The infamous Black Triangle had the worst pollution ever recorded in the industrialized world. Now a sick and weary people are tackling their nightmare

On a slow trip back from hell: the infamous Black Triangle had the worst pollution ever recorded in the industrialized world. Now a sick and weary people are tackling their nightmare

Don Hinrichsen

The infamous Black Triangle had the worst pollution ever recorded in the industrialized world.

Now a sick and weary people are tackling their nightmare.

Stanislav Stys, an expert on land reclamation, stands on a reforested hill flush with the first gossamer buds of spring. As European blackbirds rummage through the forest litter for tasty insects, he gazes out across the city of Most in Northern Bohemia, the Czech Republic. Overhead in the leafy canopy, nightingales and chiffchaffs announce their territories and squabble for mates. Nearby, townspeople tend a vineyard cultivated on reclaimed mining land. On the other side of the city, bulldozers reshape a derelict open-pit mine into what will become a recreational lake and public park.

It wasn’t always this way. Most is in the southern part of a grimy, lopsided wedge of industrial land–known ingloriously as the “Black Triangle”–that crosses borders into Poland and the former East Germany. The city sits in the Bohemian Basin of the Czech Republic, a 150 kilometer-long (100 mi.) valley hemmed in by the Ore Mountains to the west and the Bohemian Central Highlands to the east. It was founded in 1040 and rebuilt in the 1960s, becoming a center for the production of lignite. Lignite, which is still burned, is the brown coal that fired power plants and industry in much of the former Communist bloc. Because of it, the region has suffered from some of the worst pollution ever recorded in the industrialized world, its citizens ravaged by health effects almost unimaginable.

Now, with help from the European Community and the German government, Most and much of the rest of the Black Triangle are on a slow trip back from a human-made hell. Although one open-pit mine at Most is still gobbling away at the valley floor, leaving in its wake a moonscape of rubble, there are glimmers of hope. The changes in the city, gradual as they are, show that humankind can begin to escape from some of the worst environmental conditions that people have ever inflicted on themselves. “Since the 1960s, but especially during the past decade, we have reclaimed around 1,200 hectares [2,964 acres] of land that the mining company stripped bare for brown coal,” says Stys, a geologist and former employee of the Most Mining Company.

What had plummeted the region toward its environmental abyss was a unique and nearly fatal geography. A natural cornucopia of coal waited to be gouged from the ground. It would feed Europe’s growing appetite for fossil fuels, stoking its Industrial Revolution. Though mining in the foothills of the Ore Mountains began around 1400, it turned into a full-blown industry during the second half of the nineteenth century when the region became one of the premier centers for fossil-fuel extraction in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By 1910, miners were pulling close to 20 million metric tons a year (1 metric ton is the equivalent of a little over 1 ton) from the region’s collieries.

Lignite, or soft coal, is an early phase of coal formation–somewhere between peat and hard coal. Lying close to the surface and relatively easy to extract with picks and shovels, it was first used by local residents to heat homes and cook food. However, since lignite is a relatively poor fuel in terms of energy value, it was never shipped far–no further than Prague to the south or Dresden (in eastern Germany) to the north. Instead, energy-hungry industries moved closer to the coal. In the nineteenth century, metallurgical companies, chemical plants and steel mills were among them. Beginning after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany in 1948, authorities accelerated industrialization, creating a vast tri-state complex of heavy industries fed by lignite.

By the 1960s, two million people, one of the densest concentrations in the country, were squeezed into this grimy industrial belt, beginning from the city of Chomutov in the southwest to Usti nad Labem and Liberac in the northeast. For the past half century this region has produced three-quarters of Czechoslovakia’s brown coal, generated two-thirds of its electricity, refined 80 percent of its oil (imported from Russia on the “Friendship Pipeline”) and produced most of its heavy fuel oil, fertilizers, pesticides and industrial process chemicals.

ignite’s downside is that it is filthy–the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, producing heavy amounts of soot, ash, dust and heavy metals, along with sulfur and nitrogen oxides. Predictably, as the amount of coal mined annually increased from 20 million metric tons in the early twentieth century to around 100 million metric tons in the 1980s, the Black Triangle became a center of pollution. The Bohemian Basin, contained by mountains, suffered worst of all.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, more than 400,000 metric tons of soot, ash, dust and hydrocarbons along with 700,000 metric tons of polluting gases, mainly sulfur and nitrogen dioxides, plus unmeasured organic chemicals, smothered Northern Bohemia each year. Most of the pollution came from power plants and a host of outdated industrial complexes.

