Give us back our water and homes: communities stand up to greedy coal

From Germany to Poland and the Czech Republic, people are taking on greedy coal corporations that steal their water and tear down their homes for a fuel that should never be burnt, writes Roberta Arbinolo.

Communities across the EU are joining forces in a bid to defend themselves from the destructive coal extraction that threatens their villages – and they are calling on the European Commission for urgent support.

On 30 August, hundreds of people from Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic gathered where the three countries meet to call for justice for the Turów mine’s transnational water grab that is sucking entire villages dry.

On the same day, 3000 people demonstrated in Germany against the destruction of villages at the Garzweiler opencast mine.

Both in Turow and Garzweiler, protestors held banners and flags from the other demonstration in sign of mutual solidarity, and to highlight how communities across the EU are facing similar struggles against coal’s greed.

Coal is a major driver of pollution and climate change, and phasing it out by 2030 is essential to deliver on the zero pollution and climate targets included in the European Green Deal. Yet energy giants such as Polish PGE and German RWE keep digging for the most polluting of fossil fuels, at the expense of people’s homes, water supplies, air quality, and the global climate.

Thirsty for justice

At the tripoint border of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, demonstrators kayaked down the river and held a cross-border human chain to protest the failure of their governments and EU institutions to uphold laws protecting them and their water from Turów’s mining and burning operations.

Located on a thin strip of Polish land, the controversial Turów mine pushes hard up against the Czech and Germam borders, draining water away from people and nature in blatant violation of EU laws. The mine has already been implicated in the loss of groundwater for nearby villages and, if the operations continue and expand, more risks to local water supplies and ongoing health problems from coal pollution are assured.

Ahead of the action, protestors released a joint statement signed by national and European policy makers, local authorities and civil society groups, demanding that the European Commission intervenes and starts an infringement procedure against Poland. German MEP Anna Cavazzini, Polish MP Małgorzata Tracz, and the President of the Czech region of Liberec Martin Puta joined the event and held speeches alongside the representatives of impacted communities and civil society.

“We have laws to defend people’s basic rights to fresh air, clean water, and a safe climate from company greed and exploitative politics, but when these laws are not enforced then people have to stand up for their rights,” Kuba Gogolewski, Project Coordinator at Fundacja ”Rozwój TAK – Odkrywki NIE” told META. “We’re here today to protect our health and climate, and to call on the European Commission to step up, as a supranational guardian of EU treaties, and enforce the laws undermined by this transnational water grab at Turów.”

“The European Commission has the power and the responsibility to demand that Poland stops this transnational water grab, and does it fast. They cannot turn a blind eye” added Riccardo Nigro, Campaign Coordinator on Coal Combustion and Mines at the EEB.

Some tension arose when a group of PGE workers and supporters of the mine tried to disrupt the event on the Polish side of the river, interrupting the speeches with shouts, trumpets and whistles, and taking down the opponents’ banners and flags. The demonstrators dealt with the aggression peacefully, and moved across the border to be able to continue the protest alongside fellow campaigners on the Czech side.

Miners and local communities in Turow are worried about their jobs and their future, and as the coal era inevitably comes to an end, it is essential that coal regions get the support they need to ensure both sustainability and self-determination. This is why, in their joint call to stop the Turow project, campaigners and policy makers stress that a just transition is urgent and necessary to allow the whole cross-border region to move together towards a cleaner and fairer future.

“It’s time for opencast coal mining in Turów, which stands for an age that is actually already over, to come to an end,” said German Green MEP Anna Cavazzini. “The political framework is in place: the Paris Climate Agreement and the European Green Deal demand an exit from coal. The money is there. The European Just Transition Fund is being used precisely for this purpose: to support coal regions on their way into the future. It’s time to move forward together.”

All villages must remain

On the same day, protesters in Garzweiler stood in a protective ring around the village of Lützerath, which RWE plans to tear down this year to make room for an expansion of the mine.

RWE is after the tons of lignite – the cheapest kind of coal, as well as the most toxic – that lie underneath the village. However, this coal needs to stay in the ground if Germany is to respect its climate commitments and undertake a just transition towards a greener future.

Yet the German ‘coal exit law’ allows corporations to keep expanding their mines as coal extraction is considered a public interest till the phase out deadline in 2039. Moreover, the law provides that Berlin pays €4,35 billion to compensate coal utilities for lost revenues, on top of the massive direct and indirect subsidies to fossil fuels they already benefit from – quantified in €5,6 billion per year in terms of health and other air pollution related costs. At the same time, the coal industry’s profitability is shrinking.

Nigro told META: “Germany could choose to lead the EU by example towards climate neutrality and zero pollution. Instead, the federal government is throwing public money down a black hole to delay the inevitable collapse of an outdated business, while taxpayers lose their homes to coal that should never be burnt. Is this what they mean with public interest?”

“While we are shaken by the news of the Arctic melting down, the [German] federal government can think of nothing else than to fix climate-hostile coal mining for another 18 years. This coal law doesn’t deserve to be called a law, it’s a crime”, said Alexandra Brüne from the alliance Alle Dörfer Bleiben (All Villages Remain).

The European Commission’s DG Competition is currently examining the German coal law to determine whether the payouts to coal corporations constitute state aid. With other member states including Poland looking at the German law as a potential model, campaigners warn that the Commission’s decision is set to influence Europe’s phase out plans beyond the German borders.

Lützerath is not the first village to be sieged by RWE bulldozers: Immerath, Keyenberg, and a cluster of little towns located on the edge of the open pit mine all risk to be eaten up, while Immerath cathedral has already been torn down.

Furthermore, Alle Dörfer Bleiben reports that German corporation LEAG has announced its plans to demolish two houses in the village of Mühlrose, Lusatia, to make room for more mining. Yet an expert opinion commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Economics has highlighted that the already approved plans for opencast mines in Lusatia, excluding the Mühlrose case, are set to provide 80 million more tons coal than can be used by 2038.