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Environment and the EU: "Money's going to be the key"

Tom Owen belongs to that rare breed, the expatriate who has "gone native" during his seven years in Slovakia, but who remains in touch with high-level international events.
Owen is at the top of the Slovak environmental advisory heap as a counsellor to the Deputy Environment Minister on EU issues, as well as policy advisor to the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, part of a Danish aid programme to central and eastern Europe. The Danes have been the largest bilateral donor in the environment field to Slovakia for the last several years.

Tom Owen
photo: Ján Svrček

Tom Owen belongs to that rare breed, the expatriate who has "gone native" during his seven years in Slovakia, but who remains in touch with high-level international events.

Owen is at the top of the Slovak environmental advisory heap as a counsellor to the Deputy Environment Minister on EU issues, as well as policy advisor to the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, part of a Danish aid programme to central and eastern Europe. The Danes have been the largest bilateral donor in the environment field to Slovakia for the last several years.

He's also a wry Falstaffian figure who has "been around the block" during his time in Slovakia, and has tales to tell on every topic from the police to Slovak hospitality to golf.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to him July 10 on the state of the environment in his adopted country.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): You've been here for seven years. What are some of the biggest changes you've witnessed in Slovakia?

Tom Owen (TO): The biggest physical change has been the Bratislava Old Town. That [reconstruction] is a great accomplishment for the entire country. I've also seen a huge change in people's attitudes - when I came here I was somewhat of an exotic creature, foreigners were strange and treated differently. Now that's all gone.

Before it was difficult to get any services, whereas now this place functions very well for services. There have been huge changes in a very short period of time.

TSS: Some of the biggest changes have been in areas such as the environment, which got short shrift in the early 1990s. If you were to give a 'state of the environment' speech on Slovakia now, what are some of the main points you would make?

TO: It would depend on whom I was speaking to, but one of the things I would stress is how substantial the country's landscape resources are, its fantastic green areas. On the other hand, I'd be concerned about some of the logging practices. I'd also stress the transition that industry is going through. There used to be a lot of heavy industry here, a lot of military industry and metal refining. Most of that is gone or has been reformed. The nickel refinery [in western Slovakia's Sereď] has closed down, the copper refinery [in eastern Slovakia's Krompachy] is virtually closed down, the aluminium [works at central Slovakia's Žiar nad Hronom] has of course been transformed. That's the direction I'd want to go in - the transformation.

When we speak about the environment, Slovakia has since last year been a full member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], which is made up of the largest industrial nations in the world. It has met all of the OECD's environment requirements, and in doing so was told that Slovakia's had been the best recent environmental submission.

Canadian environmental expert Tom Owen says investment can offer solutions to industrial pollution.
phoTO: Ján Svrček

TSS: How has being part of the OECD affected environmental issues here?

TO: On the environment specifically I couldn't say. The Environment Ministry is an excellent regulatory and policy agency, and it existed before - it's not as if there weren't any rules [before the Mikuláš Dzurinda government took power in 1998 - ed. note]. Perhaps the rules just needed to be enforced a bit differently.

So I don't think that things really changed on the ground here, but perhaps once Slovakia became part of that club, the rest of the world began to view it quite differently.

TSS: There may have been rules in the past, but was Slovakia's environmental record always good?

TO: Obviously, if you have a heavy military and refining industry, you're going to have heavy pollution problems. It's a simple as that. But not only has that base shifted, but also the companies that are coming in have had to shift away from a production-oriented technology to a marketing technology. They've had to upgrade all that 1950s-1960s technology just to remain competitive. They haven't necessarily done it for environmental reasons, but the environmental effect was strong, and the end result is the same.

TSS: Has any of the environmental damage caused in the past proven irreparable?

TO: Every country which has had some history of chemical and heavy industry is going to find it has some contaminated sites. And every country in the world has particular trouble dealing with historical contaminated sites for which there are no current owners. I'm sure if you looked around Slovakia you would find some such sites. I don't know of any major public health threats created by these sites, but I'm sure they're there. They have to be.

TSS: How is the government dealing with such sites?

