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East: Prague Symposium Assesses Environmental Progress

Environmental officials from Central and Eastern Europe and the United States are meeting this week in Prague to discuss how to tackle the environmental legacy of decades of communism. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky reports on the issues under discussion at the conference.

Prague, 12 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- When officials met eight years ago for the first international symposium on environmental contamination in Central and Eastern Europe, the task seemed more than daunting. Environmental regulation was still in its infancy in many of the post-communist countries. While no one doubted decades of communist rule had exacted a heavy toll on the environment, no one was sure just how much.

But as officials coping with the clean-up gather for their fifth such symposium this week in the Czech capital Prague, they note the countries of the region have a better idea of the magnitude of the problem and have made great strides in putting in place the rules needed to protect the environment. In particular, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary -- as is often the case -- are the trailblazers.

Still, much remains to be done, especially for countries in the region aiming to join the European Union. A 1996 study by the Regional Environmental Center -- a leading non-governmental organization based in Hungary that acts as a clearinghouse for environmental data -- found the environmental legislation of the 10 Central and Eastern European countries complied with only about half of the EU's regulations.

Perhaps nowhere did the environment suffer as much under communism as in Russia, where industrial behemoths rose from the ground with little regard to their surroundings. The price paid not only by the Russia's environment, but by its people was devastating.

According to Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, chairman of the Russian State Environment Committee, 61 million Russians -- almost half the country's population -- live in environmentally dangerous conditions. More than 14 percent of Russia's territory is in poor environmental condition, and the air in 120 Russian cities is five times more toxic than acceptable levels, largely as a result of inefficient factories.

Sandor Richter is a senior economist at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies who is taking part in the three-day Prague symposium. He says the whole approach to environmental cleanup has undergone a sea change in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

"You know what is important that formerly this was all done by, for instance if you talk about contaminated land, this was done by digging up the dirt, putting them on truck, take them away and put it somewhere. Now there are develop[ing] much more, so to say, friendlier technologies."

At a press briefing before the symposium opened today (Tuesday), Richter said people in Central and Eastern Europe are also realizing that there is money to be made in clean-up. Timothy Oppelt, director of the National Risk Management Research Laboratory of the U.S. government's Environmental Protection Agency, said a strong economy goes hand-in-hand with a clean environment. He noted that in the United States some 1.2 million people are employed in the field of environmental protection, generating some $2 billion in revenue annually.

But complying with all of the EU's strict environmental regulations is expected to carry a heavy price tag for the 10 candidate nations of Central and Eastern Europe. EU institutions have estimated the total cost of meeting union environmental standards at more than $100 billion. That's about a third of the region's annual gross domestic product, a figure that must leave some officials from Central and Eastern Europe wondering whether the EU criteria can be met.

Roy Herndon, the director of the Institute for International Cooperative Environmental Research at the U.S.-based Florida State University, gave some reason for hope. He reminded conference participants that it was only in the mid-1970s that the United States put in place a comprehensive environmental regulatory system. One of the first major pieces of environmental legislation, the Clean Air Act, was passed in 1970. Herndon noted that, in historical terms, that's not too long ago.

But, as some of the participants pointed out, regulations are only as good as the officials enforcing them. To that end, some 150 graduate-students in the field of environmental policy are taking part in day-long workshops at the Prague symposium. The future task of safeguarding the environment in Central and Eastern Europe will fall on their shoulders.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.