Frontline communities near the controversial Turów coal mine are losing their access to drinking water. The European Commission has the power to protect them, but time is running out.

Roberta Arbinolo reports on this environmental catastrophe in the making and local efforts to block it.

In the midst of a global health and climate crisis, the Turów open-pit lignite mine has been draining water resources from two countries and leaving entire villages dry. Polish state-owned company PGE is now planning to expand the mine and re-licence its operation until 2044. If the project goes through, 30,000 people in the Czech region of Liberec risk being left without potable water, in a blatant violation of both domestic and EU laws, including the Water Framework Directive.

At a webinar organised by the European Environmental Bureau last week, impacted communities, local authorities, and national and European policymakers made a joint appeal for the European Commission to stop Turów’s translational water grab and protect citizens from destructive coal extraction.

Stories from the frontline

Coal is one of the most-water intensive sources of electricity, and in many countries, the coal industry is among the major drivers of freshwater demand. A typical coal plant drains enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than four minutes. PGE’s Turów pit withdraws 40 litres per second.

Milan Starec joined from Uhelná, a Czech town bordering Poland, to share the stories and testimonies of the families enduring water shortages at the frontline with the mine.

The pictures taken by Ibra Ibrahimovič for Frank Bold Society are part of an online photo exhibition that the purpose-driven law firm will launch in the upcoming days to raise awareness of the situation in Turów.

The Kopecký family does not have enough water to wash their laundry and has to drive 25km to wash clothes at their relatives’. As they try to save the scarce water in their well for drinking and cooking, they had to set up time limits for showering too. 

Photo by Ibra Ibrahimovič for Frank Bold

Michael Martin, who had also been previously interviewed by META, has bought six water tanks and from time to time, when the water level gets critical, he takes out 100m of hoses to fill up his tanks from a public well. When the water level of the public well is also critical, he orders a water cistern from Liberec. This is a very expensive solution, but the only possible one for him to ensure his family has water for their everyday needs. 

Photo by Ibra Ibrahimovič for Frank Bold

As the Kronus family’s well has dried out completely and no longer provides any water, they use a pump and hoses to fill it up with water from the creek. This water is not potable, but it is good enough for laundry and showering. For drinking and cooking, they have to buy the water in canisters and PET bottles. 

Photo by Ibra Ibrahimovič for Frank Bold

Matouš Kischner is a farmer. Last year the water shortages forced him to kill six of his cows, as he could not get enough drinking water for the whole herd. Many other families in the town of Vaclavice are experiencing the same struggle.

Photo by Ibra Ibrahimovič for Frank Bold

This shows the extent of Turow’s water grab on people livelihoods, as well as on local ecosystems. “All the nature around the mine is drying out,” said Starec.

Water conflict

The Czech government and the local authorities have challenged the mine expansion, and taken diplomatic and legal steps to guarantee their citizens’ access to water. In the absence of a constructive reaction from Poland and PGE, the Liberec Region submitted a complaint to the European Commission, outlining the violations of EU directives and calling for the immediate launch of an infringement procedure against Poland.

“Even though we have used all the legal tools available to defend our rights, we were not able to stop Poland from taking our water away, against the law. As there is nothing else we can do to protect the wellbeing of our citizens, we have asked the European Commission to intervene – but six months have already passed, and nothing has happened,” said Pavel Branda, representative of the Liberec region to the EU.

A transboundary iconic case

The location of the mine at the crossroad of three member states, its transnational impacts, and its clash with EU laws make the Turow case an iconic one, with a strong EU dimension.

The expansion of the mine is incompatible with the Water Framework Directive, as it would cause inadmissible deterioration of those water bodies that the law strives to defend.

Although a Commission evaluation confirmed the directive is fit to protect water, its implementation and enforcement is still lagging behind in too many countries, including Poland.

“The Turów coal mine and plant are not only among the worst CO2 emitters in the EU, they also violate EU water laws with alarming consequences for communities in the neighbouring countries. If the Commission is serious about the European Green Deal and rule of law, it must ensure that the Water Framework Directive is fully and properly enforced,” said the EEB’s Secretary General Jeremy Wates.

However, the Turów project breaches more than the EU’s landmark water laws.

Shirking responsibility

Poland’s refusal to accept liability for potential environmental damage to the Czech territory goes against the EU Environmental Liability Directive. At the same time, changes in the spatial plan for the main expansion issued by Poland regardless of the Czech position constitutes a violation of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive and the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive.

Convinced of the urgency and of the European dimension of the case, German MEP Anna Cavazzini submitted a parliamentary question on whether the Commission is considering an infringement procedure.

In his reply to the MEP, Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius stated the Commission is currently investigating Poland’s compliance with EU water laws, but Cavazzini stressed that “time is pressing”: “Already at the end of April 2020 the license for open-cast lignite mining from 1994 expired. Since then, illegal mining has been going on in Turów, while the concerns about the environmental impact assessment (EIA) have still not been addressed,” she said.

In March 2020, a petition to stop the Turów project signed by 13,000 European citizens was delivered to the European Parliament by the Liberec Regional Authority, together with 10 municipalities and Greenpeace Czech Republic. The Parliament’s Petition Committee is expected to discuss it in its next session in early July.

Europe’s future is beyond coal

Coal mining and burning are not only threatening our access to clean and safe water. Coal-fired power plants are a major source of toxic air pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate breakdown. A just transition from the most polluting of fossil fuels to renewables is not only inevitable but also urgent and necessary to build greater resilience in our societies.

“We need to phase out coal and we need an energy transformation based on renewables that put less pressure on our water resources,” said Kuba Gogolewski, Project Coordinator at Fundacja “RT-ON”.

In his reply to Cavazzini’s parliamentary question, Commissioner Sinkevičius also underlined that “while member states are free to choose their energy mix, they are bound by EU climate targets and the Paris Agreement” and that “the Commission is ready to support member states in their transition to climate neutrality”.

Poland could receive up to € 8 billion from the Just Transition Fund, financed by taxpayers across the EU. Yet Poland is the only member state that has not subscribed to the EU’s climate neutrality ambition, and is supporting the Turów project, which will contribute to a lock-in of unsustainable coal-fired energy in the country, in direct opposition to the necessary transition towards decarbonisation.

“The Commission is topping up money to the Just Transition Fund as a sign of solidarity. But justice means that the countries receiving support will seriously plan to move beyond coal, and that there will be no citizens crying for water,” said MEP Martin Hojsík.

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