TO: They are at the moment developing a contaminated sites policy, they've had some research and reviews done. They also hold individual negotiations with foreign companies when they sell sites, and that sort of thing. But they haven't had a general contaminated sites policy that might have cleaned up sites more rapidly than they have been able to do.

TSS: You've said before that one way to deal with such sites is to renew them as industrial sites, to sell them to companies willing to do some necessary clean up, but not as full a repair as if they intended to grow tomatoes. Isn't this passing the buck from government to business, in a way?

TO: It's not always the best thing, and asbestos is a good example. It's not always the best idea to take an asbestos building and tear it down, because then you disperse the asbestos.

But by the same principle, if you have contamination that is contained to a site, if you can be sure it's not moving, then if you cap that site and put an industrial activity on top so there's no public health effect, that's often the best use for the site, rather than trying to clean it up for some other activity.

TSS: Using this rationale, how would you referee the latest pollution case in Bratislava, where the Metro corporation, which is commissioned to build a bridge across the Danube River, has discovered the land it intends to build on is polluted with oil, chemicals and carcinogenic substances? How can the problem be contained and capped when there are already housing estates, shopping malls and the almost-complete new Slovak National Theatre sitting on top of these pollutants?

TO: I think the main questions are what kind of pollution we're dealing with, and how long it's been there. As you know, this is a very old chemical and refinery site [of the former Apollo Refinery, bombed in World War II - ed. note]. It's a well-known site, not something that someone just found yesterday. The fact it was bombed creates a different kind of situation.

I would think that the local government, if not the district environment office, are monitoring the site. They are now going to have to decide what kind of issues and disturbance are involved in building the bridge there.

TSS: Local environment activists fighting the new bridge project have doubted the local government could pay for a clean-up, even if that was picked as the safest option. To what extent does lack of money determine what decisions are taken on the environment in Slovakia?

TO: Well, let's go back to the concrete situation - you have a lot of development in that area, residential among other types, and you could quickly look at the health patterns and see if there were any problems. You would probably have had an indication by now.

Of course, money is always important. You always have to do a cost-benefit analysis and look at the most efficient way to do things. Which is why I say if industry builds on a contaminated site where there is no damage, that's a cost-effective way of dealing with it.

TSS: You've served as Deputy Environment Minister in the Canadian province of Manitoba. Is there any difference, on any level, between the way environment questions are handled in Canada and in Slovakia?

TO: There's actually quite a bit of convergence. It's interesting you ask that question, because the Manitoba Environment Department, the government agency I used to work with, is here now, and is finding issues and problems very similar to the ones they faced in Canada not so long ago, including this question of contaminated sites.

TSS: But is there the same kind of public pressure put on the government here to tackle environmental problems?

TO: It's hard to say, because world-wide, the public pressure on the environment peaked probably five or 10 years ago, which means you're comparing Slovakia now to Canada then. But I think that, all other things being equal, it's fairly similar. Slovaks are aware of the environment, and if they don't put the same kind of pressure on their government that Canadians do, that's a democracy issue, not an environment issue.

TSS: Isn't it also a disclosure issue - how much the public is actually told about pollution and possible risks?

TO: That's interesting, because Slovakia was the first country in east and central Europe to have a public disclosure act on the environment. But there are some practices here which are quite different, for example on the question of who has 'direct involvement', it is taken to be only the neighbour with adjacent property, not the one across the road. They don't have the history of public involvement and public pressure that we do in some other places. But they do have public exposure, and that's the first step.

TSS: How would you compare the influence that business has on environment decisions? Are politicians more susceptible to corporate solutions for the environment here than elsewhere?

TO: The ties between business and politics are generally somewhat similar. I'm not saying the mechanisms of the ties are exactly the same, but even in the US or Canada you're not going to find the government taking on the largest industry. The difference is that we have cases in North America where one deputy minister has charged another deputy minister with breach of the environment act. I don't think you're going to find that sort of thing in this part of the world. We're more aggressive in some cases, but it depends on the government. Look at the United States, which has radically shifted their position on the environment after the last elections.

TSS: Is it to Slovakia's advantage or detriment that the environment is not as hot a topic now as it was a decade ago?

TO: I think it's to the world's disadvantage. I wouldn't want to overstate the case, but I think if you're not careful, particularly with forestry practices and those kinds of things, you're going to lose the environment. That's as true of Slovakia as it is anywhere else.

