For Czech town, coal could mean a rich end Company wants to move residents

August 31, 1992|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Contributing Writer

CHABAROVICE, Czechoslovakia -- Mayor Zbynek Hrom drags his hand like a giant steam shovel across the aerial photograph of Chabarovice he keeps on his wall.

"They want to destroy it all," Mr. Hrom says, referring to a plan by a group of U.S. companies to raze Chabarovice to get at about 100 million tons of coal sitting a few yards below the surface.

"But we're from old Europe. We don't think only about money, but also about the land where we're from," he says, looking out his office window at the dilapidated village of 2,000. "I'm the guardian of this town. I can't just give it up."

The plan, as proposed by a consortium of a local mining company and U.S.-based Atlantic Partners and Waste Management Inc., would involve moving all of Chabarovice's residents to newly built houses three to five miles away. This would allow the consortium to expand a strip mine that lies a mile and a half from Chabarovice.

The consortium also wants to build a plant that would turn the relatively high-sulfur brown coal of Chabarovice into cleaner-burning coal briquettes. That, the partners say, would help reduce pollution in an area where entire forests stand dead from acid rain.

"We could rebuild Chabarovice and make it much better," says Vladimir Velicka, technical director of the local mining enterprise, the Usti Fuel Co. "And we will improve the environment. We can give the whole region coal that will burn cleaner."

This is not the first time that Chabarovice, near the German border, about 70 miles north of Prague, has been threatened. The coal pit already has consumed a half-dozen other villages and was originally planned to extend to the area where Chabarovice now lies as well.

But in 1989, a half-year before the revolution that brought down Czechoslovakia's Communist government, the people of Chabarovice took to the streets to protest the planned demolition of their town.

They stopped any immediate move to destroy Chabarovice, and last year won a government decree that ordered mining to stop 700 yards from the town line -- giving the coal pit about four more years of productive life.

In his office two miles down the road from Chabarovice, Mr. Velicka keeps an aerial photograph of the region as well. But where Mayor Hrom sees a threat, Mr. Velicka sees an opportunity.

He sweeps his hand over Chabarovice: On one side of the town is a chemical waste dump; on another lies an old strip mine that is now used as a landfill; on a third, the current Chabarovice coal pit stretches like a giant black scar.

"If we stop mining in four years, who's going to pay to clean this up?" Mr. Velicka asks. "There's no answer."

The consortium has promised to restore the land to a usable state when the mining is finished, perhaps in 25 years, and says it will clean up the chemical dump in the meantime to get at the coal underneath. The state-owned chemical company that created the mess has no money to do so, and neither does the government.

These arguments mean little to opponents of the plan. Chabarovice, they say, is their home town, and no amount of money will make them want to give it up.

"What's the difference between a Communist government that wants to come in here and destroy the countryside and a private company?" Mr. Hrom asks. "One's richer and is willing to pay a lot of money."

Although the proximity of the dumps and the mine might give the impression that Chabarovice is some kind of industrial wasteland, the town is not unpleasant. Green parks, small side streets and the main square are alive with people shopping, strolling or just chatting with neighbors.

But the threat of destruction has hovered over Chabarovice for so many years now that residents have had little incentive to maintain their property.

"If the mining were to end, and it were guaranteed that Chabarovice would never again be threatened, I'd like to stay," says Alena Krizova, a member of the local town council. "But if the threat to Chabarovice, the threat of demolition, continues, I'm for moving."

And for the people who live in those crumbling buildings, the offer may prove irresistible: The consortium has circulated color photographs of American suburbs.

"I've got an old broken-down apartment, and they'll give me a new house," says Maria Koudelova, who has lived in Chabarovice for four years. "I'm for it. Why not?" she says.

"Nobody is pressuring these people. We can offer them a new opportunity, and it's up to them whether they will accept it or not," says Ladislava Smiskova, an adviser to the consortium. "We are sure that for everybody it means a profit."

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