Ostrava’s legal battle for cleaner air is not over

Ostrava, photo: František Tichý, ČRo

Ostrava’s legal battle against the Czech state for failing to adequately protect the environment and citizens’ health is not over. After a Prague municipal court dismissed its complaint last week the town’s mayor has announced he will be filing a cassation complaint against the verdict.

Ostrava,  photo: František Tichý,  Czech Radio
The highly industrialized Ostrava region in the eastern part of the Czech Republic is one of the most polluted places on the continent. Dust particles in the air often exceed permitted norms four to five fold and throughout the winter months the city of Ostrava chokes on smog. Smog alerts and smog regulation –which gives the local authorities the right to order industrial plants to scale down production - have become an accepted part of life as has the oft-repeated recommendation for older people, chronically ill people and children to stay indoors. In 2010 the city of Ostrava took an unprecedented step – suing the Czech state for failing to adequately protect the environment in the Ostrava region and the health of its citizens. Last Friday the Prague Municipal Court dismissed its complaint despite arriving at the conclusion that permissible pollution levels are far exceeded in the area. Judge Ludmila Sandnerova:

“The prosecution has failed to prove that the adverse state of the environment is the result of inactivity or negligence on the part of state institutions, and that they in any way violated or neglected their duties for which they could be held accountable.”

Ostrava’s mayor Petr Kajnar says he cannot accept such an argument.

“I think that our case is fairly straightforward – people in our region are dying because the state is neglecting its duties.”

Petr Kajnar,  photo: Czech Television
After consulting with lawyers, Mr. Kajnar says he will file a cassation complaint against the verdict. The city claims that the state has failed to create an operable system ensuring observance of emissions levels and that isolated steps taken by a series of governments – most recently state subsidies for the exchange of old stoves for environmentally-friendly heaters - have proved grossly insufficient. The high incidence of asthma and allergies in the region has been directly linked to excessive air pollution. Clearly, effective action is long overdue. But is a drawn-out legal dispute with the state –or more specifically the Czech government –the best way to go about addressing the problem? Vojtech Kotecky of the environmental organization DUHA says that it is perfectly legitimate.

"The air pollution situation in Ostrava and surrounding cities is disastrous so it is definitely worth taking legal action against the government. The air quality in Ostrava repeatedly breaks legal limits, and the government needs to act. It has not done enough in previous years so I think it is worthwhile for the city council to sue the government and try to make sure that the law is enforced."

Do you feel that there is simply not enough political will – that business interests are winning out in Ostrava?

"I think the situation in Ostrava is a combination of two problems. There is not enough political will to stand against some strong local interests that oppose action to curb pollution and second it seems that the government is not able to come with reasonable action that would actually cut air pollution because it is not prepared to take the bold steps that are necessary."

Vojtěch Kotecký,  photo: Ondřej Vrtiška
Do you feel that Ostrava should continue its fight – maybe even take the matter to an international court if it fails here?

"The legal path that the city has taken is an interesting solution definitely worth trying and we commend the city council for standing by its citizens and fighting for better air for Ostrava families, but at the same time political action is obviously necessary. It is necessary that the city, the government and surrounding towns act together and come with reasonable proposals for specific legislation that would improve the quality of air in the region."