3 1/2 years later, Czech Republic still is cleaning up mess Soviets left behind

April 17, 1994|By David Rocks | David Rocks,Special to The Sun

MILOVICE, Czech Republic -- Milos Taranza points across the bleak landscape of the former Soviet base here, his gaze settling on a depression at the bottom of the hill.

"Down there the Soviets had huge underground fuel tanks," Mr. Taranza said with disgust. "They had to leave very quickly, and they had to take the tanks with them. When a tank's full, it's not so easy to load onto a rail car, so they probably just drained the fuel into the ground, loaded the tanks onto the rail cars and took off."

Three and a half years after the last Soviet troops packed up and shipped home, the Czech Republic still is mopping up from their stay. As a final slap in the face to the country they occupied for 23 years, the Soviets left behind a legacy of environmental damage that will take a decade or more to clean up.

When the Soviets departed Milovice, for example, about 14 feet of diesel was floating on top of the water table 50 feet below the surface. In another part of the base, nearly pure engine oil can be pumped from the ground, and at the airfield on the Ralsko base 30 miles to the north, a million gallons of airplane fuel is believed to pollute the water table.

In all, more than 42 million cubic feet of soil at 27 different sites in the Czech Republic is believed to be contaminated with petroleum products and solvents, the Czech Ministry of Environment says. Furthermore, at the bases and other Soviet military sites, tons of unexploded ammunition lie buried in dumps and scattered about dozens of firing ranges.

"It's a catastrophe that has to be cleaned up," said Mr. Taranza, who works for a company that has installed a system of pumps and filters to purge fuel and oil from the ground water. "I don't know how they could do this here. If they want to act this way at home, fine, but why did they make a mess of our country?"

For the duration of the Soviets' stay in what was then Czechoslovakia, though, the Soviet bases were part of this country in name only.

Only Czechoslovak military and high-ranking communists were allowed into most areas, and the operations -- indeed, even the number of soldiers -- were kept secret. Once the Soviets even closed down a sewage treatment plant at Milovice because the amount of waste it treated would have provided a clue to the population of the base. The Czechs now believe about 11,000 of the 73,500 Soviet soldiers in Czechoslovakia were stationed at Milovice.

Today, the base looks as if it's been through a war, even though it only prepared for one that never came. Rows of concrete apartment blocks sit empty, with windows smashed and doors unhinged.

Inside, many rooms have been stripped of plumbing, electrical fixtures and tiles, while junk -- an old boot, a canteen, a torn map of the Soviet Union -- is piled everywhere. Weeds grow up from cracks in the asphalt and the paint peels from a billboard exhorting soldiers to work as hard as Lenin would have.

Ironically, it is these buildings -- many of them crumbling and nearly none built to code -- that the Soviets have given the Czechs to compensate for the devastation at the bases. In April 1992, the two countries agreed that the physical plant the Soviets left behind was to offset the cost of cleaning up the mess.

Though it is difficult to estimate the real value of the buildings, it is almost certainly far below the $80 million to $150 million the Czech Environment Ministry says will be needed to return the land to the condition it was in before Soviet troops invaded in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring democratization movement.

"Have you ever seen an occupation army pay for the damage it causes?" asked Pavel Trpak, an adviser to the environment minister. "When they left, we didn't know what they took with them and what they left behind. We were just happy to see them go."

At the Ralsko base, meanwhile, four men search for ammunition buried behind a row of dilapidated warehouses. The detector one is carrying begins to wail, and the men dig into the earth until they strike metal.

Since they began last September, this team and others like it have unearthed more than 2,000 anti-tank rockets, artillery shells, land mines and grenades, and some 9,000 bullets of various calibers.

The ground behind the men is pockmarked with hundreds of holes where the munitions have been excavated; the teams must remove all ammunition to a depth of 20 inches in open fields and 14 inches in wooded areas.

It is slow going. On some days, four men working a five-hour shift find so many shells that they can cover only 40 or 50 square feet. In five months, the teams have fully cleared only 34 acres of the 8,000 acres of known firing ranges and dumps that are slated to be cleared at Ralsko alone.

In all, nearly 50 square miles of land will need to be at least superficially examined for ammunition, and at least one area -- a 750-acre aerial bombing range -- is so badly damaged that it simply will be fenced off and left for 100 years.

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