” (Interview with Micha B., May 2019)
Things weren’t any better at the Combine site either:
“I remember that . . . the Factory School building [where apprentices and those doing courses for additional qualification – ed. note] stood right nearby the carbide production facility which produced all this dust that covered everything and had this really peculiar odor. When a wind would come up and you were out walking, it would get blown up into your face and your eyes, they’d turn red and then you couldn’t really see properly. I know that we had double-paned windows at the school, but that dust, you couldn’t avoid it there . . . Next to the school, there were these barracks for training activities. Their windows were filthy, the roofs were thick with the dust and it was corrosive too. It ate away at the bodies of some cars . . .”
Mat S., a conscript to the National People’s Army who was assigned to both Leuna and Buna in the 1980s as part of his military service, also vividly recalled the filth generated by Buna’s calcium carbide production facilities when talking to me:
“That was a really dangerous job. The facility was about three stories high and it had several open blast furnaces which had these huge electrodes in the middle. They were about two metres wide and what happened was that a worker standing above a furnace would shovel lime and coal onto the electrode causing the chemical reaction that produced the calcium carbide. Down below, another worker collected both the blisteringly hot carbide and scraped away the dross that was produced too. All while trying to avoid getting his head blown off in the blast furnace and dodging the fumes that were everywhere.
Anyway, that production process creates a lot of dust and ash and they were always in the air at Buna. Of course they didn’t stay there, but would settle on any surface. They were particularly noticeable on the roofs, because when that stuff got wet, it would stay put, it wouldn’t fly around any more. As a result, you would get layers of that dust on the roofs and so, from time to time, they would send the soldiers up there to clean them off because they were afraid that the weight of the carbide dust might cause a roof to collapse. So as a ‘workplace safety measure’, we’d go up there with brooms and a wheelbarrow., to sweep the stuff up and then brush it off the edge of the roofs.” (Interview with Mat. S., May 2017)
When I lived in Leipzig ten years after the fall of the Wall, my roommate was a PhD student whose grandparents lived close to the Leuna site. He told me of how the Combine’s pollution covered the entire region
“My grandparents lived in Merseburg, near the chemical factories that spewed this sort of dust everywhere. If you left your car outside for a couple of hours and the wind was blowing in the right direction, you’d come out and it was like it had been covered with a white veil. They had a beautiful cherry tree in their yard but we only got fruit sometimes. Most years, the dust from the factories would cover the cherries and if it rained before this got blown off, the dust would turn into a hard shell that made the fruit hard and inedible.”
Mat S. shared another anecdote which illustrated just how dramatic the pollution was at these sites:
“Sometimes we [NVA conscripts, ed.] worked in our camouflage outfits. These were light brown with small green and yellow lines and they were made of an incredibly strong material. You could along the ground, climb over a fence, whatever, you wouldn’t rip a hole in anything. Anyway, I remember marching to a meal one day and noticing small, light or faded spots on these outfits, mine and the other conscripts. At first I thought that something had happened in the laundry, but that wasn’t it. We’d been working in the rain and it was the acid that was in there which had burned the fabric.”
Environmental Protection: GDR Style
By the mid-1980s GDR authorities were forced to admit that they had major environmental issues on their hands. The impetus for this acknowledgement came after the UN issued a report in 1984 labeling the country the most polluted in Europe specifically citing its alarming levels of sulfur dioxide production and water pollution. (“East Germany disputes its status as the most polluted country in Europe” by Elizabeth Pond, Christian Science Monitor, October 5, 1984)
And it wasn’t just foreign observers who were putting on the pressure. At home, a grassroots movement had emerged and was working to draw wider public attention to environmental damage and the GDR’s detrimental industrial practices. Often operating under the relative safety of the Lutheran church, these groups were careful to reference environmental protections enshrined in the GDR constitution, something that made it challenging for authorities to counter their arguments publicly without further damaging their own credibility. (For more on this important subject, here is an article entitled “Origins of the East German Environmental Movement” by Merrill E. Jones.
