A Black Triangle gradually turns green

North Bohemia was once the member of a most unlucky club. Together with neighboring areas of Germany and Poland, the region was considered part of the "Black Triangle," so named for its unenviable position as one of Europe's most polluted areas. But since the fall of Communism, the Czech region has been dealing with the consequences of unrestrained industrial growth that poisoned its skies and depleted its once-thick forests. In this week's Talking Point, Eric Martin visits the region to find out if it can lose its "Black Triangle" nickname.

Photo: European CommissionPhoto: European Commission Miroslav Vanek experienced firsthand the environmental tragedy that was unfolding in North Bohemia. He's a native of Teplice, a city near one of the region's coal burning power plants.

As a teenager in the late seventies, he spent two years in and out of the hospital with respiratory problems. He says it cost him a year of high school.

Mr. Vanek heads Prague's Oral History Center and is the author of a book on Czechoslovakia's environmental history. But he describes the story of North Bohemia's environment from the perspective of a teenager on a hospital bed.

"I saw the kids, who were every day witth red eyes or with some horrible allergies. I spoke to the doctors who got in their hospital the kids who were so bad they diagnosed them with two years of life."

But that was decades ago.

Since the fall of the Communist regime that turned North Bohemia into the Czech Republic's heavy industry powerhouse, the region has been working to recover from the damage. Experts like Mr. Vanek say there has been a sizable improvement in the region's environment. But they say there is much work still to be done.

"I think it was visible in the early '90s how quick the situation in northern Bohemia and all the Czech Republic got better and better, because we had the stupid idea to produce steel and coal and power and chemical industries. And you can see that now the situation in Teplice, for example, Usti and other towns from North Bohemia is better, for example than Prague."

The chief pollutant that put North Bohemia in the Black Triangle was sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of burning brown coal. It was not only part of the reason why in the 1980s, people in North Bohemia were twice as likely to suffer from respiratory infection as the national average. It also caused acid rain, which in turn, all but decimated many of the forests in the Krusne mountains.

Usti nad LabemUsti nad Labem Professor Mirka Blazkova now describes the region with a different color.

"The Black Triangle is not black, but we call it dark green. It means improvement exists, but there is still something to improve."

Ms. Blazkova is a geology professor at North Bohemia's J. E. Purkyne University in Usti nad Labem. But when she was an environment ministry official a few years after the fall of communism, her main task was to tackle air pollution.

"It was the main impact to human health, especially to the health of the child. There were more children's diseases and mortality as well."

The professor says installing pollution filters on power plants made great strides at reducing sulfur dioxide. But rising car use has held off the reduction of other pollutants, and the region is still the country's industrial center.

But there is one area where Ms. Blazkova says she sees none of the vestiges of communist-era pollution.

"In the forests in North Bohemia, especially in the Krusne Hory mountains, there was really a disaster. In the whole area, the trees died. After that there was revitalization in the country. There were new trees planted. Now you see the nice forests, and you can't see the old dying trees before, which we called dying fingers."

A walk through a forest outside of the North Bohemian town of Decin confirmed Ms. Blazkova's description. There were no "dying fingers" to be found.

Although mountain forests have been revived, the city of Most shows that some damage is irreparable.

During the 1970s and 80s, the centuries-old city was replaced by open-pit coal mines.

A new city of densely-packed, concrete apartment buildings now stands a few kilometers away.

Mr. Vanek says that as a result of Soviet pressure to industrialize, hundreds more towns and villages met the same fate.

"They destroyed all of the old Most, which was created in the Middle Ages, and they created a new Most about 5 kilometers from the right center. It means the people lost not only a good environment, but they lost their homes too. And they lost something that was there for a century. And they lost the soul of the town."

Electric trolley buses hum and clack as they pass a downtown square in Usti nad Labem. In this industrial city in the heart of North Bohemia, the buses are here to ease pollution. From the square, you can see the factory smoke stacks that pump smog into the air - air that's tinted with a thin grey haze.

But a little haze in Usti nad Labem is a world of difference from the 1980s. Deputy Mayor Tomas Jelinek recalls when city residents were often alerted because of dangerously high pollution levels.

"I do remember the 80s. I was a high school student and later a college student. And I do remember so-called smog days - or even weeks - that we had in Usti nad Labem, and it was very unpleasant. We managed to do away with these things and we managed to do away the big environmental pollutants - and by that I mean the open-pit mines."

But Usti's steps toward cleaning up have not been without an occasional step back. The city has been in the news in recent months because a chemical plant has had four leaks of potentially harmful chemicals this year. Another issue is heating.

Photo: Morty, Creative Commons 2.0Photo: Morty, Creative Commons 2.0 "There are still a lot of things to do; we are aware of that. As far as the heating, we have also done a lot to the heating in residential houses. Mainly, many houses are connected to central heating or gas heating. ... There is a problem with the heating because of the increasing price of natural gas, and many people now turn back to burning coal."

Although the Czech side of the former Black Triangle has not made a full recovery from its environmental nosedive, for Mirka Blazkova, the successes mean it's no longer a region that residents long to escape.

"It's not only the brown coal deposited, the big density of industry and, before, the high pollution, but also the area where there are national parks and protection areas. That means lots of natural beauty. In these times, I think most people are very happy to stay here."