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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Czech Pollution: 5 Years Later

Air Date: Week of

While the economy in Czechoslovakia has vastly improved in the last five years, industrial pollution has not. Mark Huntley reports how slow the country has been to adopt clean technology.


CURWOOD: Five years ago, the Velvet Revolution swept the Communist regime of the former Czechoslovakia out of power, and the world began to see the full extent of the ecological destruction wrought by decades of Communist production. Today, the Czech Republic is a shining example of modern free-market capitalism, with a thriving stock market, widespread deregulation, and an economy that boasts the best growth among the former Eastern Bloc nations. But as Mark Huntley reports from Prague, the country's ecological recovery has been far slower to take hold.

(A child cries and gags)

HUNTLEY: At the Children's Hospital of Most, a city in the north Bohemia region of the Czech Republic, a young boy lies confined to a respirator, which supplies his weakened lungs with oxygen. He is one of many infants here suffering form asthma and other respiratory afflictions caused by the burning of low-quality brown coal mined nearby.

(Machinery in motion)

HUNTLEY: Just outside Most, dozens of massive, tentacled mining machines gnaw into what soil remains intact after 40 years of intensive mining. Trains cart the coal across the exposed grey-brown subsoil to nearby power plants belching untreated smoke. In the Communist past these smokestacks were symbols of progress. Now they're glaring reminders of how little has changed in environmental terms. Five years after the Velvet Revolution, north Bohemia remains a severely damaged human and natural environment. And it's only the worst in a litany of ecological challenges facing the Republic. Heavily-polluted water sources, leaky toxic waste sites, and other lurking disasters, dot the countryside.

(Men's voices calling to each other)

HUNTLEY: Sixty miles away on Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague, BMWs and Mercedes cruise past Benetton, K-Mark, and McDonald's storefronts.


HUNTLEY: Life in the capital has changed in 5 years. It's hard to argue with the Czech economic miracle. As other former Socialist countries sink into a miasma of unemployment and hyper-inflation, the Czechs' ambitious economic reforms have brought quick privatization, low unemployment and inflation, and lots of foreign investors. The primary practitioner of the Czech miracle is Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus. An economist, his answer to the Republic's environmental problems is the same as his answer to most of its others: free markets and a hands-off government.

KLAUS: [Speaks in Czech]
TRANSLATOR: By dismantling Communism, and by creating a free society and market economy, we have undoubtedly made the most important contribution to improving the quality of life. Private property, Russian prices, and individual responsibility are more important for environmental protection than the activities of governments, legislators, and of environmental organizations.

HUNTLEY: Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party are conservatives in the Margaret Thatcher mold. Their laissez-faire philosophy espouses that regulations are the problem, not the solution. Where environmental regulations and emissions limits are on the books, enforcement funds are lacking and fines are too low to have much impact or effect. Officials say that the government is working, and with limited public funds, to move the country away from heavily-polluting enterprises. But they all stress the importance of private action over public policies. Critics acknowledge the country's impressive economic success, but contend that the government is ignoring crucial environmental and economic problems. Eva Kruzikova is Director of the Institute for Environmental Policy.

KRUZIKOVA: Our economy is still energy-demanding, material-demanding and polluting at the same extent as it was before, and if there is an improvement, for example, some decrease of emissions, it's not because of some cleaning measures. But it's rather the recession and decrease of production.

HUNTLEY: Kruzikova asserts that experience in the West has shown it unrealistic for governments to expect individuals and industry to regulate themselves. Five years ago, there was an expectation that the problems of north Bohemia and other damaged areas could be cleaned up with a leap from outdated, inefficient polluting industry to new, efficient, green technology. That hasn't happened. Where change is occurring, it's mostly from one conventional source to another. The Czechs are slowly closing polluting coal plants, but will replace their capacity by resurrecting a half-completed Soviet-designed nuclear power plant. Foreign aid could be looked at as a source of enlightened environmental policy, but for many working to clean up regions like North Bohemia, it seems that much of the aid flowing into the Czech Republic is going to pay Western contractors to study what already seems quite evident to those on the ground. Margo Banner is a US Peace Corps volunteer working with an environmental organization in North Bohemia.

BANNER: Even the Czech people in general, I think, are tired about hearing about another study.

HUNTLEY: What do they want?

BANNER: Well, they would rather see scrubbers put on the smokestacks, cleaning up of toxic landfills. These things that are affecting people's health right now.

HUNTLEY: But even many activists acknowledge that it's not just a lack of money, resources, and government commitment that prolong Czech environmental problems. It's also a lack of real public concern. Immediately after the Velvet Revolution, the environment was the number one concern voiced in public opinion polls. Now allowed to participate in politics, the Czech public's interest has moved elsewhere. Jindrich Petrlik, head of Children of the Earth in the Republic, explains.

PETRLIK: I feel that Czech people, unfortunately, are now much more interested in their own financial situation or social situation. Environment is in fifth or sixth place.

HUNTLEY: While Czech citizens concentrate on the opportunities and concerns of living in an open society - money, crime, health care costs - the Czech government is making some incremental moves on the environmental front. In 3 years, stricter emissions limits passed by the first post-Communist cabinet, will come into effect, and the government has so far resisted industry calls to push them back. But the biggest agent of change could come through the Czech bid to join the European Union, and the tougher environmental standards that would require. EU membership for the Czechs looks realistic for some time after the year 2000. As Czech membership nears, the EU will require a program of environmental changes and likely provide aid to meet those goals, and start to push Czech ecological standards to a higher level. For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Huntley in Prague.



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