Unhappy anniversary: One year of illegal mining in Turów

At the crossroad of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic, the controversial Turów mine has operated illegally for an entire year. To mark this unhappy anniversary, campaigners delivered a Turów-themed cake to the European Commission to highlight its inaction, Roberta Arbinolo reports.

The cake delivery was staged by the European Environmental Bureau and German and Czech members of the European Parliament Anna Cavazzini and Mikuláš Peksa, who reminded the European Commission of its responsibility to enforce EU laws and put an end to illegal coal operations in Turów.

Situated in a strip of Polish land squeezed between the German and Czech borders, the Turów mine is an environmental catastrophe in the making. Its massive water consumption, about 40 litres per second, is draining the groundwaters of the whole region, depleting water supplies and causing land subsidence across the borders, in breach of EU laws. As a result, entire villages in the Czech region of Liberec are losing access to water, while the German city of Zittau is caving in.

Thirsty for justice

Determined to defend their right to water and safe houses, local communities and authorities in the Czech Republic and Germany have filed complaints with the European Commission, which acknowledged the violation of EU laws but has so far failed to act.

Back in February, with an unprecedented move, the Czech government took Poland to the European Court of Justice over the illegal operations in Turów. This is the first such legal case for the Czech Republic, and the first in the EU’s history where one member state sues another for environmental reasons. The Court’s verdict is now expected at any time.

Also on the occasion of the first anniversary, 25 NGOs wrote to the European Commission urging the EU executive to intervene, hold Polish authorities accountable, and initiate an infringement procedure against Poland.

Kristína Šabová, a lawyer at EEB member organisation Frank Bold, told META: “The European Commission should have started infringement proceedings more than a year ago, but its failure has left Czech people suffering a further eight-metre drop in their groundwater levels. It shouldn’t require a state-on-state lawsuit to uphold EU laws. EU citizens need to have confidence in the system, which ensures their equal rights and can prevent conflicts between member states.”

Adding insult to injury

The dispute over the legality of Turów’s operations relates to the Polish government’s decisions to grant state-owned coal company PGE a licence extension to mine until 2026 without first having carried out a public consultation or an environmental impact assessment, as required by EU legislation.

To make matters worse, on 28 April 2021, Poland approved a 23-year extension to the licence, allowing PGE to keep operating until 2044, despite Czech, German and Polish stakeholders raising serious concerns about the environmental impact assessment for this second extension.

At the same time, PGE has embarked on a widespread counter-campaign in Brussels and Prague, blaming the communities and authorities who are challenging the mine for wanting to take away livelihoods from local coal workers and their children.

Europe Beyond Coal’s campaigner Zala Primc told META: “While state-owned coal company PGE runs a misinformation campaign about Turów in Brussels, the Polish government is giving its illegal mining cover at home. The European Commission needs to stop sitting idly by and enforce EU law to protect citizens and EU climate action plans.”

Casting shadows over a just transition

If Czech and German communities across the border are currently paying the price of PGE’s transnational water grab, the Polish government’s clinging to Turow’s lignite risks exacting a high cost for local coal communities too.

Poland is set to receive the lion’s share of the EU’s €17.5-billion Just Transition Fund, which aims to support workers and regions on the path towards clean energy. In the Polish region of Bogatynia region, where the Turów mine is located, regional authorities are openly counting on receiving Just Transition money. However, PGE’s plan to extend Turów’s operations could cause the region to miss out on the funding.

According to EU regulation, the Fund will only support regions that have set out key transition steps away from fossil fuel and carbon-based industries in their territorial just transition plans. This is not currently the case for Bogatynia, as a European Commission spokesperson recently reiterated at a press briefing.

The Just Transition Fund Regulation also says that member states that do not commit to the climate-neutrality target, such as Poland, will only have access to 50% of their allocation. This means that the Polish government risks losing access to almost €2 billions.

“The European Commission’s inaction on the Turów case is not only letting PGE deprive Czech, and German citizens of their basic rights, such as access to water and a safe home, but also compromising Polish coal communities’ access to vital transition funds. It’s time for the Commission to hold Poland accountable,” said EEB coal campaign coordinator Riccardo Nigro.

The Polish government needs to read the room, stop clinging to a redundant, illegal mine, and help protect and transition all communities around Turow to a fairer and cleaner future.”