Hell in Europe's back yard

Cancer and air pollution go hand in hand in eastern Europe, where an ecological nightmare is still unfolding

By Don Hinrichsen
Published: Thursday 15 January 1998

Hell in Europe's back yard

Smoke-bleching factories creat (Credit: FAO)standing on a reforested hill, flush with the first gossamer green buds of spring, Stanislav Stys, an expert on land reclamation, gazes out across the city of Most in northern Bohemia, the Czech Republic. European blackbirds rummage through the forest litter for tasty insects, while overhead in the leafy canopy, nightingales and chiffchaff warblers announce their territory and squabble for mates. The scene is almost bucolic as newly forested slopes sprout maple, oak and pine saplings, tended by a brigade of women sporting bikinis and shorts. Nearby, a vineyard, cultivated on reclaimed mining land, now exports wine to Israel. On the other side of the city, bulldozers are busy reshaping another derelict open pit mine into what will become a recreational lake and public park.

Most sits in the Bohemian basin of the Czech Republic -- a 150 kilometre-long valley hemmed in by the Ore mountains to the west and the Bohemian central highlands to the east in the southern part of a lopsided wedge of land -- known as the 'Black Triangle' -- where Poland, the Czech Republic and the former East Germany join borders. The city, founded in 1040 but rebuilt in the 1960s, became a centre for the production of lignite -- the brown coal that fired power plants and industry in much of the former communist bloc and still does. As a result, this region has suffered from some of the worst pollution levels ever recorded.

Now, with money from the European Community and the German government, Most and much of the rest of the Black Triangle is on a slow trip back from a human-made hell. The open pit mine at Most is still munching away at the valley floor, leaving in its wake a moonscape of rubble, smouldering coal fires that ignite spontaneously and dust storms fanned by huge excavators, ten storeys high, that can devour 5,000 cubic metres of earth an hour with their massive steel jaws. But now there is glimmering hope, and evidence for the rest of the world, 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 of land that the mining company stripped bare for brown coal," says Stys, a geologist and former employee of the Most Mining Company.

Though coal mining in the foothills of the Ore Mountains began around 1400, it turned into a full blown industry by the second half of the 19th century, when the region became one of the premier centres for fossil fuel extraction in the Austro-Hungarian empire. By 1910, miners were extracting close to 20 million metric tonnes a year from the region's collieries.

Lignite is really the first phase of coal formation -- somewhere between peat and hard coal (bituminous and anthracite). Lying close to the surface and relatively easy to extract with picks and shovels, it was first used by the region's residents to heat homes and cook food. However, since lignite is a relatively poor fuel in terms of its energy value, it was never shipped far -- no further than Prague to the south or Dresden (in eastern Germany) to the north. Its use as a cheap source of fuel, however, drew energy-hungry industries to the region in the 19th century -- coal processing, metallurgical and chemical plants, and steel mills. Beginning in 1948, after the take-over of Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany, communist authorities accelerated industrialisation, creating a vast tri-state complex of heavy industries fed by lignite.

"In a way, we have been cursed by our own geography," notes Stys. By the 1960s, some two million people, one of the densest concentrations of population in the country, were squeezed into this grimy industrial belt, beginning in the city of Chomutov in the southwest to Ustinad Labem and Liberac in the northeast. For the past half century, this region has excavated three-quarters of Czechoslovakia's brown coal, generated two-thirds of its electricity, refined 80 per cent of its oil (imported from Russia), and produced most of its heavy fuel oil, fertilisers, pesticides and industrial chemicals.

Lignite produces heavy amounts of soot, ash, dust and heavy metals, along with sulphur and nitrogen oxides. Predictably, as the amount of coal mined increased from 20 million metric tonnes in the early 20th century to around 100 million metric tonnes in 1980s, the Black Triangle became a centre of pollution. Northern Bohemia alone was smothered with over 400,000 metric tonnes of particulate pollution a year -- soot, ash, dust and hydrocarbons -- along with 700,000 metric tonnes of polluting gases, mainly sulphur and nitrogen dioxide and organic chemicals. Most of the pollution came from power plants burning dirty brown coal, containing up to 30 per cent ash and soot and 1-3 per cent sulphur, and from a host of industrial complexes.

The same geography that made the Bohemian basin a brown coal bonanza also turned the region into a "gas chamber" when polluting emissions from power plants and industries got trapped under temperature inversions. From November to March, frequent inversions would lock tonnes of soot, ash, dust, hydrocarbons, organic chemicals, heavy metals, and oxides of sulphur and nitrogen under a roof of warm air, creating what one resident described as "a sickening sulphurous soup of noxious pollutants."

