Motorway to run through protected area

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The Czech Ministry of Environment has given the go-ahead for the completion of a motorway from Prague to Dresden. The motorway is almost complete but for a short section running through the Ceske Stredohori highlands - a protected range of hills in North Bohemia. The last obstacle to the completion of a north-south trans-European route seems to have been removed. Vladimir Tax reports.

Czech law does not allow extensive construction in protected areas, but it does give the Environment Ministry the power to issue exemptions. The plans to build a motorway from Prague to Dresden as a part of trans-European transit route originated many years ago. The only obstacle has been the protected Ceske Stredohori highlands. Environmentalists have fiercely opposed building the motorway through the hills and suggested an alternative route. Step by step they yielded from their positions and were eventually willing to agree with a several-kilometer long tunnel through the most precious areas. They were backed by the minister of environment, Milos Kuzvart, who had to face pressure both from road construction companies and his party colleagues from North Bohemia. They, understandably, are defending the interests of their voters, who live in towns and villages suffering from pollution from heavy traffic that the new motorway is supposed to ease.

On Thursday, the minister yielded at last and allowed an exemption from the law. However, the exemption does not apply to a specific project, which hasn't been drawn up, but only defines conditions for construction. Environmentalists fear this could be abused because the ministry has thus lost all control over construction.

Environmental activists have rejected the decision and are considering an appeal to the court. They fear that the impact of the new motorway might be similar to that in the Brenner Pass in Austria where local people recently blocked the new road in protest against damage to the environment.

Minister Kuzvart seems to be bound to lose the popularity with environmentalists he has won over the past years due to his resolute opposition to controversial projects like the Temelin nuclear power station, gold mining, and new motorways through areas of natural beauty.

While he successfully resisted pressure from multinational gold-mining companies, he could not withstand the onslaught from Czech motorway constructors and his Social Democrat colleagues from North Bohemia, who threatened to have him removed. Minister Kuzvart seems to have opted for staying in office rather than resigning defeated but defiant. His latest decision raises concern as to whether we will see a u-turn in developments around two other, very similar, controversial motorway construction projects in the Czech Republic.