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Feature Story
Europe's Black Triangle Turns Green
Page 3

In November 1989, a few months after Rock's first trip to the Krušné hory, the great change came. In what would become known as the Velvet Revolution, the shaky Communist regime fell and gave way to a new Czech democracy. The right to clean air was among the first demands of the revolution's leaders, and very quickly the new republic set out to clean up the Most basin. What was required was clear. Smokestacks needed scrubbers to remove sulfur from emissions. Inefficient energy plants had to be shut down or switched to low-sulfur, low-nitrogen fuels, such as hard coal or natural gas. The loss of these plants would also require the development of new sources of low-polluting energy. All of these changes would take money.

In 1990, the Czech Republic received financial aid from the European Union's Phare plan, under which grants were given to nations intending to join the E.U. From 1990 to 2003, the country received some 1.1 billion euros ($1.42 billion) in aid. To this was added $626 million from the World Bank. Combining these funds with technical assistance from Europe and the United States, the Czechs began dismantling the wasteful and damaging energy complex that had been imposed by the Soviet central committee four decades earlier.

At the same time the Czechs began gradually to diversify their sources of power, adding natural gas, hydropower, and a new nuclear power plant. They ended price controls on energy costs. They passed new standards limiting sulfur dioxide emissions that mirrored the EPA standard of "best available technology." The legislation also enabled them to levy fines on polluters. And they began to share energy resources with three neighboring countries -- Germany, Hungary, and Poland -- which were also receiving assistance from the E.U. to implement similar changes. Since 75 percent of the pollution produced in the Black Triangle areas of Germany and the Czech Republic ended up in Poland, that country immediately benefited from the changes that were made by its neighbors. Poland began treating its own emissions as well, especially those from its huge Turow power plant. Germany, meanwhile, began to retrofit its massive power plant in Boxburg, adding desulfurization technology, as well as decommissioning smaller, lignite-powered plants. To complement these efforts, the three Black Triangle states set up a joint air-monitoring system, which continuously measures major air pollutants at 42 stations.

Henry Manczyk, an energy expert who has studied the efforts of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany to reduce pollution, says the success of the program sets up a paradigm for other former Soviet states, with Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Belarus all likely to follow as their political circumstances change.

Mining output in the region dropped from 80 million tons of lignite in 1984 to 56 million tons in 1993 and then to 50 million tons in 1999. By 1996 the Czechs could measure a decline in sulfur dioxide emissions, from 2.5 metric tons in 1982 to less than 1.4. Rock, working by then with Czech scientists, most closely with Jana Albrechtova, a plant physiologist at Charles University in Prague, began seeing changes in the forest: The acute damage appeared to have come to a halt.

Landsat imagery of the Krušné hory in 1997 showed Rock that the areas whose appearance had shocked him when he first came to the region were now experiencing the beginning of a remarkable reversal of fortunes.

During Rock's tenure at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA satellites had begun measuring the reflected infrared light from the forests below. Light in the infrared spectrum is invisible to the human eye. ("A good thing," he says, "or we'd be blinded by a walk in the woods.") Each plant's leaves reflect a specific range of infrared light. By using a spectrometer, the satellites showed what trees made up a forest and, to a lesser degree, how healthy those trees were.

Rock, however, was dissatisfied with the resolution of the satellite imagery. He believed that by doing close-up spectrometry he'd be able to tell what was going on inside the leaves. If he could see that, he might also be able to recognize when a forest was in danger of dying.

So he took his students out into the Krušné hory with a spectrometer. And what the spectrometer did in fact see was what was happening at the cellular level. It was like going from photograph to CAT scan. They could measure the leaves' chlorophyll concentrations, water content, and cellular development -- essentially, the health of the leaf, the tree, and the forest.

Outside in the chilling rain, Rock, Albrechtova, and other researchers and students are hustling from tree to tree, pruning branches, taking cuttings, digging soil samples, and collecting needles.

Albrechtova is an intense woman with an athlete's lithe build. In the forest she's all business. She points out that some of the trees now have seven or eight years of needles on them. The needles are dark and plump. In the young forests, planted only five or six years ago, the trees are healthy and reproducing on their own. A once-denuded hillside is damp and redolent of young pines. It's possible once again to appreciate the rain.

The environmental indicators -- sulfur dioxide emissions, particulate densities -- have continued to improve steadily. On graphing paper the slope of pollution decline is a slide into a ravine. Nearly as rapid has been the improving health data coming from the Most basin. While it still lags behind the rest of the country, life expectancy there has increased and deaths from respiratory illnesses have declined.

Josef Richter is sanguine about the changes, yet he makes it clear that the cultural and social damage will not be so easily fixed. There is a lack of education here, and unemployment stands at 20 percent. These conditions bring with them their own health problems, from poor diet to smoking to drug addiction. Richter adds that the cost of cleaner fuel is high. Natural gas, for instance, must be imported from Russia, and hard coal costs more than lignite. As a result, more of the population is turning to burning wood, which produces almost as much pollution as coal.

Who Owns This River?
Who Owns This River?
Alexander's Marvelous Machine

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Map: Blue Marble Maps
Photos: Antonin Kratochvil

OnEarth. Spring 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council