Photo: Phil MacDonald

Polish coal may be cheating EU on toxic mercury

Polish coal-fired power plants may be cheating the European Union when reporting their toxic mercury emissions, Gazeta Wyborcza reports. As a result, a huge year-on-year increase in emissions from Europe’s biggest coal plant may be even higher than first thought.

Last month META broke the story that mercury emission from Polish coal had jumped by more than 87.5% in just one year. EU data showed emissions from the giant Bełchatów plant in central Poland were eighteen times higher in 2016 than the previous year. 

Now a Gazeta Wyborcza story published last week has claimed that the mercury emissions for 2016 – reported as an enormous 2.82 tonnes – could in reality be even higher.

The paper was shown emissions monitoring data that experts said point to mercury emissions of closer to 4.2 tonnes – 1.5 tonnes more than reported.

In any case, Bełchatów emits more mercury to the air than all Spanish industry 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.

Across Europe burning coal is the single biggest source of mercury pollution entering the air. It is often carried over long distances and finds its way into the food-chain through bioaccumulation in large fish.

Kathrin Gutmann, Director of the Europe Beyond Coal campaign said:

“Bełchatów is already known as the single biggest source of climate-harming carbon emissions in Europe. The fact it is also pumping so much toxic mercury into the air, which threatens the health of people all over Europe as it spreads, is doubly alarming, and demonstrates the urgent need for an ambitious coal phase out.”

The original META story was picked up by the Polish press as it became apparent that mercury emissions had been grossly under-reported in previous years.

Pressure grew on plant owner PGE to explain the discrepancy as campaigners explained that the increase was due to a new European law that requires the emissions reported to European authorities be based on actual monitoring data. Reported figured were previously estimated.

PGE’s estimations for 2015 had been 18 times lower than the reported measured emissions for 2016.

After digging deeper into the story, Gazeta Wyborcza reported that even under the new EU monitoring and reporting regime, the plant operators are allowed to take periodic measurements and then declare an average across the year. It is therefore possible that higher measurements were discarded and lower ones used to calculate annual emissions.

Wyborcza also said the same practice may be being used by other power stations, including the Pątnów and Turów plants. Pątnów owner ZE PAK denied the allegation and said that measurements were taken in line with Polish government requirements.

Joanna Flisowska of Climate Action Network Europe told META that the behaviour of Bełchatów’s owner PGE was a scandal. She added:

“It’s now clear that PGE must not be allowed to open a new mine to dig out more dirty lignite for Bełchatów. The proposed mine would cause 3,000 people to lose their homes and could keep feeding the plant toxic coal for decades to come. Bełchatów has been destroying our climate and environment for many years now: the damage is enough already.

She concluded

“PGE needs to finally for start investing in the clean energy transition.”