‘It’s hard, we’re neighbours’: the coalmine polluting friendships on Poland’s borders

When the Czech government announced it was taking Poland to Europe’s highest court it came as a surprise to Warsaw. After all, EU countries rarely sue one another. Prague’s demand is a politically explosive one. Not only is it challenging the extension of mining activity at Turów, a vast lignite mine that has been in operation for nearly 100 years, it also wants the European court of justice to order its immediate closure.

Sandwiched between Germany and the Czech Republic in the Silesia region of south-west Poland, the open-pit mine is depleting the groundwater supplies of its neighbours and violates EU environmental law, the Czech government alleges. On the Czech and German sides of the border, communities blame Turów for draining their water and causing dangerous levels of air and noise pollution.

The Polish government vigorously disputes the environmental claims. Government officials in Warsaw and the state-owned utility company PGE, which owns Turów, also maintain they have been in regular consultation with Prague and that there was no reason to escalate the dispute.

But some on the Polish side concede that the souring of the relationship has as much to do with a communications breakdown as with the mine.

“We got what we asked for. It’s a little bit our fault,” said Magdalena Kościańska, a TV journalist in the Polish city of Bogatynia, close to the mine. For the past 16 years Kościańska has been covering local news in her community, and has never before seen such levels of abuse directed towards Czechs by fellow residents of Bogatynia, both online and offline. A Hands off Turów Facebook page has appeared where news of the lawsuit triggered an outpouring of insults about Czech nationals. “It’s very hard and sad. We are neighbours, we like each other, we have friends among the Czechs and Germans,” she said.

In addition to the lawsuit, the Czech government has applied to the European court for an injunction that would bring an immediate halt to mining in Turów. For citizens of Bogatynia, overnight closurewould spell disaster.

“The consequences would be dramatic. We cannot even imagine that”, the acting mayor of Bogatynia, Wojciech Dobrołowicz, said. Closing the mine would leave thousands of people in the region out of jobs and halve Bogatynia’s budget.

For more than a century, the region has been economically reliant on the coalmine even if the size of the workforce at the complex, which includes a coal-fired electricity plant, has fallen in recent years to about 3,600 employees. The concession for the mine expires in 2026, but its operator has filed for a new concession to run for as long as Turów’s coal deposit lasts, which is forecast to be 2044.

“Even the prospect of 2044 is scary for us. It doesn’t even give us 50 years, which would be enough to conduct a transition that would be full, safe and without negative consequences for the region,” Dobrołowicz said.

Economic forces mean the writing is on the wall for Turów much sooner, some analysts believe. “The whole complex will no longer be viable in less than 10 years,” said Robert Tomaszewski, an energy analyst at Polityka Insight in Warsaw.

The EU’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and to carbon-neutrality by 2050 makes it imperative to ditch coal for cleaner alternatives.

In the short term coal also faces growing pressure from skyrocketing prices on the European carbon emissions trading market, which in recent weeks exceeded €40 per tonne of CO2.

The EU forces big polluters to compensate for their emissions by buying permits under the scheme. In 2019, lignite burned at Turów’s electricity plant pumped 5.5m tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, making it the fifth largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Poland.

EU state aid rules, meanwhile, limit Warsaw’s scope to provide support to struggling coal plants, so the decline of the plant seems inevitable.

But this reality has not hit home in Bogatynia. “I don’t know a single person who suggests closing the complex in 10 years,” said Kościańska, adding that it was difficult for her to imagine the mine closing sooner than in 15 years’ time.

The story of Turów is hardly unique. Coal still generates most of Poland’s energy and many of its towns and regions rely on coal-heavy industries that EU climate policy will make obsolete. But it illustrates a wider political dilemma.

The transition away from coal is accepted by Polish society as a whole – 78% of Poles agree that the climate crisis requires urgent action. Many communities, however, are fearful for their future prospects without coal. And some politicians are only too happy to exploit those fears.

The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, reluctantly signed up to higher emissions reduction goals at a European council meeting in December 2020, but his junior coalition partner – Solidarity Poland (SP) – dismissed the new targets and publicly accused Morawiecki of “defeatism”.

Kowalski lost his ministerial post in February, but that did not end the tensions in government. According to Tomaszewski, the rift will only grow bigger, as the government faces a string of unpopular decisions, from closing mines to announcing higher energy prices due to rising emissions costs. “The green transition is a perfect issue to be weaponised by populists,” he said.

The SP controls only 19 seats in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament, but these MPs punch far above their weight, knowing that their exit from the coalition would deprive Morawiecki’s government of its majority. That in turn would force the PM’s Law and Justice party to seek allies among opposition MPs or face early elections.

At the same time, the government cannot just give in to the SP’s demands and abandon its green commitments altogether. Poland is set to receive more than €139bn from the EU over the next seven years in exchange for reducing emissions. CO2 prices will continue to rise, pushing coal out of the market regardless of decisions made in Warsaw.

The pressure from Poland’s neighbours over Turów, meanwhile, is growing. The German town of Zittau, which borders the mine region, launched its own complaint with the European commission in January. A study commissioned by the German branch of Greenpeace said continued operation of the mine threatened groundwater depletion, air and water pollution and subsidence.

The German Green MEP Anna Cavazzini has called on the government in Berlin to support the Czech lawsuit on the basis that the impact on the lives of communities in Saxony is “catastrophic”.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Morawiecki’s government is likely to put decisions on Poland’s energy transition on the backburner where possible. This approach leaves people in places such as Turów even more vulnerable. When the time to ditch coal for good eventually comes, locals will not be ready, campaigners say. For anti-green parties such as the SP, that may be the time to shine.