In 2021, the Turów lignite mine and the Czech village of Uhelna made headlines of newspapers and news portals across Europe. While an agreement has been reached in the ensuing Polish-Czech dispute, the future of Turow and the entire Zgorzelec region, as well as of Uhelna is still full of questions marks.
This is the introductory part of multi-part report prepared by our partners from Nasze Argumenty quarterly and portal (Poland) and !Argument news site (Czechia), with support of Journalism Fund. Further chapters will be published successively.
In 2021, the Turów lignite mine and the Czech village of Uhelna made headlines of newspapers and news portals across Europe. For the first time in history, one EU member state sued another before the EU Court of justice on environmental and ecological grounds. The Czech Republic’s position was that the operation of a Polish opencast mine was taking water away from border residents. Poland disagreed. When the CJEU ordered an immediate temporary stop of the mining, the government in Warsaw refused to comply. The mine continued to operate, and the government preferred to pay multi-million dollar fines for this, claiming that it could not deprive the people of the border region of their only major employer. Indeed, the local economy of the Zgorzelec region is based almost entirely on the Turów mine and the power station of the same name it supplies.
In February 2022, Poland and Czechia reached an agreement. More than a year after its conclusion, the governments in Warsaw and Prague seem genuinely satisfied with it. – ‘Of the 90 points of the Turów mine agreement, 20 have already been fulfilled,’ said Czech Environment Minister Anna Hubáčková in June 2022. Her Polish counterpart Anna Moskwa repeatedly stressed that the subsequent tasks set out in the agreement are being implemented as planned, and even faster.
We travelled to the Czech border region of Liberec and to the Polish town of Bogatynia, a town that grew next to the mine. In order to understand the history of the dispute and the importance of the Turów mine for the region, we reached out to archive material. We wanted to see how the high-profile conflict affected the two neighbouring communities, to see the practical effects of the agreement, and to reflect on the future.
A street in Bogatynia, the town that grew next to Turów mine. Most of the local population is somehow related to the mine and the electric station. Even if they do not work there, or for any cooperating company, they have their houses heated by the power plant. Photo by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.
After all, the agreement provides for Polish-Czech cooperation both on environmental issues and on a fair transformation of the interconnected border regions. The mine was not closed in 2021, but the supply of coal will be over in less than thirty years anyway. The question of the future of the region, which so far lives thanks to the mine and the power plant, is about to become acute again. At the same time, there are signs from Czech environmentalists that the agreement with Poland has not solved the problem: the water level is still falling.
In the course of working on this report, the Turów issue took on further dimensions. It recurred in the Polish election campaign, in administrative court proceedings, and the German town of Zittau filed its own complaint about the mine. Even now, as we present the results of our work, we are aware that much is yet to happen around Turów. We can only wish the people of the Polish district of Zgorzelec and the Czech Liberec region that the final outcome of these transformations – which will inevitably come – will be a happy one.
The just and green transformation of industrial regions, in a spirit of respect for working people and care for the environment, is currently one of the greatest challenges both for Turów and for the whole of Europe.
The Turów opencast mine and the power plant. Photo by Petr Vodička, CC BY-SA 4.0.
The issue of green transformation also raises a number of questions, which we have tried to answer in our work – as far as possible. The notion of a just transition raises all the more a number of doubts in Czech and Polish society. Both countries still live in the shadow of the memory of another transition – passage from ‘actually existing socialism’ to the market economy in the 1990s, which was by no means fair. The Turow case is proof that those traumas and bad experiences influence the present and the way many perceive the current changes.
It is not easy to believe in the possibility of a just transition when one remembers the previous, also “inevitable” transition, which was by no means just and sustainable.
The legacy of the previous transformation is not only mental. It cannot be ignored that the economic transformation of the 1990s strongly influences the scope of tools and options available to our countries when embarking on the green transition. Neither Poland nor the Czech Republic would have their current position in the European and global economy, particularly in the field of energy, if we did not have the relative advantage of access to cheap and not very environmentally friendly energy, as well as cheap labour.
Our report is the result of joint work by Polish and Czech authors. The cross-border nature of the Turów story made special demands on us. It forced us to come out of our national ‘shells’ and try to see Turow not just from a “Czech” or “Polish” point of view, but in a much larger and more colourful mosaic of contexts. We not only shared tasks, but also planned together where else to go and what questions to ask, kept each other informed about the progress of the work, informed each other about new discoveries and the conclusions we came up with. We discussed, not just wrote a protocol of divergence. We are convinced that such dialogue and cooperation – for the benefit of the people on both sides of the border – is also possible on a wider scale.
