Pollution woes in northeast continue despite cleanup
Industrial plants say emissions cuts have failed to improve quality of the air
Posted: January 23, 2013
Some say the pollution is less visible now in snow-laden Ostrava, but local reports say the air is "unbreathable."
Another winter, another set of pollution alerts.
In Ostrava and the surrounding region of Moravia-Silesia, the defining characteristic of the cold season is as much poor air quality as it is low temperatures.
Local reports this month from the Czech Republic's industrial heartland, close to the Polish border, warned the air was "unbreathable," with winter bringing smog as temperature inversions trapped pollution.
It is a problem that dates to the 19th century, when the city saw its first major burst of industrialization and coal mining development, and which in modern times appears stubbornly resistant to improvement efforts.
"It's one of the most polluted places in the whole of Europe when we're talking about air pollution," said Jan Freidinger, an anti-toxic campaigner with Greenpeace in the Czech Republic.
"Some measures have been introduced in the last decade, but it's still the same."
Concentrations of particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter, known as PM2.5s, average more than 30 micrograms per cubic meter in parts of the region, around double that in most other areas of the country.
The "steel heart of the republic," as it became known in the second half of the last century, is also the area of the Czech Republic where the air is most heavily polluted with carcinogenic organic compounds such as benzo(a)pyrene.
This is despite the closure of major industrial plants close to Ostrava and billions spent to control emissions from regional steelworks.
ArcelorMittal, for example, which has steel-making operations that trace their history back seven decades, has invested 4 billion Kč on environmental improvements since 2003, cutting emissions by nearly 70 percent, according to spokeswoman Barbora Černá Dvořáková.
Projects in 2011 include the commissioning of a 1 billion Kč de-dusting facility, while last year the company began a 750 million Kč project to cut sulfur dioxide emissions. The release of harmful organic compounds was cut, the company said, by three-quarters between 2008 and 2011.
"We have cut emissions by two-thirds since 2003 and we are working on further reduction … However, problems with air quality continue in winter, especially when weather inversion comes," Černá Dvořáková said.
As well as industrial plants, households that burn coal, traffic and pollution from neighboring Poland are also blamed for poor air quality.
Scientists have found that Ostrava residents have show physical signs of being affected by the pollution, with higher levels of expression of a gene called XRCC5, which is involved in repairing damage to DNA, the genetic material.
The researcher who led the study, Pavel Rössner, head of the laboratory of genomics at Prague's Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine, said the effects of the pollution were particularly severe for children.
"There is no higher incidence of lung or other cancer in this region, but the lifespan is shorter. It's about five years shorter than the average of the Czech Republic. Maybe people die before they have the chance to develop cancer," he said.
He said the effects of pollution on lifespan could be long-lasting, with life expectancy in other parts of the country that have seen improvements in air quality, such as north Bohemia, for example, still depressed.
Although Ostrava and the surrounding area remain more polluted than the average for the country, some long-term observers believe things have improved significantly and that the city's perception as being dirty is outdated.
Petr Vaněk, a chief of staff for Member of the European Parliament Evžen Tošenovský when he was mayor of Ostrava and later governor of Moravia-Silesia, and who was born and brought up in the city, said visible pollution used to be much worse.
"Thirty years ago, when there was fresh snowfall, it turned gray and black within hours. Now when the snow falls, it stays white for weeks," said the 53-year-old, now employed in the private sector.
"The blast furnaces have disappeared from the city center, and the companies have invested billions into much more ecological behavior for those that have remained. It has improved 95 percent."
With concerns remaining, however, over levels of fine particulate matter in particular, which can enter the bloodstream and lead to heart disease and lung cancer, and carcinogenic organic substances, campaigners say more must be done.
Companies, including ArcelorMittal, last year began applying for European Union grants that would fund efforts to reduce emissions from plants.
"In case the European Commission allocates subsidies, the projects will be implemented by 2015. Thanks to these, we would be able to reduce our dust emissions by several tens of tons," said Černá Dvořáková.
A clean air act passed by the Cabinet in 2011 is set to increase, over the next decade, the amount in fees companies have to pay for emissions, something that could provide further incentives to industry to cut pollution. Critics have voiced concern that industry could be left uncompetitive.
Given the multiple sources of pollution and the need to retain jobs, few expect a quick solution to the region's long-running air-quality problems.
Daniel Bardsley can be reached at