It used to be THE PITS

Na­ture re­claims dev­as­tated Sile­sia

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE -

KA­TOW­ICE, Poland — Ag­nieska Babczyn­ska dreamed as a girl that one day she would travel to the Ama­zon to study the wealth of plants in its lush rain­forests. An un­usual am­bi­tion, but per­haps un­der­stand­able given that she was liv­ing and dream­ing in Ka­tow­ice, one of the most pol­luted cor­ners of the planet at that time. It was an eco­log­i­cal dead zone that was killing its coal min­ers and steel-foundry work­ers 10 years faster than other Poles. The air reeked of a toxic brew waft­ing from chem­i­cal plants and was of­ten opaque with smoke and coal dust.

And it was opaque and ben­zene-scented when last I saw it 20 years ago.

So imag­ine my sur­prise to re­turn and find the man-made clouds have lifted to re­veal a post-post-in­dus­trial city rein­vent­ing it­self as a mod­ern busi­ness and ser­vice cen­tre at the heart of Sile­sia in south­ern Poland.

Babczyn­ska, 38, who still re­calls child­hood taunts that she was “so lucky to be able to see what you in­hale,” pur­sued her dream, earned a PhD in bi­ol­ogy, and has dis­cov­ered that she need not visit the Ama­zon to be awed by na­ture — the awe­some can be found right out­side her door in, of all things, the waste rock heaps that cover some 7,000 square kilo­me­tres of land in this district, the en­dur­ing legacy of Old King Coal.

But I get ahead of my­self.

When I was here in 1990, Poland was free­ing it­self from the chains of the Soviet era. Its Sol­i­dar­ity labour move­ment al­ready had forced the Com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment to make con­sti­tu­tional changes that in 1991 led to the elec­tion of Sol­i­dar­ity leader Lech Walesa as pres­i­dent.

As the USSR col­lapsed, so too did its com­mand econ­omy, ex­pos­ing 19th cen­tury, coal­fired in­dus­trial cen­tres like Ka­tow­ice to the pres­sures of com­pe­ti­tion and the eco­log­i­cal ex­pec­ta­tions of mod­ern times.

Overnight, and without hav­ing to im­pose an en­vi­ron­men­tal regime of any kind, the coal mines failed and closed for lack of guar­an­teed mar­kets in the for­mer USSR, and for lack of ef­fi­cien­cies to com­pete for Euro­pean buy­ers with cheaper, higher-grade coal that other sell­ers from as far away as Aus­tralia could of­fer. The steel mills fol­lowed, un­able to out-price or out-per­form steel from China and In­dia, and then the chem­i­cal plants shut their doors, too.

As in­dus­tries closed, the de­mand for elec­tric­ity from coal-fired gen­er­at­ing plants fell, con­tribut­ing to a fur­ther de­cline in smog.

And just like that, Ka­tow­ice’s pol­lu­tion prob­lems evap­o­rated. To­day, rivers run clear and small lakes that dot the re­gion and whose wa­ters were black from use as in­dus­trial hold­ing tanks, again are used for recre­ation.

The air is al­most pure — it never ex­ceeds min­i­mum stan­dards, ex­perts say — but it is not en­tirely smog-free be­cause coal re­mains the fuel of choice for home heat­ing, and con­sumers be­ing price con­scious are in­clined to buy the cheapest coal, which also is the dirt­i­est

“What we have is the re­verse of 20 years ago,” Miroslaw Law, head of en­vi­ron­ment and hu­man stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Sile­sia, told me. “The big­gest pol­luters then were the big­gest plants. To­day, the big­gest pro­duc­ers are the small­est plants (house­holds).”

One un­ex­pected con­se­quence of clean air has been a rise in acid rain — air pol­lu­tion in the past neu­tral­ized sul­phur-diox­ide emis­sions. An­other anom­aly is that 40 per cent of Ka­tow­ice is for­est — the per­verse re­sult, it is said, of pro­vid­ing, for more than a cen­tury, a CO2-rich cli­mate in which trees could thrive de­spite what should have been de­bil­i­tat­ing pol­lu­tion.

