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Complying with stricter environmental regulations ultimately will benefit businesses in Central and Eastern Europe, say two environmental officials who are pushing for tougher enforcement of existing pollution laws.

The full impact of environmental laws on businesses in Central and Eastern European countries may hinge on how well those countries tackle enforcement, said Rob Glaser, a Dutch state environment inspector and an adviser for the initiative.

A new European Union initiative to encourage enforcement of environmental rules, dubbed AC-IMPEL, is geared to help participating Central and Eastern European countries monitor, inspect and apply sanctions.

Despite the many changes that members of the AC-IMPEL initiative hope to bring about, Mr. Glaser is convinced that the better enforcement will benefit industry.

"Policy changes are an essential part of doing business, and companies must be prepared for them. For image reasons and economic reasons, pollution control is good business," he said.

Enforcement is where more effort is needed, Mr. Glaser said.

"Generally, we can say most Central and Eastern European countries have environmental laws in place. The question now is really how committed the countries are to enforcement. It must be a top-down priority."

"It's one thing to have a law, and another to enforce it," Mr. Glaser said. "While most Central and Eastern European countries have environmental legislation and inspection systems in place, enforcement is not the best."

"Fear is growing that the CEE countries could dump goods they produce cheaply because they do not adhere to environmental protection," said Mr. Glaser, adding that enforcement pressure is needed.

Should companies fear change? Eckart Meyer-Rutz, a German IMPEL representative and an official of the German Environment Ministry, doesn't think so.

"Changes like this are sometimes difficult, but experience shows industry does well if changes come step by step and are fair and equal," he observed.

Mr. Meyer-Rutz pointed out that while new rules and legal precedents in the European Union have strengthened environmental liability, enforcement actually varies depending on national policy needs. "Some countries, such as Greece and Portugal, have lax enforcement compared to Germany," he said.

AC-IMPEL is an outgrowth of the European Union's own network, established in 1992, which has helped advance enforcement of European Commission environmental regulation in member states. Since its inception, the European Network for the Implementation and Enforcement of Environmental Law -- known as IMPEL -- has been a key factor in promoting the enforcement of industrial waste management laws.

IMPEL is a network of 15 representatives from 15 regulatory authorities of E.U. member states plus one European Commission representative. The network promotes exchange between E.U. member states at general meetings, where the representatives advise each other on ways to inspect, monitor and enforce environmental laws.

To help solve the enforcement problem, the European Union established AC-IMPEL on Jan. 19, 1997. It is a network of regulatory authorities for accession states -- countries slated to enter the European Union. AC-IMPEL advises Eastern European countries in the transposition, implementation and enforcement of E.U. legislation. All 10 accession states are members. The first working group includes representatives from the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland and the European Commission.

In February, Mr. Glaser met for the first time with a working group in Szentendre, Hungary, to help define the role and scope of AC-IMPEL. Areas AC-IMPEL is particularly interested in include hazardous substances, solid waste, and water and air pollution.

AC-IMPEL also is working on promoting conditions for environmental inspections, which, in some cases, have not been defined; there is no obligation for authorities to carry out checks regularly. Authorities in countries including Hungary, Poland and Slovenia are not yet required to draw up waste management plans -- even with respect to hazardous waste.

Another concern is that water laws in Hungary often do not contain any systematic plans for continuing improvement of water quality, as stipulated by the European Union. AC-IMPEL could speed up programs with practical measures to improve the quality of water.

"If experience in the European Union is any indication, AC-IMPEL will shift priorities in Central and Eastern European countries," said Mr. Meyer-Rutz. "Today, E.U. legislation affects essentially all aspects of industrial life," he said. "If a tannery wants to operate in the European Union, it must obey E.U. regulations."

For that very reason, Mr. Meyer-Rutz said the transition will not be easy. "If our experience with dirty sites in East Germany is any indication, it's going to require some tough decisions. Basically, countries must recognize that former state-owned factories are not holy," he said.

Enforcement is a constant process, said Mr. Meyer-Rutz, and often more important in Central and Eastern European countries, where the process of enforcement is weaker despite environmental laws that are sometimes more advanced than those of some E.U. countries.

Since 1989, the Czech Republic has enacted far-reaching legislation, including the Clean Air Act and the Waste Management Act. The standards of the Waste Management Act are as much as two times more stringent than those in the advanced states of the European Union. Czech companies are strictly liable for damage to the environment.

In Poland, the Law on Protection and Formation of the Environment, passed in 1980, established penal or administrative sanctions, generally in the form of fines paid to government funds, for the protection of the environment. Poland has strict liability for heavy and light industries, including chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers, steel and consumer goods manufacturers.

In Hungary, many ecological directives are closer to E.U. standards than are the regulations of some of the European Union's member states. For example, the 1995 Environmental Protection Act compels companies to use "precaution" as a fundamental basis for environmental protection, and liability regulations provide that the "polluter pays." The pollutant content of the air is governed by limits laid down by the European Union.

By comparison, the E.U. executive body only last year began the legislative processes to introduce strict liability, with polluter pays principles that grant plaintiffs more lenient criteria of proof.

In at least one country, Hungary, regulations on hazardous substances apply only to toxic materials. If the European Union's wider definition of hazardous substances is adopted, regulations will also affect packaging and labeling, risk analysis and good laboratory practices.