In some areas pollution levels were astounding. "At Teplice, during the 14-year period from 1975 to 1989, the local health station reported average daily sulphur dioxide levels from October to March of close to 200 milligrams per cubic meter of air," states Frank Carter, a lecturer in Geography at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at the University of London. "Further, during 100 winter days over the same period, it averaged 500 milligrams per cubic meter," he continues, "with peaks as high as 1,300 mg per cubic meter (cu m). These are among the highest levels of sulphur dioxide ever recorded in Europe over a long period."

The communists had a cynical approach to pollution, insists Carter. "They monitored air and water pollution faithfully, but did little to curb it," he says. "State-run factories, the biggest polluters, found it far cheaper to pay the fines than to introduce control measures."

Not surprisingly, the legacy of this environmental neglect was a human health holocaust, abetted for more than four decades by local communist leaders who paid scant attention to either the sad state of the environment or the horrendous health problems it engendered.

Over half a 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 over twice that of the rest of the country. And 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. When compared to 33 industrialised countries, life expectancy in central Europe is the shortest.

In nextdoor Poland where there were 90,000 cancer deaths reported in 1989; 15 per cent of them 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, a 51-year-old mother of three daughters, who moved to Most in 1984, is one of tens of thousands of the victims still suffering the results. "We moved to Most in June 1984 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."

Anna spent hours in the clinic in Most where doctors clearly didn't know what to do with her. "It took them two years to treat me and even then they gave more excuses and maybes than definite answers," she fumes. "One doctor in particular kept telling me to move away, but how could I do that?" she asks. "Moving is expensive and I would have to find another job first."

She is adamant that the doctors never really treated her condition. "They treated the symptoms, not the disease," she says in her permanently hoarse voice, a legacy of the respiratory ailments that have turned her life into a hellish regime of drugs and visits to doctors. "After several years my wind pipe began to contract and I could hardly breathe at times; I felt like I was being slowly asphyxiated. There is nothing more terrifying than not being able to breathe."

By the late 1980s, Anna had to be rushed to the hospital routinely and put on life support. She was given a bevy of anti-inflammatory drugs which helped her breath, but did nothing to eliminate the cause of her ailments. "One doctor told me bluntly, without even a trace of irony, that my health problems were psychological, not environmental," she says with a smirk. "That was like telling me that if I break my leg I should go on a diet!"

Children in particular are the worst sufferers. 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 pre-schoolers when compared to the rest of the western Czech Republic.

Dr Petr Endler, a paediatrician working in Usti nad Labem, has had to deal with pollution-induced child ailments for 20 years. A distinguished looking gentleman in his mid-50s, Endler has run his own private practice and clinic since 1991. It sits atop a hill overlooking the Labe River (known as the Elbe in next door Germany). During bad pollution episodes, "you can't see across the valley," he says flatly. "It is obscured by a thick yellowish blanket of smog."

Children are particularly at risk from pollution because their immune systems are not fully developed. "Every winter I have dozens of cases of chronic coughs and other respiratory problems," points out Endler. "Normally, I tell parents to put their children on inhalators for some hours every day, but most of them want quick fixes with antibiotics; they ignore contributing environmental factors and the importance of healthy diets, which are often short on vitamin c. "

Despite on-going health problems inflicted on the region, notable progress has been made over the past five years in reducing pollution levels and creating a better environment for everyone. There are several reasons for this turnaround.

The Velvet revolution of 1989/90, which tossed out the communists, installed elected local governments more responsive to the concerns and needs of their citizens, with environmental issues being high on political agendas.

Many unprofitable, state-run enterprises were forced to close their doors, once economic restructuring took hold, thereby eliminating some of the worst offenders.

Third, the Czech republic passed its own version of the Clean Air Act in 1992 - requiring that all power plants in the country be rebuilt or retrofitted with pollution control equipment by the end of 1999, or close down.

Finally, combating cross-boundary pollution became a central priority for West European governments and their collective entity, the European Community.

The German government has also committed funds to help the Czechs clean up the Bohemian coal belt. Germany has channelled roughly us$300 million to the Czech Republic to underwrite the costs of pollution control, including us$10 million to help the Prunerov power plant complex in Bohemia, near the border with Germany, retrofit one of its two plants with desulphurisation equipment.

Across the border with Poland, in Silesia, Sweden is helping the Polish government rebuild power stations and construct waste water treatment plants along the Vistula River.