The good news on the en­vi­ron­men­tal front, how­ever, was bad news for coal-de­pen­dent work­ers who in the past had not only en­joyed cra­dle-to-grave job se­cu­rity, but were guar­an­teed pay rates 2.5 times the na­tional av­er­age.

In the coal-min­ing sec­tor alone, em­ploy­ment fell to 123,000 in 2006 from 388,000 in 1991 — a loss of 285,000 jobs, ac­cord­ing to re­search con­ducted for the Euro­pean Union by Uni­ver­sity of Sile­sia pro­fes­sor Kaz­imiera Wodz.

The eco­nomic hard­ships were soft­ened to some ex­tent by state buy­out plans that gave min­ers with 19th-cen­tury skills an op­por­tu­nity to re­train for jobs of the 21st cen­tury, she said, but noth­ing could re­pair the so­cial and psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­ages in­curred when a life­style and tra­di­tions that had de­vel­oped over more than a cen­tury sim­ply be­came ir­rel­e­vant.

I read an anec­dote in a re­port on chang­ing so­cial con­di­tions about a woman pack­ing away chris­ten­ing clothes and other ar­ti­facts saved and reused by Sile­sian min­ing fam­i­lies over gen­er­a­tions be­cause she knew her chil­dren would have no need or de­sire to use them. “Moth­ers,” the re­port ob­served, “found they had more in com­mon with their grand­moth­ers than with their daugh­ters.”

And while the bleed­ing even­tu­ally was stanched, Ka­tow­ice has not en­tirely re­cov­ered — its pop­u­la­tion to­day is about 300,000, down 50,000 from 20 years ago.

The re­cov­ery in Sile­sia, of which Ka­tow­ice is the cap­i­tal, was helped sig­nif­i­cantly by the fact that Poland bor­ders Ger­many, rather than Rus­sia, to the envy of Ukraini­ans.

Euro­pean fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance poured into Poland af­ter the Soviet col­lapse and ac­cel­er­ated as Poland bid to join the EU, which it did in 2004. And as the money poured in, Ka­tow­ice, to its credit, made good use of it.

Un­der Piotr Us­zok, who has been deputy mayor and mayor since 1994 and who is ex­pected to win a an­other term this year, and with the best ad­vice that Brus­sels could of­fer, Ka­tow­ice de­cided that its po­ten­tial strength could be found in its weak­nesses.

It was re­al­ized that there was no way Ka­tow­ice could pro­mote it­self as tourism des­ti­na­tion given its in­famy a “the mu­seum of eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter,” as it was de­scribed to me 20 years ago, nor could it hope to pre­tend to be a cul­tural cen­tre given its hard-hat his­tory.

And so it was de­cided that the best way for­ward was to make the city a bet­ter place for the peo­ple who ac­tu­ally live here, rather than for peo­ple who do not, the for­eign in­vestors and tourists that neigh­bour­ing Ukraine pur­sues in hopes that their ar­rival will pro­duce div­i­dends for lo­cal ser­vices.

Mas­sive ef­forts went into in­fra­struc­ture re­newal. Sewer and wa­ter sys­tems were up­graded, streets were re­built to Euro­pean stan­dards, as were side­walks. Grid­lock in the city cen­tre was elim­i­nated by cre­at­ing a 660-me­tre traf­fic tun­nel un­der it. Free­ways, in­clud­ing a 130 km/h “au­to­bahn” and the 10-lane di­vided A4, were con­structed link­ing Ka­tow­ice with 14 cities, towns and vil­lages in the “metropo­lis” re­gion so as to cre­ate mar­ket­ing syn­er­gies by unit­ing two mil­lion in­hab­i­tants. The district to­day truly is more than the sum of its past parts.