The same geography that made the Bohemian Basin an energy bonanza also turned it into a gas chamber. In the cold months, from November to March, frequent temperature inversions locked tons of polluting industrial emissions under a roof of warm air, creating what one resident described as “a sickening sulfurous soup of noxious pollutants.”

In parts of this region, pollution levels were truly astounding. “At Teplice, during the 14-year period from 1975 to 1989, the local health station reported average daily sulfur-dioxide levels from October to March of close to 200 milligrams per cubic meter of air,” says Frank Carter, a lecturer in geography at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London. “Furthermore, during 100 winter days over the same period, it averaged 500 milligrams per cubic meter,” he continues, “with peaks as high as 1,300 milligrams per cubic meter. These are among the highest levels of sulfur dioxide ever recorded in Europe over a long period of time.”

The Communists had a cynical approach to pollution, insists Carter. “They monitored air and water pollution faithfully but did little to curb it. State-run factories, the biggest polluters, found it far cheaper to pay the fines than to introduce control measures,” he says. Not surprisingly, the legacy of this environmental neglect was a human- health holocaust.

More than a half-million people in the region are thought to suffer from pollution-induced ill health. Existing data suggest that rates of acute and chronic respiratory disease are more than twice that of the rest of the country. Allergies are epidemic. Residents also are afflicted with high rates of heart disease and cancers, though these are exacerbated by poor diets and heavy smoking.

In next-door Poland, there were 90,000 cancer deaths reported in 1989. Of these, 15 percent were attributed to environmental factors, with more than half taking place in the Silesian Industrial Zone, the Polish part of the Black Triangle. In Bohemia, chemical plants and refineries emit polycyclic hydrocarbons (known cancer-causing agents) up to 800 times above acceptable limits.

Anna Lajtarova, 51, a mother of three daughters, is one of tens of thousands of the victims. “We moved to Most in June 1984 from a clean, unpolluted area of the country, and by October my health began to deteriorate,” she recalls. “I had pneumonia and bad bronchitis during the winter months, terrible allergies with watery, puffy eyes during the summer and horrible red rashes over my whole body. It was a nightmare.”

By the late 1980s, Lajtarova, who remains ill to this day, had to be rushed to the hospital routinely and put on life support. “After several years my windpipe began to contract and I could hardly breathe at times; I felt like I was being slowly asphyxiated,” she says, her voice permanently hoarse, a legacy of the respiratory ailments that have turned her life into a hellish regime of drugs and visits to doctors. “There is nothing more terrifying than not being able to breathe.”

The continuing pollution strikes children particularly hard. Despite improvements in air quality over the last four years, pediatric hospitals in the region have up to 12 times the number of sick children as the Czech average, and infant-mortality rates are more than 40 percent higher than the national norm. Overall, infants and small children suffer twice as many serious ailments when compared to the rest of the population. Respiratory disease, for instance, has seen a five-fold increase among preschoolers when compared to the rest of the western Czech Republic. Children are particularly at risk from pollution because their immune systems are not fully developed.

Dr. Petr Endler, a pediatrician working in Usti nad Labem, has had to deal with pollution-induced child ailments for 20 years. “Often I treat children with rashes all over their bodies. But I realize I am, in most cases, only treating the symptoms, not the real causes,” Endler says. “The best I can do for most of my patients is make sure that their immune systems are as strong as possible. This gives them added protection against illnesses triggered or made worse by pollution.”

Despite such health problems–or perhaps because of them–the region is making notable progress, the beneficiary of democracy, economic restructuring and outside aid. The turnaround began with the Velvet Revolution of 1989-90, which tossed out the Communists and installed elected local governments more responsive to citizen concerns.

Environmental issues were high on political agendas at the time. In 1992, the Czech Republic passed its own version of the Clean Air Act. The new law required that all power plants in the country be rebuilt or retrofitted with pollution-control equipment by the end of 1999, or close down. Once economic restructuring took hold, many unprofitable, state-run enterprises were forced to close their doors, thereby eliminating some of the worst offenders. At the same time, combating pollution that wafted across their borders became a central priority for West European governments and their collective entity, the European Community.

Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, has spent a considerable amount of money retrofitting polluting power plants and other heavy industries in its former Communist-controlled eastern half. But the German government has also committed funds to help the Czechs clean up the Bohemian coal belt. In all, Germany has channeled around $100 million to the Czech Republic to underwrite the costs of pollution control. Meantime, across the border in Silesia, Sweden is helping the Polish government rebuild polluting power stations and construct waste-water treatment plants.