Vaclav Pucherna, deputy mayor and head of the local green party in Usti nad Labem is bullish about the future. "By closing down several polluting factories and cutting emissions from private homes, we have managed to reduce air pollution significantly over the past five years," he announces proudly. If his statistics are accurate, and not just propaganda, emissions have been reduced from 3,500 metric tonnes in 1990 to just 400 metric tonnes by 1996. "In 1989/90 we had 31 "smog days" in the city during the winter months," he says. "But in 1995 we recorded just five smog days."

Pucherna, a tireless city booster, sees even more improvements over the course of the next few years. "We just finished building a sewage treatment plant for the city, the first ever," he says. "It went on line in late 1997, serving all of Usti's 100,000 inhabitants." Even more surprising, one-third of the entire funding for the plant was provided in the form of a grant from the European Union.

If Usti nad Labem is racing into the future, one linked closely to the rest of Europe, some areas are still mired in pollution, still suffering from 45 years of environmental neglect. At the huge petrochemical works -- Chemopetrol -- situated almost midway between Most and Litvinov, visitors 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, alcohol, paints, resins and enough industrial feedstock chemicals to supply every chemical plant in the Republic.

Despite the fact that both of Chemopetrol's private power plants have been fitted with sulphur dioxide scrubbers and electrostatic precipitators, which collect ash, dust, soot and attached heavy metals, the complex is still regarded as a heavy polluter by local residents. 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 carcinogenic and mutagenic, meaning that they are linked to cancers and birth defects.

Jan Martinek, Chemopetrol's cheerful public relations manager, skips over the company's shortcomings. "More than half of all new investments have been in environmental control," he states, but doesn't offer a dollar figure. The plant's problems were underscored again in January 1997, when a fire at the refinery burned out of control for three days and brought in fire-fighters from the entire country, along with fire retardation chemicals from as far away as Norway. "We still don't know what caused that fire," admits Martinek.

The company can certainly dissemble as well as any of its western counterparts. When asked if any of the company's 5,500 employees suffer from health problems, Martinek stonewalls. "We have no reported health problems," he says laconically.

Anna Lajtarova, for one, is testimony against that assertion. "I worked as a secretary for Chemopetrol in the economics department during my years in Most; precisely those years where I was sick constantly," she maintains. Finally, Anna had to quite her job at Chemopetrol, in part because of her failing health, and now operates a small neighbourhood grocery store in Litvinov, a town about 20 km northeast of Most.

To the company's credit, Chemopetrol has pumped millions of dollars into the local economy and supports community development, including a generous endowment for the country's first and only environmental high school, Schola Humanitas, in Litvinov. Chemopetrol has learned one lesson: crafting the proper public image is half the battle.

Southwest of Chemopetrol, near the city of Chomutov, workers at the Prunerov Power Plant complex are jubilant: they managed to meet all pollution control deadlines -- as set by the Clean Air Act -- well ahead of schedule.

"Like all other power plants burning brown coal, we were heavy polluters," admits Jaromir Penkava, head of the plant's technical department. The entire Black Triangle has 32 power plants burning coal -- 14 of them in Saxony (Germany), 9 in the Silesian Industrial Area in Poland and 9 in the Czech Republic.

Penkava is proud of his plant's accomplishments. "In 1991 we emitted 250,000 metric tonnes of sulphur dioxide pollution," he points out, an amount equivalent to six times the entire output of Norway. "By 1997, we were down to 40,000 metric tonnes, well within the boundaries set by the Clean Air Act." Over the same period, nitrogen oxides fell by half: from 40,000 metric tonnes to 20,000 metric tonnes.

"We were able to do this by retrofitting all units with desulphurisation scrubbers and by adding electrostatic precipitators to catch most of the particulate pollution," he explains.

The complex is still burning around 5 million metric tonnes of brown coal a year, "but air pollution has been greatly reduced," notes Penkava. "Frankly, the coal is poor quality, containing 35 per cent water, up to 22 per cent ash and having a sulphur content of 1.4 to 1.7 per cent." In effect, only about 12 per cent of the fuel is actually burned, the rest is waste. "We wouldn't even being using it, except for the fact that it is mined here, so transportation costs are minimal," he concludes.

The rest of Bohemia definitely seems up to the challenge of building a clean and healthy environment. "We made this mess and we have to clean it up," says Vaclav Pucherna matter-of-factly. "There really is no debate about this any longer; it's now a matter of how soon, not if."

Back in Most, Stanislav Stys, who now runs his own private consulting business, confesses that the contrast between the re-greening of the region on one hand and its continuing destruction on the other is a surreal image.

"And Most was luckier than most," he jokes. "We managed to save this city by persuading communist authorities to move it; 90 other towns were not so lucky." They disappeared off the map as open pit mines disfigured the landscape -- victims, ultimately, of the country's lust for lignite to drive its industries and power plants.

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