Sinking town demands the EU to save it from destructive coal mining

Vise tightens around the Turów coal mine as German authorities join the Czech Republic in calling for justice, Roberta Arbinolo reports.

The German town of Zittau, members of the Saxon State Parliament and the District of Görlitz have filed an official complaint to the European Commission about the damage caused to the whole region by the controversial Polish mine.

Located a few kilometres away from the border and the Turów open pit, Zittau is caving in as the massive pumping of groundwater operated by the mine causes the land it sits on to fall on itself.

The mine, operated by the Polish state-owned energy group PGE, withdraws 40 litres of water per second, with devastating impacts on water resources across the German and Czech borders.

Back in October, a study showed that the mine had already caused groundwater in the region to subside by 100 metres, with a further fall of 20 metres expected. Soil subsidence has already dropped by one metre, and is also expected to drop a further 20cm.

The study also revealed high concentrations of sulphate pollution in the Lusatian Neisse River, and warned that near-surface groundwater in the region should be presumed contaminated by acid mine waters.

While residents are concerned by structural damages and loss of value to their houses, regional authorities also fear that the further lowering of the groundwater level could jeopardise agriculture in the region in the coming decades.

Against EU laws and ambitions

Yet Turów’s water grab and contamination continue, in breach of EU laws. The mine 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.

The energy giant now aims to expand it and re-licence its operation until 2044 – a plan which 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.

The expansion of the mine is also at odds with Europe’s zero pollution and climate ambitions. The project would allow PGE to mine an estimated 10 million tons of lignite per year, which would result in the emission of about 10.3 million metric tons CO2 per year.

While governments across the EU commit to climate neutrality, Poland is supporting a plan 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 Turów plant is already among the 16 worst CO2 emitters in Europe, according to a report by the international campaign Europe Beyond Coal.

PGE’s coal-fired power plants are also among Europe’s most ‘toxic ten’. Europe Beyond Coal estimates that air pollution from Turów came at the price of € 3.4 billion in health cost and 1180 premature deaths in 2016.

Member of the European Parliament Anna Cavazzini told META:

“It is important that the people of Saxony turn directly to the EU with this complaint. Especially in border regions, EU law serves to protect citizens. Emissions, water and air pollution – all this does not stop at the border.”

A turning point

This is not the first time the Turów case is brought to the attention of European institutions. Last March, regional authorities and impacted communities from the Czech region of Liberec, who are facing severe water shortages caused by the mine’s operations across the border, handed the European Parliament a petition signed by more than 13,000 Europeans against the expansion project.

At the end of August, citizens, campaigners and politicians from Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland gathered at the tripoint border to protest the mine’s impacts, and released a joint statement signed by national and European policy makers, local authorities and civil society groups, calling on the European Commission to start an infringement procedure against Poland.

Back in October, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs filed an official complaint against Poland with the European Commission. The Commission replied by acknowledging the infringement of EU laws on environmental impact assessment, access to information and access to justice, thus setting the ground for the Czech government to take the case in front of the European Court of Justice.

The European Environmental Bureau is investigating on why the breach of the Water Framework Directive has not been recognised.

“We have no more time to lose”, commented MEP Cavazzini. “After the Commission confirmed violations against EU law, we want to finally see consequences, and the Commission must initiate the infringement procedure against Poland”.

On the Czech side, the Ministries of the Environment and Foreign Affairs are planning the next steps. The Czech minister of Foreign Affairs Petříček declared that the government will decide on filing the lawsuit in the coming weeks, and promised to make use of all available options to protect Czech citizens and the environment.

The Polish government acknowledged the Commission’s findings, claimed that concerns are being addressed in new draft legislation, and declared its readiness to clarify the issue with the Czech counterparts.

Riccardo Nigro, Campaign Coordinator on Coal Combustion and Mines at the EEB, told META:

“After months of campaigning for environmental justice in Turow, we are at a turning point. EU institutions and Poland can no longer turn a blind eye on PGE’s breaches. It’s time to put people’s right to water and a safe home before coal’s greed, and ensure a just transition beyond coal for the whole region”.