Coal mine dispute pits Poland against neighbors
Written by Andrew Higgins
The huge hole in the ground, dug deeper and deeper by generations of Polish gang miners feeding their country’s voracious appetite for coal, has devoured a dozen villages and nibbled at land and homes in a spa town 19th century on its edge.
The hole has grown so large, sucking water for miles around, that wells above the border in the Czech Republic are drying up, locals say.
Michael Martin, a German train conductor who lives in a Czech village across the border from the Polish mine, said the well in his garden, previously his main water source, is now almost dry and let him direct a pipe to a deeper communal well. more than 100 meters.
“They say they want to be good neighbors,” he said of miners in the nearby Polish town of Bogatynia in southwestern Poland, “but why do they keep digging for the coal and take my water? “
Coal, with which Poland produces around 70% of its electricity, more than any other European country, has a stubborn grip in this part of the world: it provides energy, jobs and voices to those who defend it, like the ruling conservative party, Droit et justice. And, in a deeply uncertain country whose striking miners helped set in motion forces that toppled the Soviet empire, coal also provides a rare sense of security, sparing it a heavy reliance on Russian natural gas. .
Poland is so dependent on coal that, just as the International Energy Agency called this month for a halt to the approval of new coal-fired power plants, a coal-fired power plant alongside the gigantic Bogatynia mine has opened a new billion dollar expansion. .
The plant uses lignite coal, which emits significantly more carbon dioxide than other varieties, from the adjacent open pit mine known as Turow. The mine was due to close this year but, to howls of protest from environmentalists, the government extended its license in March until 2044.
Europe’s highest court demanded earlier this month that operations at the Turow mine stop until judges can rule on a Czech lawsuit filed in February against Poland for violating environmental rules European Union, a process that could take years.
The Czech action has sparked a nasty, nationalist-infused heckling in a European bloc that usually manages to quell open conflicts between member states.
He also highlighted Poland’s enduring commitment to coal.
Krzysztof Wozniak, a builder who has watched the lignite mine move steadily towards his home in Opolno-Zdroj, a ruined former spa town next to Bogatynia, said coal mining is so tied to the region’s past and, most locals believe, in its future, “you very quickly become a public enemy around here if you speak against the mine.”
The coal mine and the adjacent power station employ no more than a few thousand people, he added, but have “become a cult” few dare to dispute.
The Czech Republic’s legal challenge sparked spasms of conspiratorial fury. The Poles accuse the Czechs of trying to increase sales of their own coal while the Germans are accused of exploiting carbon emission targets to boost sales of their green technology. Czechs along the border say Poland is strangling them by draining their water.
Czech and Polish officials, keen to quell the fury, are now squabbling over a possible deal that would keep the mine open, at least for a while, and force Poland to fund projects to alleviate water shortages in the Czech Republic.
But that won’t solve a bigger problem. A sudden withdrawal from coal, many fears in Poland, will push the country into the position of Germany, which is heavily dependent on natural gas imports from Russia.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said this month that the government would not allow the Bogatynia mine to close because “it could endanger Poland’s energy security”.
Of more concern, however, are the domestic political risks of moving away quickly from coal.
On a visit to Bogatynia ahead of Poland’s election to the presidency last year, outgoing President Andrzej Duda said that the coal miners had done Poland a “great service” and that they were would not be abandoned. Voters in the city backed him in the election, helping him to victory.
Andrzej Grzegorowski, a union leader at the power plant next to the Turow mine, said he voted for Duda because “he raised high hopes for the future of coal”. However, whether he votes for Duda’s ruling party for law and justice again will depend on whether he keeps the mine open, he added.
Fearful of opposing the miners, a shrinking but well-organized and noisy constituency, Polish politicians have long struggled to balance the demands for green energy emanating from Brussels with the demands for employment from voters.
“Everyone in my family has always been connected to the mine here,” said Bogumił Tyszkiewicz, a union leader at the Turow mine. His two brothers, two brothers-in-law and his sister all have jobs at Polish Energy Group, or PGE, a state-owned company that operates the mine and the adjacent power plant. Only her son, who has found work in a green energy company in another city, does not depend on the mine for a living.
Solidarity, the union that spearheaded the protests against communism and is now aligned with law and justice, campaigned vigorously to keep the Turow mine open. Closing it, said Marek Dolkowski, a local Solidarity activist, “would mean the death of this whole region.”
Trying to pressure the Polish authorities to keep their mine open and the Czech government to drop its lawsuit, hundreds of Turow miners have gathered this year at a highway interchange outside Bogatynia , crippling traffic in a narrow isthmus of Polish territory between the Czech Republic. and Germany. They held up a large sign: “Hands off Turow mine!”
PGE has launched its own campaign to rally sympathy and support for coal mining, while promising to place renewable energy at the center of its future endeavors.
The company recently put up posters in Prague and Brussels featuring a sad-looking young girl next to the message: “Why do you want to take away my family’s livelihood?” (It turned out that the girl had no connection to Bogatynia or coal mining: her photo had been taken from an archive of images.)
PGE, whose Belchatow power plant in central Poland is the European Union’s leading greenhouse emitter, according to environmental groups, has refused interview requests in Bogatynia.
Brussels hopes to cut carbon emissions in the European Union by 55% by 2030, but environmentalists say a Polish energy policy announced in February means it will fall far short of the mark. While promising to phase out coal, Poland expects fuel’s share of electricity generation to still exceed 50% by 2030, instead of the 2% demanded by Brussels.
Widespread fear of what a coal-free future would mean for Bogatynia stems in large part from the grim experience of other Polish cities that have suddenly stopped mining.
When the coal mines in Walbrzych, a northern town, closed in the 1990s, unemployment and crime soared, prompting unemployed miners to dig their own mines so they could feed their families.
Janusz Kurc, a former coal miner from Walbrzych, said he understood why the miners in Bogatynia did not want their mine to close, but “they are talking nonsense”. He added: “Sure, it’s sad when the mines close, but the coal is finished.”
The EU is providing nearly $ 20 billion in funds to help countries move away from fossil fuels. But regions that operate coal mines are not eligible.
The mayor of Bogatynia, Wojciech Dobrolowicz, said he would like to get European money and go beyond coal, but his first duty was to keep the jobs that already exist. More than half of Bogatynia’s jobs are linked to the mine, he said, and closing it now “would be a social and economic disaster.”
Without the taxes paid by the mine and its workers, he said, the city would lose at least a third of its income and risk having to close schools and even hospitals.
Facing an election next month as a candidate for Poland’s ruling party, the mayor pointed out his office window on a large billboard which he said summed up his position: “We will defend Turow,” reads -we.