By Karel Janicek
OSTRAVA, Czech Republic (AP) — In this part of northeastern Czech Republic, huge piles of coal are stacked ready to be sold to eager buyers and smoke belches from revving coal-fired power plants instead of ending.
Ostrava has been working for decades to end its legacy as the most polluted area in the country, transforming itself from a working-class industrial stronghold to a modern city with tourist spots. But Russia’s war in Ukraine sparked an energy crisis in Europe that paved the way for the return of coal, jeopardizing climate goals and threatening health from rising pollution.
Households and businesses are turning to this once-considered obsolete fuel as they seek a cheaper option to natural gas, the prices of which have jumped as Russia cut supplies to Europe.
Demand for lignite – the cheapest and most energy inefficient form – used by Czech households jumped nearly 35% in the first nine months of 2022 compared to a year earlier.
Over the same period, production rose by more than 20%, the first increase after decades of almost continuous decline, the Czech Ministry of Industry and Trade said.
“We are worried,” said Zdenka Němečková Crkvenjaš, responsible for the environment as a member of the board of directors of the Moravian-Silesian region. “If prices don’t come down, what could happen is we will face increased pollution.”
The region is part of the Upper Silesian Coal Basin, a vast industrialized area straddling the Czech-Polish border with rich coal deposits and factories producing steel, electricity and the type of coal used for the manufacture of steel which dates from the 19th century.
A combination of burning coal for residential heating and industrial facilities led to “catastrophic” air pollution at the end of the communist era in 1989, said Petr Jančík of the Technical University of Ostrava, an air pollution expert who cooperated in the Air Tritia project which recently produced an online model of polluted air at the Czech-Polish-Slovakian border.
Coal-fired power is not only disastrous for the climate, it is also a health hazard, releasing emissions of heavy particles, nitrogen oxides and mercury, which contaminate fish in lakes and rivers.
The decline of industrial and mining activities and the advent of new environmental standards after the Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004 have considerably improved air quality.
But big challenges remain.
Emissions of airborne dust – PM10 particles – now meet environmental limits in the region, but concentrations of smaller PM2.5 particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream still do not reach the World Health Organization standards.
A 2021 study of more than 800 European cities by Spain’s Barcelona Institute for Global Health, or ISGlobal, places the regional capital of Ostrava and nearby towns of Karviná and Havířov among the 10 most polluted European cities. He estimated that 529 deaths a year could be prevented in those three cities if air quality guidelines were followed.
Burning coal also releases the dangerous substance benzo(a)pyrene, levels of which are still high despite government programs that pay to replace older furnaces with more efficient ones that reduce pollution.
Some 50,000 ovens still need to be replaced in the Ostrava region, said Němečková Crkvenjaš, estimating the figure at 500,000 in a more populated and polluted area across the Polish border.
“I’m afraid this winter won’t be ideal when it comes to air pollution,” she said. “I’ll be happy if I’m wrong.”
Roman Vank, board member of coal seller Ridera in Ostrava, said coal sales have increased by around 30% compared to last year. The cheapest form – lignite – was the most in demand.
Jančík, the scientist, said the impact on air quality is difficult to predict immediately, especially if it’s another mild winter, and pollution “may only get slightly worse. “.
According to him, a positive development is that the high prices of natural gas and electricity force people to acquire solar panels, more efficient heating systems and to try to become less dependent on energy sources.
“There are two opposing trends: the first is that people are trying to use better and more efficient ovens, and the second is that they are considering using more coal and wood,” Jančík said. “It may be the result of shock or worry, and they want to get the supplies ready.”
Czech Greenpeace spokesperson Lukáš Hrábek expected a negative impact in the near future.
“We see contradictory trends right now. We see higher coal consumption, but at the same time we see massive investment in renewable energy, in heat pumps, in insulation,” Hrábek said. “So it’s hard to say what the long-term effect will be, but the short-term effect is pretty obvious, air pollution will be worse due to higher coal consumption.”
In another sign of the coal renaissance, the Czech Republic has canceled plans to completely halt mining near Ostrava to help preserve electricity supplies amid the energy crisis.
State-owned OKD will expand its mining activities in the Ostrava region until at least the end of next year, citing “huge” demand. It will mainly be used for electricity generation and domestic heating, with coal-fired power plants producing almost 50% of the country’s electricity.
The decision came after the European Union agreed to ban Russian coal from August because of the war in Ukraine and as it works to cut the bloc’s energy ties with Russia.
The Czech government aims to phase out coal in power generation by 2033 and increase its reliance on nuclear power.
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