The urban environment here is a bit bizarre, the kind of building that's going on in Bratislava. I think in five to ten years people are going to be very upset with what's happened to this city, or at least the difference between what could have happened and what did happen.

TSS: What kind of building are you referring to?

TO: I'm not involved in urban planning, but it strikes me there's a lot of buildings that don't seem to fit the character of the older parts of the city. What they've done to the Presidential Square [to approve the building of the Tatracentrum office complex opposite the historic Presidential Palace, set for completion in November 2001 - ed. note] is not appropriate for that part of the town. But that happens everywhere - we have the highest and best use ethic in the West, and developers keep pressing and pressing. On the other hand, a few cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam keep nice green spaces, and still seem well-off economically.

TSS: Why are such buildings going up in Bratislava?

TO: I have no idea.

TSS: Every year I run through the Small Carpathian or High Tatra mountains, there seems to be more and more clear-cut logging going on, even though these are supposed to be protected areas. What's going on?

TO: I'm not an expert on the forest industry, but I can tell you that in Canada, for example, the forest industry is absolutely the last to change. It's a very important economic component, and their practices change rather slowly. I suspect it's the same here. Wood is a very important economic resource, and there's always pressure to use it, but there are other ways to use it as well, as you mentioned with jogging.

I've actually driven through that forest stretch from here to Svätý Jur; it's a very, very beautiful area. There's also the area near the zoo, out towards Devín, Koliba - there's a lot of green space in and around Bratislava, a lot of good things that need to be preserved.

TSS: How much of Slovakia's environmental future will be determined by its attempts to join the European Union, and to obey EU directives?

TO: The framework is already in place, so that's not something they'll have to change. They'll have to reorganise some things, pass some different laws, and enforce in a different way, but you're not dealing with a blank slate here, you're dealing with an existing regulatory and legal system.

TSS: Doesn't Slovakia's having asked for extra time in which to meet the EU's environment guidelines argue that there is more than cosmetic work to be done?

TO: I think every [EU accession] country has asked for prolongation periods, particularly for urban waste water treatment plants and other very heavy cost directives. Nobody has the money to do it immediately. But then you have to remember that western European countries didn't put these systems in overnight either.

TSS: Beyond the urban waste water treatment guideline [which says that for every municipality or village of 2,000 people, EU accession countries must establish a separate waste water treatment plant - ed. note], what other environment hurdles does Slovakia face with the EU?

TO: I think their biggest problem is perceptual. All these countries have a shared heritage - is Slovakia that much different than the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland? But Slovakia had so many years of negative comment internationally that some of that has hung over to the current period.

Slovakia also has to deal with the unfortunate problem that it is not, geographically or geo-politically, a critical country, so their PR efforts have to be better if they are to get credit for what they have done.

TSS: Won't municipal governments need more than just an image shift if they are to fulfil the urban waste water rules?

TO: That's the problem with the EU, you're doing so many things at the same time - public sector reform, devolution of certain services from central to regional to municipal. At the same time, you don't have strong history of municipal government, you don't have municipal taxing and financing, your water companies are not in the hands of municipalities as they are in some other countries - all of these structural and financial issues have to be taken into account.

You also have to remember that although Slovakia is a relatively small country of just over five million people, it has almost 3,000 municipalities, most of which are very small. It's obviously more difficult to deliver those kinds of services to small populations.

TSS: How much will EU funding help out here?

TO: That's the open question. I think there's a perception on each side that more will be done by the other side - the EU thinks these countries will mainly finance these changes themselves, while the accession countries believe a lot of this will be financed by the EU. The problem is we're in a global economic down-turn, and there's not a lot of extra money around. I think money's going to be a key issue.


Born: Oshawa, Ontario, Canada
Nationality: Canadian
Education: PhD in public administration, Syracuse University
Current job: Advisor to Deputy Environment Minister
Favourite restaurant: U Martinka
Recent sports success: Slovak senior golf champion, 2000
Best job ever: This one
Worst job ever: Shipping and receiving for air conditioner company
Best thing about Slovakia: The people
Worst thing: Slovak drivers

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