Closed coal mines and steel fac­tory prop­er­ties were turned into hun­dreds of hectares of green fields for other uses.

THE Sile­sia Cen­tre, for ex­am­ple, an in­door shop­ping mall twice the size of Polo Park and too big for Ka­tow­ice alone without the road net­works, sprang up on a coal field off the six-lane di­vided Chor­zow Street.

The mall pre­serves a red-brick bath­house cre­ated for the exclusive use of coal min­ers a cen­tury ago. But to­day it is for the exclusive use of high-end stores. A min­ers’ chapel, thought to be the only one re­main­ing, has been pre­served for wor­ship, and the hightower lift that once brought coal 600 me­tres from the dark depths to the sur­face has been trans­formed into a tow­er­ing neon bea­con of com­merce.

Ikea has opened a su­per­store, Porsche a deal­er­ship, its sec­ond in Poland.

A new in­ter­na­tional air­port, the third, and third-largest, in Poland, has been built out­side the city. Last year it logged 1.5 mil­lion pas­sen­gers, up from only — and un­be­liev­ably — 16 pas­sen­gers in 1991 when travel and fi­nan­cial re­stric­tions were tight, and the very idea that one could be free to travel was as for­eign as were travel des­ti­na­tions.

“Once you make the in­fra­struc­ture, you can be­gin to deal with the rest,” said Marcin Stanzyk, a spokesman for the Ka­tow­ice mayor’s of­fice.

The next step — or steps — in­clude a re­con­struc­tion of the en­tire city cen­tre along Kor­fanty Boule­vard, named af­ter Wo­j­ciech Kor­fanty, a Pol­ish na­tion­al­ist who led up­ris­ings af­ter the First World War that re­sulted in Ka­tow­ice be­ing an­nexed from Ger­many by Poland in 1920.

The city will as­sume the cost of pub­lic ameni­ties, the pri­vate sec­tor will do the rest. In fact, it al­ready is. The view from my ho­tel win­dow is of the new 30-storey Qubus ho­tel com­plex (tallest build­ing in Ka­tow­ice) while in the op­po­site di­rec­tion the at­trac­tive re­de­vel­op­ment of a 1,000-apart­ment, Soviet-era Go­liath is near­ing com­ple­tion.

The pub­lic com­mit­ment is a US$300 mil­lion “cen­tre of change” ini­tia­tive that in­cludes the construction, on a re­claimed mine site, of a con­ven­tion cen­tre for 12,000 next door to the ex­ist­ing Spodek (fly­ing-saucer) arena as well as a con­cert hall for the Sile­sian Phil­har­monic Or­ches­tra and a new Sile­sian mu­seum.

“The money comes from the EU,” Stanzyk said. “We ap­plied for it and got it. It’s con­sid­ered an in­vest­ment.”

Only af­ter the “cen­tre of change” is com­pleted in 2012 will the city turn to bright­en­ing its stock of his­tor­i­cal and Soviet-era build­ings, and the re­main­ing, iconic, red-brick, whitewin­dow, row-house de­vel­op­ments that were home to min­ers and their fam­i­lies for more than a cen­tury.

As they were 20 years ago, the ex­te­ri­ors of most build­ings range from grey to black, painted, as it were, by coal dust and rain over gen­er­a­tions.

So it would seem that in ev­ery way Ka­tow­ice’s en­vi­ron­ment has im­proved since 1990 and, per­haps iron­i­cally, the best way for­ward is to al­low it to hap­pen nat­u­rally.

Which brings us back to Ag­nieska Babczyn­ska, who dreamed of work­ing in the Ama­zon, but who to­day de­votes her tal­ents and en­er­gies to as­sist­ing na­ture in re­claim­ing what had been de­spoiled.