To get a sense of the sort of environment East Germans living in the “Chemical Triangle” confronted on a daily basis, watch “Bitter News from Bitterfeld”, an illegal film produced by this underground green movement documenting environmental damage in this centre of chemical production:
The Official Response
SED leaders were alarmed by these developments and spurred into action. First, there were investments made in new monitoring and treatment / mitigation facilities (see photo below for an example), but the fact of the matter is that, given the limited resources dedicated to such projects, the scale of such efforts was inadequate to address the scope and scale of the problems.
The second measure undertaken was a concerted PR effort intended to give the impression that authorities understood the problems and were working to address matters. This work was focused primarily on the Party-controlled domestic media, but had an international aspect as well. Publications prepared for foreign consumption in this period began to contain articles on the GDR’s environmental protection activities (see below). An example of the state’s approach to addressing their citizens’ environmental concerns is found in a report in “Upwards”, the Buna factory newspaper from August 1988. Here workers are told of a “computer-aided exhibition” on the environment taking place in Erfurt where visitors can learn about how authorities are addressing some of the country’s pressing environmental problems including recultivation of landfill sites, concluding agreements with citizen groups to look after public green space and tips for saving energy at home. Visitors, we learn, will even introduced to monitoring equipment used by the Environmental Office in the Leuna area; there is no note as to whether any of the instrument’s readings were included in the exhibit, though I think that we can safely assume they were not.
Another element in Party’s PR response relevant to the Leuna / Buna area was the opening of a “State Environmental Inspectorate” in the regional centre of Halle in 1985. In a 1991 interview with Manfred Klima, the office’s press officer, he implied that its efforts during the GDR-period could more fairly be categorized as “message control” than effective steps to protect the natural world:
“Our organization was set up to in 1985 to set norms and to measure emissions and control them by means of fines. Until recently [post-unification, ed. note] the results were kept secret. . . . By keeping the local figures secret, ti was possible to present only selective numbers as national totals given our at international conferences.” (“East Europe’s Dark Dawn”, pg. 49)
This work to control the flow of data and factual information about the true state of the GDR’s environmental health was a key element in the Party’s efforts to respond to criticism of its practices. Not surprisingly, these efforts extended to the Combine sites themselves where considerable environmental data was gathered as part of regular operations. After unification, researchers found that the Stasi had 118 full-time employees at Leuna, Buna and Bitterfeld (the third point in the GDR’s “Chemical Triangle”) whose work consisted, in part, of ensuring that this data, virtually all of which was classified “Top Secret”, was viewed only by the trusted few and kept well out of the public domain. (Die Welt, “Geheime Stasi-Verschlußsache Chemie” by Uta Semkat, October 17, 1997) to ensure that it was not misused by “the class enemy”.
Mat. S. was clear in identifying the main culprit behind the environmentally irresponsible production methods used, in part, at both Leuna and Buna: “It has to be said that the environment and the population simply didn’t figure into the calculus of the planned economic system used in the GDR and the other East Bloc countries. Combines had to meet certain targets or economic indicators and that was truly all that mattered. If a plant boss managed to hit their production targets, no one was ever there to ask how he did it. It just wasn’t part of the equation.”
Postscript: I am currently reading Blende ’89, the Wende diary of Radjo Monk, a Leipzig based artist/writer and last night, as fate would have it, I came across this account of his encounter with a drunk SED Party member in his local bar right in the middle of the Party’s great unraveling that fall. What makes this relevant here is that this man was a chemist, evidently employed in one of the Combines which frequently made life in Leipzig absolutely miserable. Monk labels this man’s words as a “confession” which reads in part as follows:
“‘For the past twenty years, I attended Party meetings every Monday and every Monday it was the same discussion of errors, shortcomings and ways to address these. We heard reports with figures and suggestions for how we could do our work more efficiently and in more environmentally sustainable ways. We even got reports of the extent of the damage which our factory was causing. Where did these reports go?‘ He raised his shoulders, fixed his gaze at someone not sitting with us at the table, perhaps his boss, and continued his inquisition. ‘Into which drawer did they disappear? Did anyone even read them?’ . . . ‘You can believe me when I say I know what I’m talking about. All those outdated production facilities and economic structures. Meanwhile, our people have great ideas, they’re inventive and resourceful, they could accomplish something. But not with the current leadership.'” (Blende ’89 by Radjo Monk (Edition Buechergilde, Frankfurt 2005), pgs. 72-73)
For more on Leuna and Buna, please see the first two posts in this series: