The Czech Republic: Environmental Problems in Eastern Europe

Emerging from a peaceful revolution in November 1989,
Czechoslovakia faced a myriad of environmental problems with few
resources to solve them.  After 42 years of Communist rule, the
country struggled with economic change to a free market economy. 
It recognized that environmental recovery directly relates to
economic improvement.  

Now Czechoslovakia's break-up into two distinct countries on Jan.
1, 1993, is jeopardizing some of that progress. Like the peaceful
"velvet revolution," the division was a "velvet divorce."  The
western part is the Czech Republic with Prague as its capital,
and the east is Slovakia with the capital of Bratislava.  The
separation leaves other countries, financial institutions, and
granting agencies unsure of the future of these fledgling
democracies and uncertain about who's in charge.  These two
republics constitute one of the most environmentally damaged
areas in all of Europe.  It is a part of the "black triangle" of
industrial/mining areas that encompasses southern Poland,
southern former East Germany, and northern Bohemia in the Czech
Republic. Polluted atmosphere, water, and food; deteriorated
soil quality; and damaged forests are the norm.  The landscape
has lost its ecological integrity, and some endangered species
are now extinct. 

The Czech Republic is one of the biggest exporters of pollution
to neighboring and distant countries.  Because of their
deteriorated environment, people in both republics have poor
health and a life expectancy 3 to 6 years below the average for
Europe.  Once Czechoslovakia was one of the most prosperous
democratic countries in all of Europe.  The economic decline of
the republics is deep, but the ecological decline is even worse
(Moldan and Schnoor, 1992).

Years of neglecting environmental regulations, not considered a
high priority, have brought on this predicament.  Some of the
problems are common to other Central and Eastern European
countries.  They are: 1) severe air pollution including sulfur
dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and acid rain; 2)
water pollution including agricultural runoff of soil, nitrates,
pesticides, and industrial contamination by toxic organics and
metals; 3) untreated or poorly treated wastewater discharges of
biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), nutrients, and total suspended
solids (TSS); and 4) solid and hazardous wastes at an unknown
number of sites containing metals, organics, and radioactive

These types of pollution can cause decreased life expectancy,
polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in breast milk, excessive
chronic illness among children during atmospheric inversions, and
lead in children's blood.  Metals extensively contaminate food
crops, and chlorinated hydrophobic organics pollute pork, beef,
and poultry items.

Much of the pollution stems from a policy that subsidized the
price of energy, water, and agricultural chemicals.  Industries
failed to invest in pollution control or prevention. They either
did not enforce environmental regulations or, in some cases,
found it was cheaper to pay the fine than to fix the problem.

Mining, smelting, heavy industry, chemicals, and building
materials production formed the base of the economy.  The country
emphasized these extractive and polluting industries because of
plentiful deposits of easily extractable low-grade ores. 
Industries did not develop many high-tech or value-added
products.  They used domestic materials and exported armaments,
ceramics, chemicals, crystal, metals, and lumber to the Soviet
Union and Eastern-bloc countries.  The following data from the
Czech Republic highlights major environmental problems facing
Eastern Europe. 

Air Pollution and Forest Decline

The root of many of the environmental problems in the republics
is the poor quality of coal available between 1948-1989.  After
World War II, the mining and combustion of soft brown lignite
coal increased from 15 to more than 100 million metric tons per
year (See graph, Moldan and Schnoor, 1992).  

It was cheap and available by surface mining, but it was also
high in ash content, up to 40% by weight, and in sulfur content,
1 to 15%.  (In the United States, power plants use coal with 5 to
10% ash and between 0.5 and 4.0% sulfur.)  Poor quality coal
brought on many of the environmental problems such as atmospheric
pollution with sulfur oxides and particulate matter. The country
also needed huge waste disposal ash ponds, which eventually leak
toxic metals to surface and groundwater.

A map shows the two republics as separate countries. The dashed
lines are iso-contours, or constant concentration lines, of
annual average regional sulfur dioxide concentrations from daily
measurements at more than 200 stations between 1981 and 1985
(Czech Fed. Govt., 1988).  Ambient air concentrations in several
major cities including Pilsen, Brno, and Ostrava are also greater
than 60 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/meters cubed), and annual
average concentration in Prague was nearly 100 ug/meters cubed
during this period.  Typical ambient air quality standards in the
U.S. and many countries for sulfur dioxide is 80 ug/meters cubed.

Concentrations during winter inversion periods can be much
higher, reaching an average of 400 ug/meters cubed for 19 days in
January 1982 in the extreme northwestern part of the Czech
Republic.  During 1982, Prague and Osek had daily peak
concentrations of 3200 ug/meters cubed and 2400 ug/meters cubed
(Moldan, 1990).  These are among the highest concentrations
reported in the world, and they exceed limits designed to protect
humans from respiratory diseases such as emphysema, asthma, and
bronchitis.  During a 4-day episode in London in 1952, 4,000
people died from sulfur dioxide concentrations thought to be only
slightly higher than 3000 ug/meters cubed. 

Another environmental problem stemming from the use of soft coal
is the direct effect of sulfur dioxide gas on vegetation. 
Forests began to decline in the 1950s and 1960s in the
Erzegebirge mountains in the northwestern Czech Republic.  Now
more than 100,000 hectares of spruce forests have died within the
60 ug/meters cubed iso-concentration line shown on the map. About
54% of the forests in the Czech Republic show signs of decline,
primarily the northern areas (Moldan, 1990).

The combustion of soft coal damages the environment in many ways.
Without emission controls, volatile trace metals in coal,
mercury, lead, cadmium, and zinc, leave the stack and go into
the atmosphere. Cyclone separators, bag house filters, or
electrostatic precipitators could capture some toxic chemicals,
like arsenate, from the fly ash. Instead, it goes largely
uncontrolled into the atmosphere, eventually spreading deposits
over the landscape.  In the atmosphere, sulfur dioxide turns into
acid rain which, in turn, acidifies soil and streams and reduces

Sulfur oxides and particulate matter, including the fine fraction
of particles, less than 10 microns that are respiratory hazards,
are at high concentrations above air quality standards. These
concentrations result in epidemic respiratory diseases,
especially asthma in children.  These emissions from coal
combustion are the greatest human health, and probably
environmental, hazard in the Czech Republic.

Box 1. Air Quality in the Czech Republic and the United States
compared to U.S. Ambient Air Quality Standards 

                    Czech Urban      U.S.            U.S. Urban
                    Air Quality*     Standards       Air Quality
Sulfur Dioxide 
Annual Average      100mg/m cubed     80mg/m cubed   30mg/m cubed
24-hr. duration     400              365             80
3-hr. duration    >1000            13000            100

Total Suspended Particulates
Annual Average      100               75             50**
24-hr. duration     400              260            100

*  Worst urban air quality in towns of Most, Sokolov, Prague,
** However, 30 million people in the U.S. live in areas that
exceed the U.S. standard of 75 mg/meters cubed. 

(Moldan, 1990;  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1990).

Food Supply

One of the biggest problems facing the Czech Republic is the
contamination of its food supply with toxic organics
[benzo(a)pyrene, PCBs, hexachloro-benzene] and metals (lead,
cadmium, mercury, and arsenic), which then threaten human health.

The concentration of cancer-causing PCBs in the breast milk of
Czech women is 3 mg kg(power of -1), more than three times that
found in Yugoslavia or Scandinavian countries. Concentrations 
of lead in the blood of children were 30-45 micrograms per
deciliter in a recent study, more than twice what it was in
control groups. Lead, a neurotoxin, causes developmental
disabilities and mental retardation in children. 

People constantly consume contaminated food and water with high
concentrations of toxins such as the metals in the streams and
small rivers of northern Bohemia (Veseley et al., 1990).  High
concentrations of cadmium and arsenic occur from industrial
wastewater, mine drainage runoff, phosphate fertilizers, and fly
ash leaching from power plants. Beryllium and aluminum come from
acid rain seeping into the soil. 

As fruits, vegetables, and grains grow, they absorb these toxic
metals, especially lead, cadmium, mercury, and the metalloid
arsenic. In turn, hogs, cattle, and poultry eat the contaminated
grain and pass on the metals and persistent hydrophobic organic
chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into pork,
beef, and poultry food supplies. 

