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Big coal pollutes public water and skips the bill

While you and I pay for the water we use every day, companies in the coal sector get away with paying risible prices, or nothing at all, while showing their gratitude with pollution and over-abstraction, writes Asger Mindegaard.

The coal industry in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic (the most coal-heavy EU countries) is getting a free-ride for using public water resources while polluting precious fresh water reserves with mercury, sulphates and other dangerous substances, shows a new report released by the European Environmental Bureau.

While normal people pay between €2.75 and €5.5 for one m³ of drinking water in the three countries, coal companies consume, pollute and displace millions m³ of groundwater for free or at drastically reduced prices. In the case of North Rhine-Westphalia, the only German region where the coal industry pays for water, people pay 100 times more than coal companies for the water they use. The situation is an almost absurd inversion of the ‘polluters pay’ principle, on which EU environmental laws are based.

Coal power plants use huge quantities of water (photo credits James Phelps JR)

Polluters don’t pay  

But the coal industry is not only hitching a free ride in terms of its consumption of increasingly scarce fresh water – it also poses a major threat to that very resource. Coal is one of the sources of energy with the heaviest ‘water footprint’. In addition, the industry disrupts the natural water cycle by discharging water away from its source and uses it as cooling water for the coal plants the mines are feeding. Further, coal operations emit large quantities of sulphates and mercury, which contaminate rivers and aquifers, and threaten people’s health and the environment – even long after a mine or power plant is closed.

Sara Johansson, EEB Policy Officer for Industrial Production expresses her outrage: “This is a scandal. While governments subsidise a thirsty and toxic industry, people and nature are paying a double price. The millions of euros currently gifted to polluters every year should be used to curb water pollution and restore our rivers, lakes and groundwater.”  

The situation does not become less scandalous when we consider that since 2010, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires EU countries to recover the cost from all water users based on volume used and environmental damages caused. Yet governments are failing to implement the cost recovery principle that would hold polluters accountable. To add to the severity of the situation, data on the coal industry’s water consumption in the three countries are often not publicly available, meaning that findings are likely to understate the problem.

The coal industry is a major source of water pollution and over-consumption (photo credits: Timothy Meinberg)

“There is an urgent need for more transparency on the amount of ground and surface water abstracted,” says Michael Bender, Water Expert at EEB member Grüne Liga. “Water management authorities know the extent of the coal industry’s water grab, yet they are not doing their homework to compile data and provide a full picture.” 

Publicly funded calamity

The coal industry’s toxic thirst has dire impacts on countless communities all over Europe while the breaches in the EU laws go largely unpunished.

An example is the open-cast coal mine in Turów in western Poland, which has caused the groundwater level in the region to fall by more than 100 metres. Residential houses in the German town of Zittau, just across the border from the mine, risk damage or even collapse due to the water displacement, and sulphate pollution from the mine is rampant in both surface water and the nearby Lusatian Neisse River. In nearby villages in the neighbouring Czech region of Liberec, the same mine is causing water shortages. 

The mine has been run illegally by Polish state-owned PGE since May 2020 and the situation is now so grim that the Czech government has initiated a legal case against the Polish government in the European Court of Justice for a “blatant violation” of the EU treaties.

The solution to this crisis is simple, but politically challenging, according to Bender: “Existing instruments for internalising environmental and resource costs, such as water abstraction taxes, should be applied throughout Europe and significantly extended in their scope by removing exemptions.”

The Turow mine in Poland (photo credits: peteri)

Transparency is key

The EEB offers several recommendations to EU and national decision makers. One key aspect is to guarantee that water abstraction and discharge data is recorded as required in the WFD, something that it is uncertain whether, for example, Germany and Poland do. This data should be fully available to the public in an accessible format which is not the case in any of the three countries, compromising transparency and accountability. 

Data about water abstractions and discharges should be logged together with exemptions for industrial facilities affecting the quality and quantity of water bodies, derogations provided under the Industrial Emissions Directive and reports on the status of environmental quality standards in the water bodies affected by industrial facilities. Without a complete view of the pollution an industrial facility causes to our lakes, rivers, seas and air, it is impossible to understand the impacts on our environment. The ongoing review of the EU Pollutant Release and Transfer Register is a crucial window of opportunity to create this comprehensive overview from all EU countries. 

A clear recommendation is to implement adequate economic instruments for water services and a full enforcement of the basic ‘polluters pay’ principle.

“As the third cycle of river basin management plans under the Water Framework Directive are being prepared, it’s the right time to end indirect subsidies to the coal sector,” concludes Jai Krishna, Senior Policy Officer for Industrial Production at the EEB. “The EU and the national governments must use this chance to bring the water bodies affected by coal to good status and make sure that it is not free to deplete our common resources.”