Images by Julian Nyča/2016 CC-BY-SA-3.0

Save our homes from caving in, town threatened by coal mine urges the EU

At the frontline with the controversial Turów mine, residents of the German city of Zittau risk losing the ground under their feet. They are asking the European Commission to intervene, reports Roberta Arbinolo.

A new study found the open-cast lignite mine in Turów, Poland, is polluting the Lusatian Neisse River and causing subsidence that could damage houses across the German border in and around Zittau. Data show that the mine has already caused groundwater in the region to lower by 100 metres, with a further fall of 20 metres expected. Soil subsidence, which has dropped one metre already, is also expected to drop a further 20cm.

The study also warns that high concentrations of sulphate have been detected in the Lusatian Neisse River, and that near-surface groundwater in the region should be presumed polluted by acid mine waters.

The threat has prompted the city’s Lord Mayor to join representatives of the Czech region of Liberec, who have been denouncing water shortages at the Czech border with Turów, in calling on German and EU authorities to enforce water law and protect people’s rights. 

“I urge the technical authorities of the Free State of Saxony to re-examine the risks and, if necessary, to take legal action against the project, following the example of the Czech side,” said Thomas Zenker, Lord Mayor of Zittau.

The mine, which is owned by Polish state-owned utility PGE, and pushes up hard against Poland’s borders with Germany and the Czech Republic, has operated illegally since May 2020, when PGE obtained a six-year licence extension from the Polish government despite failing to carry out a public consultation or a proper environmental impact assessment.

PGE aims to expand it and re-licence its operation until 2044, but this plan is incompatible with EU laws, namely the Water Framework Directive, the Environmental Liability Directive, the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, and the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive.

Earlier this month, the Czech government filed an official complaint to the European Commission to stop the Turow project, citing the mine’s consumption of 30 litres of water per second as the cause of major water shortages in the region. This a pre-step for the Czech Republic to bring the case in front of the European Court of Justice for infringement of obligations under EU treaties.

“It’s bad enough that in 2020, people have to fight to prevent coal companies from denying them access to drinking water and damaging their property,” said Zala Primc, a campaigner with the international alliance Europe Beyond Coal. “This coal mine is in blatant violation of EU laws and will inevitably have to be abandoned as coal’s economics continue to plunge. The European Commission needs to protect people’s rights.”

Back in August, activists from Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic kayaked down the river and held a cross-border human chain under the banner “Thirsty for Justice”, to protest the failure of their governments and EU institutions to uphold laws protecting them and their water from the mining and burning of coal.

Civil society groups also sent a joint statement calling on the European Commission to intervene and to start an infringement procedure against Poland. The statement was co-signed by over 150 policymakers, including Members of the European Parliament, national politicians and local authorities.

“People in three countries are paying the price for PGE’s greed,” said Riccardo Nigro, campaign coordinator on coal combustion and mines at the European Environmental Bureau. “If the Commission is serious about the European Green Deal, climate action, and the rule of law, they must start an infringement procedure against the Polish government immediately, and hold PGE accountable for its illegal water grab. This is the very least we can expect from them.”