The most long-lasting legacy of the past 42 years of
environmental degradation is the build-up of toxic metals in
acidified soils preventing revegetation and threatening future
agricultural production. The excessive use of nitrogen
fertilizers flowing into streams is contaminating nearly half of
all drinking water supplies, both in surface and groundwater.

As people eat contaminated food, the toxins accumulate and help
bring on liver disease, kidney stones, and stomach cancer. 
Although medical data show especially high occurrence of these
diseases in Central and Eastern Europe, there is no proof that
food contamination is the cause.  Certainly, heavy smoking and a
diet rich in fats and salts contributes to the problem.  

As the table below shows, the daily intake of mercury, lead,
cadmium, PCB, and benzo(a)pyrene from food alone approaches the
allowable daily limits. And, in the Czech Republic,
benzo(a)pyrene averages above the limit. A rudimentary risk
assessment showed it is one of the problems that poses the most
risk to the health of Czech citizens.  The government has ranked
it as a high priority concern, second only to the respiratory
diseases caused by air pollution. 
Although there are high lead levels in children's blood, probably
only a small amount comes from contaminated food.  A much greater
intake comes from lead in paint dust, air pollution from leaded
fuels in gasoline, and trace lead in coal dust. 

Box 2. Toxic Chemicals in Food in the Czech Republic based on a
60 kg person 

                                Daily Intake
              Czech Average    W.H.O. Allowable    U.S. Typical
Chemical      (mg/day/per.)    (mg/day/per.)       (mg/day/per.) 

Mercury          0.015             0.04               0.004
Lead             0.287             0.50               0.05
Cadmium          0.04              0.05-0.07          0.01
PCB              0.45              0.50               0.05
B(a)P            0.003             0.002-0.003        0.0003

(Moldan, 1990)

Human Health

Because many things affect people's health, it is difficult to
separate pollution-caused health effects from other environmental
and genetic influences.  Czechs smoke heavily and eat a fatty,
high-salt diet. These habits worsen diseases and increase the
incidence of cancer, kidney stones, hypertension, and heart
disease.  Unlike most Western European countries, life expectancy
in both republics since 1964 appears to be decreasing rather than
increasing (Moldan, 1990).  

In 1988, life expectancy for both men and women was 71.6, but for
men in the extremely polluted areas, Most and Sokolov in the
northwest, it was only 64.2 years.  In 1985, a comparison of mean
life expectancy in 25 European countries showed that
Czechoslovakia, at 71.0 years, was only higher than four others:
Hungary at 69.4 years; Yugoslavia, 68.4 years; Poland, 70.6
years; and the USSR, 67.8 years.  The longest life expectancies
were in Iceland with 77.4 years and Sweden with 76.6 years (Czech
Fed. Govt. 1989).  
Chronic respiratory diseases, including asthma, emphysema, and
bronchitis are epidemic among children up to age 14. The 1983-86
average winter concentrations of sulfur dioxide in Prague and
Most were 150 micrograms per cubic meter.  Medical personnel
cited a 320% increase of respiratory diseases in children under
14 compared to spring and summer conditions.  In 1990-91, Most
officials issued children face masks so that they could play
Based on the health hazards of sulfur dioxide, total suspended
particulates (breathable particulate matter), and radioactive
materials, the government has classified 6.9% of the Czech
Republic with its 2.5 million people as an "extremely disturbed
environment" (Dupal, 1987).  Recently, Bobak and Leon (1992) have
shown a positive statistical correlation between infant mortality
and breathable particles less than 10 microns in size 

Although the ecology has gravely deteriorated, governments will
usually decide to improve human health when confronted with
decreasing life expectancy.  When the government is trying to
expand the economy, it is hard to place a high priority on
environmental recovery.  Nevertheless, most people and government
officials recognize it is not logical to continue to expand the
economy at the expense of the environment.  

The legacy of the communist years is that people now understand
that they cannot allow economic development to destroy their
resource base.  Also, the government cannot protect the
environment without a vigorous economy and program for
sustainable development.  The situation is even more challenging
when deciding what environment and economic trade-offs to make
when they operate on different time scales and pay-back periods. 


