Ravaged Republics

Two months ago two countries emerged from the ashes of once-communist Czechoslovakia. But left intact is some of the world's worst pollution.

By Robyn BraunMar 1, 1993 6:00 AM


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Winter brings special discomforts to the people of Prague. High above the cobblestones of famed Wenceslas square, a seasonal blanket of warmer air gathers. The inverted atmosphere traps some of Europe’s worst pollution below, where a pall of caustic micro-grime accumulates. The air is thick with smoldering lignite, the low-calorie, high-trash brown coal that heats homes and powers factories everywhere.

Barely three years after the Velvet Revolution overthrew Communism, the 74-year-old federation of Czech and Slovak peoples known as Czechoslovakia has changed once again. On January 1 the federation dissolved into two republics: Slovakia, made up of the smaller, eastern third of the country, with Bratislava as its capital; and the Czech Republic, incorporating the regions of Bohemia and Moravia, with Prague as its capital.

Remaining intact, however, is what many say is the worst environmental degradation in the world. On good days air pollution exceeds safety thresholds for sulfur dioxide and airborne particulates; noses, throats, and lungs are fouled by sulfuric acid and traces of arsenic, mercury, and lead. On bad days emergency alerts cancel school recess; the increased pollution sends people flooding to the doctor and to clean air retreats in Slovakia’s Carpathian mountains.

The culprit is sulfur dioxide, with an assist from nitrogen oxide and heavy-metal fly ash. All are airborne by-products of coal-fired plants. When the inversions occur in the spring, pollen joins the fray; many people pack a pump-action medicated inhalant.

The two republics’ record-setting pollution levels have been fueled by brown coal. Plentiful and cheap, coal drove old Czechoslovakia’s relentless industrialization since the 1940s. Coal fired the weapons foundries, oil refineries, steel smelters, and chemical plants. Disavowing the environmental devastation, Czechoslovakian communism indulged a cult of big production at any cost. The release of poisonous metals, pesticides, fertilizers, and chemicals--in concert with brown coal’s direct emissions-- foretold disaster.

Pollution has destroyed over 50 percent of the forests and damaged nearly 70 percent of the rivers, including the Labe, the Jizera, and the Oh?re, all clean half a century ago. In Slovakia, petrochemicals and agrochemicals concentrate at unwholesome levels in food and livestock and percolate into underground drinking water. There are not enough sewage treatment facilities and still no approved hazardous waste sites. The situation at the Petrzalka complex in Bratislava is typical of conditions throughout the country. The high-rise, thin-walled, prefabricated concrete panelaks--government apartment buildings and shops--are home to 130,000 people whose untreated sewage flows directly into the Danube River below Vienna.

Both republics’ power grids help explain why the Communist-era energy policy is now widely regretted. Coal combustion supplies 60 percent of the total energy consumed. Supplementing the coal are aging and leaking Soviet-issue nuclear plants and big dams that threaten drinking water and croplands in Slovakia and in downriver Hungary. Besides drying up wells, a giant dam at Gabcikovo has damaged a natural water purification system by draining sensitive wetlands, drowning forests, and trapping industrial pollutants in the dam’s newly created reservoir.

From air, soil, and water, the food chain gathers the pollution. A 1990 study found lead in children at levels more than three times the amount certified as neurotoxic in the United States. In the Czech region of Bohemia, where brown coal is king, life expectancy is three to four years shorter than that for the rest of the country, and respiratory disease rates for children are twice as high as in non-coal-burning regions.

The Bohemian Basin is the sooty heart of the Black Triangle, the world’s largest brown coal mining region, which extends to eastern Germany and southern Poland. The basin mines three-quarters of old Czechoslovakia’s lignite, burns over half of it, and traps enough pollution to bury the needle on any air quality gauge.

How grim is it? Consistently worse than the worst air pollution in the United States, which, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, occurs in Weirton, West Virginia. In Weirton, sulfur dioxide accumulation averages 102 micrograms per cubic meter of air. That makes Weirton the only site exceeding the U.S. safety threshold of 80. (By contrast, average SO2 readings are 13 for Los Angeles and 42 for the Bronx.) In the Bohemian Basin, average SO2 concentrations soar above the 100 mark, reaching a maximum of 2,440 in the town of Osek. The record for a single day is 3,193, set in Prague during a 19-day temperature inversion in 1982. (The maximum recorded in Weirton is 361.)

