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A Still-Clouded Pollution Issue

Environment: An international government-business effort gave a Czech city clean air. But it also points up the problems of tackling global warming.

November 01, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DECIN, Czech Republic

From atop the Shepherd's Wall, an outcrop overlooking the Elbe River, the city of Decin is a collection of tired tile roofs, drab prefab apartment blocks, a few factories, and a 14th century castle closed to the public since Soviet troops were billeted there in 1968.

It is a Central European scene at once ordinary and stunning, for never in common memory has the air--or the view--been so clear.

The choking--indeed, killing--coal dust long emitted by local heating plants has been largely banished by a combination of city fiat, Czech korunas and Western dollars.

The scrubbing of Decin offers a real-world example of a concept at the center of the international debate over how to counter global warming, one that is likely to dominate both environmental and foreign policy on the world stage for months and probably years to come.

The cleaner air in Decin (pronounced Day-CHEEN) was produced by an experiment, the first of its kind, that brought an infusion of Western money--including dollars from businesses in the American Midwest--to the city of 55,000.

But along with the cleaner air came evidence for the argument against such efforts to control global warming: painfully higher heating bills. Thus the experiment starkly demonstrates both the promise and the problems involved in getting governments and businesses to work together to combat global warming. Such experiments, gaining increasing attention from economists and environmentalists around the world, are at the heart of the international debate over how to reduce global warming without creating economic havoc, a focus of a gathering of diplomats and scientists that begins Monday in Buenos Aires.

In this gritty quarter of Bohemia, where the Czech, German and Polish borders meet, coal was once the bedrock of life. It provided food and comfort, in the form of jobs and heat. But as its dust settled, it gave birth to the dirge-like sobriquet: "the Black Triangle."

The complex experiment has yanked this bedraggled, workaday community out from under years of stagnant pollution that choked the life out of the valley--one weakened baby, one disabled worker, one frail pensioner at a time.

There is skepticism about the program from numerous quarters--among many American and European environmentalists; politicians and bureaucrats from some of Europe's industrial giants; and even among potential beneficiaries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But proponents say the project demonstrates how a complicated international environmental and economic relationship can make the campaign against global warming more affordable.

Global warming is widely believed to be occurring as gases given off by the burning of carbon fuels--coal, gasoline and oil, for example--trap the Earth's heat like the glass of a greenhouse.

The Czech program is built around the idea that it is cheaper to eliminate the carbon dioxide gases in more heavily polluted, economically struggling communities than to eliminate them in highly industrialized, wealthy, environmentally scrubbed societies.

The U.S. sees such cooperative efforts as a way to encourage China, India, Brazil and other industrializing nations to participate in an international agreement to reduce global warming.

In Decin, coal has largely been eliminated from the city's heating sources. The dust no longer soils collars or, more important, settles in throats and lungs.

But the cleanup has come at a price.

Maria Markova, 68 and retired, will dine on potatoes cooked in just a bit of milk. At 25 cents a pound, even potatoes strain her budget.

The rent for her apartment--one room and a kitchen--is $7 a month. But each month she counts out the equivalent of $47, roughly 18 times more than she paid five years ago for heat and hot water--and for a measurable improvement in what had been the dirtiest air in Europe. That amounts to nearly 30% of her $157-a-month pension.

Yet Markova grudgingly appreciates that the air has grown cleaner: "It's true. It is different."

Health Problems

For decades, coal heated Decin's flats, warmed its bathwater, fueled the aluminum tubing plant and the factory making forklift trucks--and kept the town's children coughing, wheezing and complaining of sore throats.

"The situation here was so severe," says hospital pediatrician Dr. Milan Panek. Indeed, the community's life span was five years shorter than the national average.

Consider these statistics:

In the U.S., an average 7.5 of every 1,000 babies die during the first year of life; in Decin in 1990, 15.45 out of 1,000 did not reach their first birthday. By 1997, that figure had fallen to 9.14 of 1,000.

Adults, too, were held hostage to ill health: The occurrence of malignant tumors in Decin in 1990 was 61% higher than in the rest of the nation that year. Cardiovascular problems were 16% more common. Respiratory, digestive, skin, nervous system and blood and immunity disorders all afflicted Decin residents at higher rates than others in what was then Czechoslovakia.

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