Spolana, now part of Poland’s PKN Orlen, produced chemicals used by the US military to make ‘Agent Orange,’ a defoliant that killed countless Vietnamese and left 500,000 children with birth defects. At least 80 Spolana workers fell seriously ill due to exposure to the chlorine herbicide 2,4,5-T; decades later, the building where it was poduced was still among the most contaminated places on Earth.
Half an hour’s drive north of Prague, on the banks of the Elbe River and in the middle of a flood zone, sits the sprawling Spolana chemical plant that from 1965 to 1968 produced the chlorine herbicide “2, 4, 5-T,” half of the toxic mix (along with the common weedkiller “2,4-D”) used by the U.S. military to create “Agent Orange” — the most infamous defoliant in history.
At the height of the Vietnam War, the former Czechoslovak communist regime quietly shipped 2, 4, 5-T to the “imperialist” Americans through various trade corporations. The U.S. Air Force sprayed some 19 million gallons of Agent Orange over the dense jungles of the southeast Asian country to deny tree and plant cover to the Viet Cong, who were fighting a guerrilla war against the anti-communists.
To this day, huge areas of Vietnam remain highly contaminated with dioxins, and millions of people exposed to Agent Orange — including babies harmed while in the womb — are disfigured for life. Before the Czechoslovak government stopped production of 2,4,5-T in 1968, some 80 Spolana workers had fallen ill; 55 were eventually hospitalized. Many later developed brain dysfunction disorders and lifelong diseases, according to Dr. Miroslav Suta, a physician with the environmental pressure group Greenpeace Czech Republic.
Spolana sits in a flood plain by the Elbe River, which feeds into Germany
And now, after years of painstaking work by the British firm BCD CZ to decontaminate some of the most toxic sites at the chemical plant (the 2, 4, 5-T residue included), the British firm is still owed Kč 353.6 million (the 10 percent “retention” portion of an original Kč 3.536 billion contract sum). Over the past eight years, BCD CZ cleaned two dioxin-contaminated sites (buildings “A1040” and “A1030”) under a 2002 contract, and a third site contaminated with lindane (building “A1400”) under a 2008 contract. Dioxins are carcinogens harmful to the immune system. Lindane is an insecticide that is also used to treat infestations of lice and scabies.
Apart from the that base amount of Kč 353.6 million, BCD CZ is also seeking damages of Kč 10 million per month (going on 19 months since its contract finished) — the cost of keeping its high-tech equipment at Spolana and in working order. Jo Weaver of JWA Prague, the agency that handles public relations for the firm, told Czech Position that the company is concerned that if it pulls up stakes before getting the 10 percent “retention money” it is owed, BCD CZ might leave itself open to a breach-of-contract charges.
“The Ministry of Finance said ‘your contract is at an end, now leave.’ [But] they refused to pay the retention money because the ministry, on its own, is not able to legally say that the contract is at an end. The Ministry of the Environment and various environmental agencies, like the Czech Environmental Inspectorate (ČIŽP), have to clear it,” Weaver said. “So, if BCD CZ had packed up and gone ... the company wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Plus everyone concerned, except for the Ministry of Finance, was keen for them to stay put.”
But there is another, more compelling reason why BCD CZ hasn’t left Spolana.
Since being told by the Finance Ministry to cease its work — ostensibly because any remaining Spolana cleanup efforts would be handled by the eventual winner of a proposed “eco-tender” — the nearby A1400 site BCD CZ worked on, and the nearby “SAE building” (after the Czech acronymn for “old amalgam electrolysis”) threaten to recontaminate ground beneath the A1040 and A1030 buildings, and perhaps worse.
The surrounding soil and groundwater are, in some areas, still highly contaminated with a mixture of mercury, dioxins, and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The release of POPs became pronounced at Spolana in the 1960s when production focused on agricultural chemicals, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and components for Agent Orange. Apart from money, there is another, more compelling reason why BCD CZ hasn’t left Spolana: the recontamination threat
“And what [BCD CZ] is now worried about — and they know it’s happening — is that because of the constant wet and horrible winters we’ve had since they’ve stopped work, the soil from the third [A1400] building, where the contaminant is leading into the soil, is now going down through into the ground, back into the soil that has already been cleaned,” Weaver said. “And the potential now is that soil can leak back into the [Elbe] river, and if it’s left for much longer then all of the work will be for nothing because the problem will still be there.”
BCD CZ’s Grahame Hamilton says Geosan Group hasn’t done any real work at Spolana in years, and its future plans contravene EU and Czech law
According to the Finance Ministry, proceeds from the privatization of state assets are alocated for the removal of “ecological burdens” in Spolana through funds held in the so-called privatization account (extra-budgetary resources). “For example, in 2005, approximately Kč 270 million [was spent on the clean-up at Spolana], in 2006 approximately Kč 1.5 billion, in 2007 Kč 0.9 billion, and in 2008 approximately Kč 600 million,” the ministry said in October 2010. “Part of repairs included flood protection measures , such as the 2002 flood wall covering the dioxin-contaminated object A1030.”