At an elementary school in the town of Mezibori, located in the foothills above the coal mines, the principal and children sport the latest in Bohemian Basin street wear: pollution masks. At the school entrance, a board displays the day’s airborne SO2 reading: 128 micrograms per cubic meter, actually low for Mezibori. Principal Milan St’ovicek is looking for a pollution filter so children can exercise inside on days when the concentrations exceed 500.

Nearby, in the town of Most, Jiri Kunes, a pediatrician at the local clinic, says, I know of no other place like this in the world. In 40 years Czechoslovakia destroyed dozens of historic towns and villages to dig and burn more coal. Most is now a smoking crater (when excavated, coal beds often ignite spontaneously). Most’s citizens were dispatched to the panelaks that dot the hills above the basin’s moonscape.

Between school and panelak, all too many children visit Kunes and his colleagues at the clinic. It is a telling rendezvous with the area’s pollution. In the children’s ward, premature babies occupy incubators at nearly twice the national rate. In one bed a pallid, clammy two-month-old stares vaguely through a glass bubble, inhaling vapors to ease her distressed lungs.

Fetuses and children are especially vulnerable to the SO2 and toxic metals from coal, says Kunes. Toddlers absorb up to 50 percent more lead than do adults. The figure is similar for pregnant women, and once in the bloodstream, lead can cross the placenta. Lead poisoning in children causes anemia, mental retardation, and irreversible neurological disorders. Too much cadmium damages the kidneys. Mercury attacks the brain and nervous system. Kunes shows us a young boy recovering from bacterial meningitis. He notes that in northern Bohemia the incidence of bacterial meningitis is about 12 cases per 27,000 children each year. In less polluted southern Bohemia, almost no cases are reported. It’s immunodeficiency, Kunes says, which is caused by the constant struggle against toxic exposures. He regards a premature baby and shrugs his shoulders. Of course, the main cause is pollution.

Most scientists agree that heavy metals can enter the body through food, drinking water, and air. In Bohemia, Kunes points out, industrial chemicals lay siege to the senses. When airborne sulfur dioxide comes in contact with respiratory mucus, sulfuric acid forms. The acid sears tissue, rupturing mucosa-forming cells and capillaries in the nose, throat, and lungs. The acid then leaches poisonous metals from lodged ash particles into the bloodstream. Kunes explains how the related chemistry of acid rain has decimated Bohemia’s pine forests, the most denuded in Europe.

Yet what is to be done? Before the breakup of the two republics, the emerging national energy policy reflected the painful trade-offs confronting the country. For example, former federal environment minister Josef Vavrousek resisted demands to shut down Soviet-designed nuclear reactors because that would have meant increasing coal-fired plants and air pollution. In other decisions, nationalist politics muddied the debates. After Vavrousek had negotiated an agreement on a federal waste management law, Slovakia rejected it as a political encroachment into Slovakia’s national affairs.

Now everything, of course, is up for grabs. The old policy endorsed energy savings and coal-cleaning technologies, projecting an unspecified increase in alternative energy sources that included heat from solar energy. It also envisioned the replacement of two coal-fired plants with two new nuclear reactors.

The potential policy tilt toward nuclear energy raises questions about the wisdom of trading the problems of coal for those of nuclear power. According to a poll in 1991, the populace is split, with no clear pro- or anti-nuclear majority but with a high percentage of people still afraid of nuclear power. They have good reason to be afraid: the people of Czechoslovakia did not learn about the severity of the world’s worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 until three years later; Communist authorities had suppressed the information.

Energy savings could go a long way, greatly reducing the need, if not the hue and cry, for expansions in energy output. By common reckoning, the republics now waste over half the energy they so imprudently extract, ranking close to last among industrialized countries in household and workplace energy efficiency. Factories and panelaks lack meters, pipe insulation, and variable thermostatic controls.

But the biggest problem could be a holdover from the old Czechoslovakia. A lot of old ways and apparatchik technocrats still prevail in energy policy-making, as one government official put it. There are a lot of words about environmental friendliness and energy savings. But the conclusions are for building new power stations with an accent on nuclear and large scale.

Much of the region’s environmental future depends on the kindness of strangers--outside forces and funding. The question is whether the new republics can reverse a condition that is being widely experienced as a health and ecological catastrophe. This much is certain: in sheer future- shock impact, the environmental consequences will rival any unloosed by the Velvet Revolution.

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