In Dire Straits: Saving the Oder River for People, Not for Coal

Updates to the Oder River Basin Management Plan could turn the tide against looming chemical and ecological crisis – or sell future hopes of citizens down the river.

The Oder River is much like many rivers in Europe, with its waters stretching across several countries: its source rises in the Czech Republic, where it then flows through Poland and runs alongside the German-Polish border.

The Oder River is also much like many European rivers in a more unfortunate regard: it faces chemical and ecological crisis.

When set against the standards of the European Union’s Water Framework Directive (WFD, the main tool setting out to protect European waterways from pollution and to ensure clean and healthy water), the water status of the Oder River falls short of anything that could be described as good. Less than 40% of the river’s surface water bodies are in good chemical status, while less than 20% are in good ecological status.

Fire in the sky, coal on the water

There is one prime suspect lurking behind the Oder River’s pitiable state: lignite coal mining and combustion. While the impacts of coal on the climate receives much due attention, the lesser-known realm of water is where the fossil fuel also rears its ugly head.

Coal affects water quality through the dramatic amounts of water it consumes and depletes, displacing ground and surface water levels at the expense of local people. Meanwhile, mines pollute water bodies through the leaching of heavy metals, sulphates and radionuclides. Mercury is a particularly dangerous neurotoxin that represents one of the main significant pressures affecting the Oder River.

An opportunity for change comes in the third round of updates of what are known as River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs). These plans come under the WFD and are updated via the identification of significant water management issues, followed by a series of public consultations and drafts before the final publication.

While the International Commission for the Protection of the Oder River against Pollution (ICPO) has acknowledged calls from citizens to recognise the dangers of coal mining in the upcoming update of the Oder RBMP, it still continues to allow for blanket exemptions for Polish lignite coal mines.

Up against the flow

In a joint letter with other NGOs, the EEB addressed the ICPO with further demands for a more ambitious river basin management plan. This included the exclusion of all plans for new lignite mines and of extensions to existing ones, as well as the implementation of the polluter pays principle to ensure mines pay for their damaging water drainage.

Furthermore, the letter highlights that ending coal mining will be the most effective way to halt pollution at its source into the Oder River.

Finally, it calls for an end to the abuse of exemptions, stating that the RBMP must not prioritise coal mines over water protection. Currently, 72% of surface water bodies and 30% of groundwater bodies in the Oder River basin are exempted from the WFD objectives due to lignite mine operations.

The duration of the third RBMP, which finishes in 2027, can be considered as a last chance for achieving a good status for the Oder River. The unfortunate reality however of minimum measures and maximum exemptions makes such a prospect unlikely, with the ICPO prioritising saving the polluting coal industry, contrary to the objectives of the WFD and raising doubts as to the purpose of RBMPs in the first place.

Jai Krishna, Senior Policy Officer for Industrial Production at the EEB, told META:

“The Oder River is a hapless example of how damaging coal mining can be to waterways. Set against a backdrop of ever-worsening crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, lignite coal mining cannot be left to wreak havoc on European waters as well.”

Water for people, not for coal

Civil society organisations in Poland are also rallying to protect their waters. A petition delivered to the ICPO by the Akcja Demokracja in cooperation with Fundacja “Rozwój TAK – Odkrywki NIE” (“Development YES – Open-pit mines NO”) has racked up almost 3000 signatures so far, calling for amendments to the Polish Water Law to bring it in line with the Water Framework Directive and the European Climate Law.

The International Oder River Basin Management Plan cannot be considered ambitious or even compliant with the Water Framework Directive, according to Katarzyna Czupryniak, Water Campaign Coordinator for Fundacja “Rozwój TAK – Odkrywki NIE”.

Speaking to META, Czupryniak said:

“Lignite and hard coal mines are still granted derogations from WFD goals, while measures that could limit the impacts of mining drainage are practically non-existent. Mines are able to continue to drain water unhindered and without paying, disregarding the EU’s own polluter pays and water services cost recovery principles.”

Piotr Antoniewicz, Deputy Campaign Manager at Akcja Demokracja, echoed the sentiment that the draft Oder RBMP presented for consultation is not fit for the job, saying:

“It ignores the most important factors, those related to coal mining and burning, which drastically worsen access to water resources, harm aquatic ecosystems and limit the possibilities of counteracting or minimising the effects of droughts.”

The petition continues, with its next step to be submitted to the Polish National Water Management Authority “Wody Polskie” and the Ministry of Infrastructure in Warsaw on the 14th of October. You can support it by signing here.