The Czech Republic is shaping its environmental policy by the
urgent need to build the post-communist economy and create a
sustainable way of life.  It is focusing on the clean-up of
serious pollution.  It needs to: clean coal by removing the
sulfur, use clean-coal technology (using fluidized bed
combustion), close outdated and inefficient plants, and
desulfurize flue gas.  In addition, it is vital to provide
adequate sewage treatment and a secure place to store toxic
wastes.  One of the first priorities to protect the environment  
will be mandatory environmental impact assessments. 

The country must base lasting environmental improvement on
prevention, modern technologies, restructuring an obsolete
industrial infrastructure, and reducing the extremely high energy
consumption.  Initially, the government plans to use the
"polluter pays principle" to encourage companies to reach
ecological goals. Penalties such as dues, charges, and taxes
should have both punitive and stimulating characteristics.  

These fiscal measures are probably the most important part of new
economic and legal principles, replacing outmoded laws written
during the communist regime. The Czech Ministry of the
Environment, charged with rule-making and environmental action,
came into existence only on Jan. 1, 1990.  There is a rudimentary
administrative and inspection system and self-reporting by
industry of environmental discharges.  In the past, it has been
cheaper to pay the fine than to abide by the environmental
regulation or permit.

A key factor for further shaping the quality of the environment
will be the success of the change to an effective market economy
with fast economic growth.  However, the future must be
sustainable.  Economic and societal development must provide
prosperity without endangering human well-being. It must not
reduce or waste nature's production of environmental services 
but save it for future generations. 

The challenge is to preserve the good and less affected locations
and to recover severely depleted regions and resources.  Many of
these problems are common to several Central and East European
countries.  But the Czech Republic is in a good position to
affect recovery because of its low foreign debt, excellent
universities, central location, historic beauty, and democratic
traditions before 1948. 

The Czech Republic, Hungary, former East Germany, and perhaps
Poland, may be the first Eastern European countries to recover
economically and environmentally over the next 10-20 years. 
Eventually, they may become integral members of the European
Economic Community.  They can fix their environmental problems
but will need billions of dollars for clean-up, restoration, and
capital investments in new technologies. 

Initially, the priority for clean-up and enforcement must be to
reduce the risk to human health.  Funding should go to projects
that provide the largest reduction in human health risk per
dollar invested. However, ecological concerns should not be far
behind.  For now, the government will focus on air pollution and
food contamination.  They may have to close the oldest plants and
convert some newer ones to cleaner coal use.  To decrease the
wasteful and inefficient use of resources, the government will
need to tax diesel fuel, leaded gas, energy, and water. 
The Czech Republic is trying to rely on market forces for wise
pricing of natural resource use.  It will need a mixture of 
"command-and-control" legislation, regulations, and market
incentives (See box on p. 5).

The country needs legislation requiring environmental impact
assessments on new construction projects, a phased permitting of
existing discharges, restrictions on fertilizer and pesticide use
(and removing subsidies), and air quality management regions. 
The government will need to vigorously enforce existing ambient
air and water quality standards or make them more realistic. 

Box 3. Environmental Plan for the Czech Republic includes:
- Phaseout of subsidies for soft coal, gasoline, water, and
agricultural inputs 

- Privatization of a few key large enterprises and sale to 
multinational companies

- Creation of a stock market and division of shares to citizens 
via a voucher system

- Closing of some out-moded factories and power plants

- Environmental industrial audits and training

- Least-cost mitigation measures such as coal washing

- Food monitoring and inspection

- Public participation in the setting of fees, standards, 
enforcement and monitoring

- Establishing target industries for compliance, regulatory 
priorities and information

- Inventory of hazardous waste dump sites

- Development of specific policies for endangered species

- Conservation of soil and original forest species

- Reclamation of mined lands in Bohemia

- Indexing air and water pollution charges and fines to 
industrial price index

- Establishing an environmental impact assessment process 

- Making pollution charges correspond to marginal abatement costs
and analyzing the effects of those charges on employment,
inflation etc.

(Czech Fed. Gov. 1991)


Progress and Problems

The largest uncertainty on the horizon is the unknown long-term
effect of the break-up of Czechoslovakia.  Even the peaceful
separation will likely slow investment and increase bureaucratic
time lines.  However, the strong governments of both republics
may shorten the adjustment period. 