Her re­search in the waste heaps has found that de­spite con­cerns that the heavy met­als they har­bour are hos­tile to it, “life is find­ing a way.” Bil­lions of mi­crobes, mites, lice, spi­ders and earth­worms that it was thought could not tol­er­ate the waste heap en­vi­ron­ment have adapted and be­gun the slow process of cre­at­ing soil for larger or­gan­isms to grow.

Some waste grounds have be­come refuges for rare or­chids.

Sink holes cre­ated when un­der­ground mines col­lapse — “tech­ni­cal earth­quakes,” ac­cord­ing to Prof. Law — were once thought best fixed by back­fill­ing. But ex­pe­ri­ence has found that the de­pres­sions even­tu­ally fill with rain runoff so as to cre­ate lakes in which biota ap­pear, fol­lowed by marsh­land plants and larger crea­tures such as swans.

She has found beech trees, one-tenth the size of nor­mal, tak­ing root in the heaps and sur­viv­ing de­spite the poi­sons found there and the ab­sence of wa­ter-re­tain­ing ground cover. The abil­ity of beech trees to adapt to this “hos­tile” en­vi­ron­ment seems to prom­ise that one day the waste heaps, many of which al­ready re­sem­ble hills more than heaps, will be cov­ered in forests of pygmy beeches.

In fact, she is find­ing that the mir­a­cle of na­ture that she wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence in the Ama­zon is as en­thralling to wit­ness in the waste heaps as she thought it might be in the rain forests, just dif­fer­ent.

“I find this en­vi­ron­ment very in­ter­est­ing, I think be­cause na­ture al­ways sur­vives,” she said. “Hu­mans might think they know how (to re­claim waste lands). But hu­mans can never help or stop na­ture.

“I think it is best to leave them on their own, then they will sur­vive for sure.”

This view that na­ture can best re­store what man has de­spoiled is rapidly gain­ing favour across Europe, where it in­creas­ingly is seen that the cost of re­me­di­at­ing en­vi­ron­ments of lit­tle prac­ti­cal value is a waste of money, that it is bet­ter to let na­ture find a new bal­ance, even if it is a dif­fer­ent one.

In fact, Bernard Blaszczyk, who 20 years ago took me on a day-long tour of what he called “the mu­seum of eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter” when he was the re­gional di­rec­tor of ecol­ogy for Ka­tow­ice, and who to­day is Poland’s deputy min­is­ter of the en­vi­ron­ment, is a con­vert.

Last year he hosted an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence in nearby Kra­cow to ex­am­ine, among other things, that:

“New in­ves­ti­ga­tions have come up with ev­i­dence of in­trin­sic degra­da­tion and re­ten­tion pro­cesses at a site as be­ing more ef­fec­tive than ar­ti­fi­cial pro­cesses in­duced by tech­ni­cal re­me­di­a­tion mea­sures.”

The con­fer­ence was ti­tled: “Us­ing the self­clean­ing ca­pac­ity of Na­ture.”

It would seem, then, 20 years later, that Ka­tow­ice has, and will con­tinue to get healthy. Nat­u­rally.

GER­ALD.FLOOD@FREEP­RESS.MB.CA

Ag­nieska Babczyn­ska, a bi­ol­o­gist in Ka­tow­ice, has seen the air go clear and sweet and the streams run pure, a far cry from the toxic brew of 1990.

Top, tower that was once the head­frame of a coal mine now sup­ports the neon sign over the Sile­sia Cen­tre mall. Above, the Spud­edk Arena, soon to be joined by a con­ven­tion cen­tre, a con­cert hall and a mu­seum.

His­tory in ar­chi­tec­ture: A green-an­dred Soviet-era build­ing, a typ­i­cal red-brick min­ing area struc­ture and an apart­ment build­ing black­ened by

years of ex­po­sure to coal dust.

GER­ALD.FLOOD@FREEP­RESS.MB.CA

Sym­bols in the Sile­sia Cen­tre mall in Ka­tow­ice are rem­i­nis­cent of the city’s coal-min­ing his­tory.

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