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

Cleaning Europe's East

Air Date: Week of

New businesses are booming in the Czech Republic; consisting of technology to clean up the legacy of the Cold War's Soviet military pollution. Mark Huntley reports from Prague where the clean-up work has been progressing.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the Soviet army pulled out of Central Europe in the early 1990s, it left behind hundreds of military bases loaded with pollution. But they are only part of a Cold War legacy for new republics. Industrial waste sites, poorly monitored and maintained under Communist rule, are also a blight on the region. Now, all this pollution is spawning a thriving new business sector devoted to its cleanup, especially in the Czech Republic, but not everyone thinks enough is being done. Mark Huntley reports from Prague, where clean-up work has proceeded the furthest.

HUNTLEY: The former Soviet air base at Radchani in the north of the Czech Republic once housed Mig jet fighters ready to do battle with NATO aircraft in a Cold War confrontation. The Migs and the Soviet soldiers who man them left Radchani in mid-1992, following an agreement between the former Soviet Union and the former Czechoslovakia. The Soviets agreed to leave and the Czechs agreed to take back the bases as is. As is meant bases stripped of useful material but chock full of military waste. The culprits include oils, degreasers, acids, paints, and PCBs.

At Radchani and across the Republic, the biggest problem is jet fuel. Dubumir Sokup is a hydrogeologist with KAP or "Kap," an environmental consulting firm based in Prague.

SOKUP: (Speaks in Czech)
TRANSLATOR: In this area there is about 90 cubic feet of jet fuel. The Soviets fueled their jets here and they had problems with leakage and contamination of the soil. The groundwater supplies many local sources of drinking water, so we've dug 2 wells which are about 600 feet deep. We pump about 7 gallons of contaminated water per second to the surface, filtrate it, and send it out as high-quality drinking water.

(Beeps and a woman's voice)

HUNTLEY: KAP is conducting environmental audits at over 100 sites and is currently cleaning 5 former military bases, and dozens of factories across the Czech Republic. In a country where most offices still echo the drab Communist past, KAP's bright offices and modern equipment reflect its success over the past few years. In one room, a mapping computer sits next to laser printers, spitting out multicolored maps of various KAP projects. The Czech government estimates that $900 million are spent each year on environmental cleanup and protection. Alistair Miller, KAP's head of business development, says his company claims a good piece of that action.

MILLER: It's very much a growing business. We have worked on sites as diverse as used car salesrooms all the way up to former Soviet air bases. Our turnover last year was 196 million crowns or 7 and a half million dollars, and that makes us a market leader in this country.

HUNTLEY: But in a country just emerging from the economic doldrums, who's paying for the clean-up? That depends. For former military sites like Radchani, the Ministry of Environment is the client. But at state-owned industrial sites where Communist-era environmental protection measures were equally lax, the situation is different. KAP's Alistair Miller.

MILLER: Since the beginning of the second wave of privatization, companies are required as part of their purchase of properties to arrange for their clean-up, but the state accepts its responsibility as the original polluter and refunds the cost of those clean-ups.

HUNTLEY: The Swedish engineering giant Azia Brown Bovary, or ABB, has bought several factories from the state, and is currently subcontracting with various firms to clean them up. Frantichek Dobesh is in charge of environmental issues with ABB in Prague. He says that foreign buyers who see foreign Communist plants as lucrative investments play an important part in the process.

DOBESH: When foreign companies come here they are quite concerned about the environment and therefore they are interested to know how much is still polluted. And therefore they do environmental audits and then they push the process.

HUNTLEY: Waste remediation companies, foreign buyers, and the Czech government all boast of how much privatization-driven clean-up is accomplishing. Carl Jech, a campaigner with Greenpeace Czech Republic, isn't so sure.

JECH: (Speaks in Czech)
TRANSLATOR: The National Property Fund, which is the government body selling off state property, can only reimburse the buyer up to the purchase price paid for the property. The price is usually not enough to truly decontaminate a factory or building which has been polluted over a period of 40 or 45 years.

HUNTLEY: Observers from groups like Greenpeace or the Czech Green Cross and the Prague Institute for Environmental Policy believe that Czech clean-up standards are lax. Greenpeace's Carl Jech.

JECH: (Speaks in Czech)
TRANSLATOR: Unfortunately, the present standards are too weak. Just now, there is a new toxic waste bill being debated in Parliament, but it is very soft. I hope that after a few more months of debate and lobbying by non-governmental agencies like ours, changes will be made to bring in standards that are more in line with Western Europe.

HUNTLEY: Jech and others worry that in this post-Communist era leaders are more concerned about their economic future than in cleaning up their contaminated past. With its environmental policies and booming clean-up business, the Czech Republic is far ahead of other ex-Soviet satellites. But these critics say that until standards are strengthened, Czech clean-up efforts will remain less than complete. For Living on Earth, this is Mark Huntley in Prague.



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