One person who is working hard to build a better environment in the heart of Bohemia is Vaclav Pucherna, deputy mayor and head of the local green party in Usti nad Labem. A large, balding, no-nonsense man, Pucherna is bullish about the future. “By closing down several polluting factories and cutting emissions from private homes, we have managed to cut air pollution significantly over the past five years,” he says. According to his statistics, polluting emissions in his city have been reduced from 3,500 metric tons in 1990 to just 400 metric tons by 1996. “In 1989/90 we had 31 smog days’ in the city during the winter months,” Pucherna says. “But in 1995 we recorded just five.”

Much of the cleanup effort is aimed at coal. The entire Black Triangle has 32 coal-burning power plants–14 in Saxony (Germany), 9 in the Silesian Industrial Zone of Poland and 9 in the Czech Republic. They continue to burn lignite, inefficient as it is, because it is cheap. But overall cleanup efforts are paying off.

The Prunerov Power Plant complex near the city of Chomutov is an example. By retrofitting all boilers with desulfurization scrubbers and by adding electrostatic precipitators to catch ash, dust, soot and attached heavy metals, the plant has managed to meet all pollution-control deadlines–as set by the Clean Air Act–well ahead of schedule. In 1991, the plant emitted 250,000 metric tons of sulfur-dioxide pollution, an amount equivalent to six times the entire output of Norway. “By 1997, we were down to 40,000 metric tons, well within the boundaries set by the Clean Air Act,” says Jaromir Penkava, head of the plant’s technical department. Over the same period, nitrogen oxides fell by half: from 40,000 metric tons annually to 20,000 metric tons.

But the battle to clean up is far from over. At Chemopetrol, a huge petrochemical works situated almost midway between Most and Litvinov, vistors can smell the plant even before they see it rising out of a photochemical haze like some primordial beast. It is the largest petrochemical plant in the entire country and produces a profusion of products–everything from jet fuel, heavy oil and benzene to urea, ammonia, alcohols, paints, resins and enough industrial feedstocks to supply every chemical plant in the republic.

Both of Chemopetrol’s private power plants have been fitted with sulfur-dioxide scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators, and, says Jan Martinek, Chemopetrol’s public relations manager, “more than half of all new investments have been in environmental control.”

Still, nearby residents say the company is a heavy polluter. Both the refinery and the vast chemical division continue to spew a foul assortment of polycyclic hydrocarbons, organic chemicals and other hazardous emissions into the atmosphere. A number of them are linked to cancers and birth defects.

The company denies that any of its 5,500 employees suffer from health problems, but Anna Lajtarova, for one, is testimony to the contrary. Lajtarova was a secretary in Chemopetrol’s economics depart- ment. She had to quit her job, she says, in part because of her failing health.

verall, the Black Triangle is far from restored, and back in Most, Stanislav Stys, who now runs his own consulting business, points to the wasteland around the city’s remaining open-pit mine, confessing that the contrast between the regreening of the region on one hand and its continuing destruction on the other presents a surreal image. Down in the pit, smoldering coal fires ignite spontaneously, and excavators 10 stories high devour 5,000 cubic meters (6,800 cu. yds.) of earth an hour, their massive jaws fanning dust storms. As Stys speaks, a haze of photochemical oxidants forms on the other side of the valley, obscuring the view. “But you know,” he observes, “we are committed to reclaiming this landscape and making it into an environment we can live safe-and-healthy lives in once again.”

Atop the Ore Mountains, one can sense the change. Stands of dead and dying spruce, fir and pine can still be seen, testimony to the chemical cocktail of pollutants that dose the hills with rain so acidic it comes close to the pH of battery acid. But foresters are planting a new, hardier variety of silver spruce that they hope will survive.

Only time will tell if the trees are up to the challenge, but the people are definitely committed. As Vaclav Pucherna says, “We made this mess and we have to clean it up. There really is no debate about this any longer; it’s now a matter of how soon, not if.”

Environmental journalist Don Hinrichsen is a consultant to the United Nations. He traveled to the Black Triangle for International Wildlife with Tams Rvsz, a 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner in photography for his black-and-white coverage of Budapest.

After several years my windpipe began to contract. I felt like I was being asphyxiated.

There is nothing more terrifying than not being able to breathe.

Anna Lajtarova, Former employee, Chemopetrol Often I treat children with rashes all over their bodies. But I realize I am, in most cases, only treating the symptoms, not the real causes.

Dr. Petr Endler, Pediatrician By closing several polluting factories and cutting emissions from homes, we have managed to cut air pollution significantly over the past five years.

Vaclav Pucherna Deputy Mayor, Usti nad Labem

COPYRIGHT 1998 National Wildlife Federation

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