Prague's War on Pollution Gets Off to a Slow Start

ON a grey, damp winter day in Beroun, Jiri Dobrovuska is a cheery sight as he makes his way up the main street in cornflower-blue work overalls.

But the young truck driver does not have many cheerful words to say about this central Bohemian town.

Cradled by hills about 20 miles south of Prague, Beroun is home to an ash- and sulfur-spewing steel works and a cement factory which coats the town with a fine white dust.

"The dust is the worst. We can't get rid of it," Mr. Dobrovuska says. "On the hills, we have sunshine. But here there's no sun at all."

Asked if the environment has improved much since Czechoslovakia's "velvet revolution" two years ago, he answers, "There have been very small improvements - nothing really."

Unlike in the former East Germany, where air quality is noticeably better than two years ago (largely because of factory shut-downs), progress on the environment in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Central Europe is agonizingly slow.

The reasons are lack of money, lack of experience, and administrative problems. According to some environmentalists here, a key problem is also Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus, whose priorities rank economic reform above the environment.

"Mr. Klaus is of the opinion that the ecology is the whipped cream on the cake and that we must first earn the money to eat it," says Ales Mucha, president of the Federal Council of the Greens political movement here.

Going into the 1990 elections, Mr. Mucha says, all the competing parties had an environmental program. "But none of these programs were fulfilled."

What the government has done is to strengthen existing environmental laws and to pass a new law regulating waste. It has used foreign aid to finance environmental monitors, studies, mapping, and data gathering, according to the Federal Environment Ministry.

But Antonin Malek, director of environment for Beroun county, says the main feature of the stricter regulations is higher fines, which most factories in his county cannot afford to pay.

"The main reason for slow progress" in his county, says Mr. Malek, "is lack of money." He says this year he needed about 100 million crowns ($3.6 million) for his budget, but received only 21 million crowns ($750,000).

SO far, he has had enough funds to take a few immediate measures, such as installing filters in the cement factory smokestacks, which only slightly reduced dust emission. He has hired seven more environmental inspectors for the county. And he was able to finance a plan of action for the region, but not the corrective measures themselves.

For instance, in the town of Beroun, which has 18,000 residents, the plan calls for relocating the cement factory (a German company is interested in buying the factory); switching from brown coal heating to gas; building a new waste water treatment plant (one-third of the waste flows untreated into the nearby river); and moving toward a system for sorting solid waste.

Ludek Kolman, adviser to Czechoslovakia's deputy environment minister, is not convinced that shortage of funds is such a problem. "More money would be useful, but you can spend and not achieve results," he says.

Mr. Kolman and an American adviser at the Environment Ministry, Stuart Auchincloss, suggest the political system here is not yet "mature" enough to handle a lot of money. As an example, they point to duplicate studies that have been carried out in some regions. The question of whether Czechoslovakia will eventually split into two republics also hampers environmental decisions.

Adding to the difficulties is a certain disinterest among Czechoslovakians, some of whom worry more about rising prices than the air they breathe.

In northern Czechoslovakia, the most heavily polluted region in the country, residents worry that if the air quality improves, they will lose the hardship benefits they were being paid to live there. The benefits, known locally as "funeral money," take such forms as considerably higher wages and free transport and lodging for children at "nature schools schools far removed from the area where children are sent to recover for a month.

"What's tragic," says the Greens' Mucha, "is that the inhabitants there have gotten more or less accustomed to the pollution. They see the health of their children at stake, but on the other hand, they like the privileges."

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