The Czech government has removed subsidies by increasing prices
on polluting energy sources and fertilizers.  Inflation has been
on the rise.  In the past two years, average wages have almost
doubled, but prices have roughly tripled.  Most people still hope
that economic reforms will work and also allow for environmental
restoration.  But clearly, economic well-being is uppermost in
their minds.  The democratic reforms would seem to be
irreversible, especially in the Czech Republic where new shops
and availability of goods are increasing everywhere.  The
currency is almost interconvertible now and is holding steady
against the U.S. dollar.

Vaclav Klaus, formerly the Finance Minister and now Czech
Republic President developed a widely-accepted voucher system. 
Earlier, people speculated that many Czech citizens would be
skeptical of the plan.  Perhaps they would be unwilling or unable
to invest 1000 Czech Crowns (about $40) to receive a stamp to
participate in the first wave of privatization of medium-sized
state-owned companies.  But 90 percent of about 9.5 million
eligible people participated in the first two offerings.  

In addition, companies will need to be designated as Slovak or
Czech, and it needs to be clear whether Slovak citizens can bid
on Czech companies and vice versa.  Each citizen could gain stock
holdings worth a couple of thousand dollars in formerly
state-owned companies. 

The separation of the country has also slowed progress of
government command-and-control environmental regulations because
it is not certain what the new regulations will be in each
republic.  The Czech Republic closed two large antiquated power
plants and, in combination with the European economic recession,
this has decreased sulfur dioxide emissions.  

The government has also begun a coal washing demonstration.  It
now must overcome market hurdles and find a use for the poorer
leftover coal which is high in sulfur and ash.  Although the
technology exists to use flue gas desulfurization on large
coal-fired power plants near Most in the polluted Erzegebirge
region, it is still too expensive to be practical.  At a cost of
$0.60 per kg of sulfur removed, it is not yet a competitive
control option.  Before widespread use, the government will
likely need grants and credits from other countries who market
the technology.  

Nevertheless, air and water quality have already improved.  Since
1980, the northwestern Czech Republic has observed some dramatic
improvements in streamwater chemistry with sulfate concentrations
decreasing by 25-50%.  Sulfate comes largely from sulfuric acid
and the acid rain created by soft coal combustion.  Initially,
the decrease was due to lower sulfate emissions from surrounding
countries, especially West Germany, but now it appears to be from
decreasing in-country emissions.  

Air quality in Prague has begun to improve during the winter
months because almost 30% of homes have switched from brown coal
to natural gas heat from Russia.  The number of homes converting
to gas continues to increase.  This should dramatically improve
air quality during inversions. 

A government-sponsored beginning risk assessment has guided some
decisions and planning at the federal level.  The country has
also used air monitoring networks and some fate and transport
models of sulfur oxides and particulate matter to determine the
extent of the problem and human exposure concentrations. 
However, the government has not yet put together a detailed plan
to restore the environment.  

The governments could use forecasting tools, such as input-output
and dynamic optimization models, because sufficient data bases
exist in some cases.  Earlier, the pending separation of the
nations had stalled the environmental strategic plan (See box on
p. 5).  However, economic and market reforms, such as the
decrease of energy subsidies, are continuing.  These may have
some long-lasting benefits.


Developing countries need to create environmental strategic plans
to achieve a linkage and balance between economic development and
environmental preservation.  Because sparse data exist in many
countries, governments must first gather available information. 
Then they can use international agencies and data bases to search
for what is missing.  

To protect human and ecological health, governments must begin
monitoring programs for priority pollutants in air and water.
They need to use simple models that are appropriate for the level
of information available in future data bases.  They will
probably need a mixture of command-and-control regulatory
approaches and market incentives to effect environmental
improvements.  They should use the polluter-pays principle so
that all costs are accounted for.  Otherwise, they will exploit
resources by inefficient use of coal, water, and fertilizers and
lose them forever.  

The Czech Republic case study shows all the uncertainty,
including changes in governments, that occur when one embarks on
a strategic plan for an emerging country.  When human health is
deteriorating, health protection needs to be a key priority.  But
one cannot ignore ecological health and keystone species that are
necessary to preserve the resource base.  

Rather than an elaborate analysis of what to do (policy
objectives), it is better to concentrate on an analysis of the
best way to do it (policy alternatives evaluation and
cost-effectiveness).  Sometimes it is important to begin with a
plan that may not be optimal, but it is at least a start in the
right direction.


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