COTTBUS, GERMANY - MARCH 13, 2011: Open-pit coal mining Cottbus Nord near Cottbus, Lower Lusatia, Brandenburg, Germany.

Jump in toxic mercury emissions from German and Polish coal

Toxic mercury emissions from coal and lignite plants have risen, while other industries have cut their pollution.

A META investigation into new European industrial pollution data has revealed an enormous 87.5% rise in toxic mercury emissions from Polish coal-fired power plants.

Meanwhile German coal and lignite plants were responsible for 30% of all mercury emissions from industry in the EU in 2016, more than Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France combined.

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin which damages human health and can destroy lives. Europe has committed to the Minamata Convention to phase out and limit mercury emissions from human sources and the EU’s Mercury Regulation was adopted last year.

Responding to the publication of an EEA analysis of the recently released 2016 European Pollutant and Release Transfer Register (E-PRTR) data, Christian Schaible, EEB Industrial Production Manager said:

“The EEA found that heavy metal pollution from European industry is falling, yet a closer look at the data reveals that some industries and some countries are actually going backwards. German and Polish coal are the clearest examples of this.”

The EEA analysis showed that when it comes to heavy metal pollution, it’s metal processing and thermal power plants that are responsible for the greatest environmental impacts.

While emissions are falling in many areas, including from the most polluting metal processing factories, mercury pollution from the energy sector – specifically from German and Polish coal-burning power plants – actually increased between 2015 and 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.

New EU rules that should cut mercury emissions from coal power plants were adopted despite opposition from the German and Polish governments last year. However these rules are now being challenged by the Polish government and the German lignite industry, a move that Schaible describes as “utterly inexcusable“:

“While they pump more and more poisonous mercury into the air, the German lignite industry and the Polish government are suing the EU for trying to cut this harmful pollution. Companies like RWE and LEAG must be held accountable for the damage they are inflicting.”

The EEB has applied to intervene in the case brought by the German lignite industry, as reported by META in February.

The latest European pollution monitoring data shows that coal plants in Germany put 160 kg more toxic mercury into the air in 2016 compared to 2015, in Poland the increase was an incredible 2.73 tonnes.

An EEB study published last year showed that German lignite power stations pump out significantly more mercury than comparable plants in the USA.

Schaible argues there is no good reason why German coal should be more polluting than American coal. He argues that the operating permits issued to the coal plants often offer very generous emissions limits that do not oblige the operator to use the most effective abatement techniques:

“Mercury emissions could be significantly cut in German, Poland and elsewhere if the relevant authorities insist pollution is tackled. Tighter limits would mean less toxic mercury in the air we breath, and ultimately, the food we eat.”

The new EU rules include best available techniques that can limit mercury emission to 1µg/NM3, while the current average for EU coal plants is still five times higher than that, with some lignite plants emitting as much as 20 times higher.

Schaible says cutting mercury pollution is not just possible, it’s also very affordable:

An EU wide reduction of 80% is possible and it would actually be very cheap for the operators to achieve this. Numerous studies point to mercury abatement costs amounting to just 0.17-1% of the total generation costs. It is definitely worth it.”

The EEA data shows that 62% of mercury emissions to air from EU industry come from coal-fired power plants. Of these, five of the the top-8 biggest emitters are German lignite plants:

  1. Bełchatów (2.82 t) (PL)
  2. Jänschwalde (743 kg) (DE)
  3. Neurath (575 kg) (DE)
  4. Lippendorf (538 kg) (DE)
  5. Boxberg (512 kg) (DE)
  6. Niederaußem (442 kg) (DE)
  7. Drax (435 kg) (UK)
  8. Adamów (382 kg) (PL)

The mammoth Bełchatów power plant in Poland emits more mercury to the air than all Spanish industry combined.

The EEB is part of the Europe Beyond Coal campaign, a coalition of groups that want to accelerate a fair and just transition away from coal and towards proven safe, clean and sustainable sources of energy.