Photo: Greg McNevin / Europe Beyond Coal

Hambach forest coal firm ‘most toxic’ in Europe – report

German energy firm RWE is the most toxic coal company in Europe, according to a new report.

RWE, which gained notoriety with its attempts to clear-cut the last corner of the ancient Hambach Forest to expand a giant coal mine, also owns coal-burning power plants in Germany, the UK and the Netherlands.

A new report -‘Last Gasp: The coal companies making Europe sick’ – by the Europe Beyond Coal coalition of NGOs has RWE topping a list of most toxic coal firms. Its plants are responsible for more harmful air pollution than any other energy company.


Earlier this year RWE was the target of occupations and direct action as protestors fought to save the last remaining piece of Hambach Forest.

A broad coalition of groups, including the German Evangelical Church, condemned RWE’s plans to expand the Hambach mine, which were eventually stopped at the last minute by a legal intervention by EEB member BUND.

The company then faced further bad press when reports showed its German hard coal plants were twice as polluting as necessary because they limiting the use of air pollution abatement equipment in order to save money.

A last gasp for Coal?

The latest report – ‘Last Gasp: The coal companies making Europe sick’ – piles additional pressure on the RWE by revealing how the company’s operations are harming the health of people across Europe.

The impact of air pollution from coal on human health are significant, with the risks highest for vulnerable groups.

Cologne pediatrician Christian Doering said that coal soot particles were particularly harmful:

“These ultra-fine particles that penetrate deeply into the body, even during pregnancy… They are the stuff paediatricians’ nightmares are made of”

RWE has argued that its plants operate in line with the air quality limits set in their operating permits, but health and environmental groups have criticized these limits as being far too lax.

Updated EU limit on coal pollution were finally adopted last year, but along with coal industry partners RWE is attempting to challenge these tighter rules in court.

Campaigners are now urging investors, including Norway’s $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, to move their money out of the firm.

RWE’s share price was already hit when the Münster court ruled that the company’s bulldozers would have to retreat from the Hambach forest.

Counting the cost of coal

The Last Gasp report uses peer-reviewed modeling to put figures on the health impacts of burning coal. For the first time this approach is applied on a company-by-company basis, with RWE topping a list of Europe’s most toxic polluters.

The report shows how air pollution from RWE’s plants linked to half a million sick days per year. It spells out the grim impact of air pollution on our health, showing the number of days RWE’s emissions caused children to suffer from serious asthma symptoms (30,000 days), the number of new cases of chronic bronchitis in adults (690 people) and the number of hospital admissions due to respiratory or cardiovascular problems (1,320 admissions).

Once the cost of treating air pollution-related illnesses and the total economic impact of lost work days is added up, the cost of RWE’s coal-burning is calculated as €5.4 billion each year.

Coal companies demanding compensation

Christian Schaible, Industrial Policy Manager at the EEB a contributor to the report described the current situation as “madness”.

Schaible said that the enormous cost of burning coal must be considered when firms like RWE ask governments for compensation when their plants are closed:

“Decision makers should ensure those that pollute our environment pick up the cleaning bill. It is high time for utility companies to be liable for health costs and move to clean energy.”

Another German coal firm, Uniper, which was also among the 10 most toxic coal companies, has demanded as much as €1.6 billion in compensation from the Dutch government for what they consider to be the early closure of one of their plants there.