Thirsty and toxic: two ways coal is bad news for water

Europe’s supply of clean, safe water is under major stress, and coal is one of the culprits. But what does a fuel widely known for its climate impact have to do with the depletion of one of our most precious natural resources?

Coal-fired electricity impacts water at every stage of its production: coal mining and washing, combustion and waste management, all come at a high cost in terms of worsening water quantity and quality.

Coal is one of the most-water intensive sources of electricity. A typical coal plant withdraws enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than four minutes. In many countries, the coal industry is among the major drivers of freshwater demand.

This is particularly problematic in regions where the water available for people and nature is already scarce. By pumping water out of the ground, cutting down forests and drying up streams and rivers, the coal industry is also disrupting natural processes that help coping with floods and droughts.

On the other hand, coal mining, washing and burning are highly polluting activities which release toxic chemicals and heavy metals into the air, soil and water.

It is estimated that for every tonne of coal mined between 1 and 2.5 cubic meters of groundwater reserves are contaminated. However, the impact of coal on water quality does not end when those activities stop: even after a coal mine is closed, acidic liquids keep draining out of the earth, often carrying toxic heavy metals. Poorly treated wastewater from coal-fired power plants can pour a dangerous mix of carcinogens into the environment.

From Greece to Poland and Czechia, across the countries that are still digging for coal, entire communities and ecosystems are bearing the consequences of its impacts on water: here are some of their stories.

Water grab without borders

At the Polish border with Czechia and Germany, the water consumption of the Turów open-pit lignite mine is drying up water resources from two countries, and threatening the groundwaters of a whole region.

Photo by Atalanta

Run by the Polish state-owned company PGE, the mine feeds the consumption of the homonymous Turów plant, one of the worst offenders in the EU for both public health and CO2 emissions.

On the Polish side, the village Opolno Zdroj used to be a popular spa resort. A century ago it attracted visitors from all over Saxony because of its healing mineral springs, but today those springs have dried up because of the mining. Many of the inhabitants have already abandoned the little town threatened by the mine expansion.

On the Czech side of the border, residents have been forced to dig deeper and deeper wells at their own expenses to get access to clean water. The municipality of Vitkov had to invest €37,000 to dig a well as deep as 70 meters to bring water to the local kindergarten, and this is not an isolated case. A further expansion of the mine could disrupt the freshwater sources of the town of Frydlant and its neighbouring villages, calling for an investment of €5 million to bring in water from the mountains, estimates the local water company, while up to 30.000 people in the whole Liberec region could be left without safe drinking water.

Back in 2016, this water crisis escalated to a diplomatic case, ending up on the agenda of bilateral meetings between the Czech and Polish Prime Ministers and their Ministers for the Environment.

In April 2019, residents from Poland, Czechia and Germany formed an international human chain to highlight the transboundary impact of the mine and protest its expansion.

Last month, the international campaign Europe Beyond Coal, together with Polish and Czech partners, called on the Polish insurer PZU to not insure the Turów lignite open-pit mine, which would threaten drinking water, air quality, and the climate for decades to come.

Other groups such as Allianz, Ergo Hestia, Generali, UNIQA and Vienna Insurance Group have all stopped insuring new coal in Poland as the financial, political, and reputational risks are too great.

A cocktail of toxic ashes

In the Greek region of Western Macedonia, where large power plants and deep mines have become part of the landscape, the coal-powered water crisis goes beyond water grabbing: the drinking water of four villages was found to be contaminated by high concentrations of hexavalent chromium, a human carcinogen linked to increased risk of developing pathologies such as lung cancer and asthma. In the village of Akrini, the concentration reached 120 micrograms per litre, more than double of the 50 micrograms per litre set as a limit by EU laws for the total amount of chromium – not just hexavalent.

The contamination originated from to the fly ash produced by the nearby lignite plant of Agios Dimitrios. The plant is the largest coal-fired power plant in the country and one of the 30 most polluting plants in Europe, according to the report Europe’s Dark Cloud. The situation was made even more serious by mismanagement, which led to officials from the Public Power Corporation (PPC) being convicted in the first instance for failing to operate the mine, after residents sued the company.

The Environmental law organisation Client Earth has also taken action against the illegal renewal or extension of permits granted to Greek plants including Agios Dimitrios, for failing to comply with the EU laws such as the Industrial Emission Directive.

Greece, together with Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic account for over a third of the world’s coal production, but the Greek Prime Minister announced a coal phase out by 2028 at last month’s United Nation’s Climate Summit.

To protect water, protect water laws

The Industrial Emission Directive is not the only EU law that can limit the disruptive impacts of coal on water resources.

Sergiy Moroz, Senior Policy Officer for Water and Biodiversity at the European Environmental Bureau, told META that the EU Water Framework Directive, a progressive piece of environmental legislation, has already been used to clean up negative impacts from mining, and not granting permissions to coal mines because of their forecasted impact.

However, too many countries have not made its implementation a top priority yet, and as the Directive undergoes evaluation, campaigners warn it may be diluted under the pressure from certain governments and corporate lobbies.

Moroz said:

“These strong, flagship water laws require governments to protect and restore our water environment, and defend our right to clean, safe and healthy water. We must implement them with no further delay, and ensure they are not weakened.”