KRAKOW, POLAND -- This beautiful medieval city, untouched by the bombs of World War II, is rapidly decaying under the weight of industrial pollution.
The same Soviet overlords who chose to save Krakow by taking it from the Germans without a massive artillery barrage, later callously and cynically chose to pollute it and its people nearly into oblivion.
Joseph Stalin chose Krakow for the huge Nowa Huta steel mill in 1953. It was his way, according to one account, of breaking up the anti-Communist intellectual clique in the city by infusing Krakow with 30,000 steelworkers.
The plan didn't work in the long run. Communism is on its way out, and the steel mill has turned a once-lovely city into a nightmare. Tourists who visit here are lucky when it rains because then the air pollution is not as noxious. Some 8 tons of dust fallon every square mile of Krakow each year. As a result, the city's 750,000 residents have the lowest life expectancy in all of Eastern Europe.
The acid in the air has stripped the gilding off the Wawel Castle cathedral. The faces on statues and facades of buildings survived centuries of war and peace, only to lose their noses and ears to "progress."
The industrial and human waste poured into the Vistula River has led to a sad joke, that the water is so full of chemicals one could develop color film in it.
All is evidence of 50 years of slumlording by the Soviet Union, in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Krakow Mayor Jacek Wozniakowski told us that his "top priority" is combating pollution. "It is our most important question. The monuments are frightfully damaged and, even worse, there is the health of the people," he said.
The Bush administration has shown some compassion for the polluted Poles. We ran into Environmental Protection Agency head William K. Reilly here. He had come to pledge money and technical assistance to restore the city, one of the most picturesque in Europe, to its former glory and to restore the people to a more healthy atmosphere.
Reilly was the emissary for a Bush initiative to help struggling Eastern European democracies. The United States will spend $25 million to fight air and water pollution in Krakow.
Mayor Wozniakowski is grateful for the American support, which has inspired other Western nations to help too. The newly unified Germany has a special stake in cleaning up Poland. The wind blows Polish pollution to Germany, and rivers, such as the Danube, carry the dirty water beyond the boundaries set by humans. Europe is one ecosystem when it comes to pollution.
Krakow is doing its bit too. The residents are driving less, and the city fathers have promised to impose pollution control laws. Poles are being asked to burn less of the cheap, high-sulfur coal they have used in the past to heat their homes until coal stocks can be upgraded and alternative heating methods developed.
The new managers of the Nowa Huta steel plant are installing scrubbers and shutting down two of their five blast furnaces. They hope to eliminate four-fifths of the pollution from the plant within three years.