We all want to live in good conditions, in a clean environment, with stable and well-paid jobs. Will we be able to fight together for this?
Prime Ministers of Poland and Czechia – Mateusz Morawiecki and Petr Fiala – sign the agreement on Turów mine.
Before the Turów lignite mine became the talk of the whole of Europe, a large proportion of Poles – I guess – would not have been able to show it on a map. The Turoszów region, nicknamed ‘Turoszów Sack’, Bogatynia, the ‘Trójstyk’, or a place where borders of three countries meet, are not only the geographical outskirts of Poland, but also the margins of consciousness. In the popular imagination, coal is associated with Upper Silesia. We learned about lignite at school, but how many of us realised that, at the confluence of the Polish, Czech and German borders, there is a region whose prosperity is almost entirely dependent on it?
Between 2022 and 2023, the Turów lignite mine and the power plant of the same name are on the lips of Poland’s most important politicians. For some, they are a symbol of the country’s energy sovereignty, proof that Poland can, based on its own resources, independently shape its economic policy, and that, under the conservative right, it has become an assertive state that effectively defends its raison d’etre. Others, rather those voting for the liberal opposition, see Turów as a symbol of the devastation of the environment and senseless (and costly) conflicting with both the European Union and its neighbours.
In fact once we know a Pole’s opinion on the Turów issue, we will know with a high degree of probability what his/her opinion is also on other issues dividing Polish public opinion and even for whom he/she votes.
The conflict over Turów was referred to in the media as a Polish-Czech conflict. Yes, it was the Czech Republic that filed a complaint against Poland at the Court of Justice of the European Union, accusing the mine of destroying the environment, leading to the disappearance of groundwater, noise and dust in the border areas. But putting the matter in national terms is misleading: neither, as already pointed out above, are Poles or Czechs unanimous on the issue of mines and coal. Using national etiquettes become all the more meaningless since the German town of Zittau filed a separate lawsuit over the opencast in spring 2023.
Rather, the Turow case is a tangle of social and economic issues: how to reconcile an industrial activity that works for real social needs with the interests of the environment, whose protection in a good state is also in the interest of us all? Can a region, which for decades has been linked to a single large plant, which has been changing because of it and because of it has gained new inhabitants, successfully undergo another fundamental transformation? How much needs to be done to ensure that the costs of this transformation do not fall on ordinary people?
Is it possible to talk about Turow, planning concrete changes with the interests of the residents in mind, rather than just flinging slogans about defending national sovereignty?
Energy experts, as well as representatives of the Polish National Energy Group (PGE), a state energy company running the mine, say: the Turów mine and power station are responsible for 5-7 per cent of Poland’s energy production, they supply electricity to 3.3 million consumers, and provide heat for Bogatynia’s residents. In the Zgorzelec district, where they operate, it is difficult to imagine a cultural or sporting event without the support of the state-owned PGE. They are the largest employers in the region and the biggest tax payers.
PGE representatives, trade unions and some local government officials – some, because here the issue is no longer obvious – add: they should be allowed to operate until coal is exhausted, and then care should be taken to ensure a fair transformation of the region, to provide new jobs, and to prevent social decline.
The environmental activists who went to court over the mining concession for Turów say: postponing the closure of the mine is forcing the inhabitants to live in a limbo. If the Polish government had not insisted on coal, it would have obtained funds for a fair transition from the European Union. It is pushing a solution that has no future, yet there are other options, green energy could also generate both energy and jobs.
Representatives, specialists in renewable energy, say: abandoning coal mining does not close Turow’s development opportunities. The region can develop RES and turn the pit of the former opencast into a pumped storage power plant.
People living in Bogatynia who agreed to talk to us about the future of their town say: if there is no mine, there will be nothing left here.
The election campaign that goes on in Poland is not conducive to calming emotions, having a substantive conversation, agreeing on a vision and making decisions with long-term consequences. The issue of the future of the Turów mine was already the subject of a politicised, rather than substantive, debate before the agreement with the Czech Republic was signed. In the 2023 election campaign, it became one of the big topics of the ruling party, Law and Justice. At the end of June, Law and Justice demonstratively moved its convention to Bogatynia. At the foot of the power plant complex, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki promised that he would not allow the closure of the mine and the plant, in any circumstances.
When he uttered these words, a complaint from Greenpeace, the Eco-Union association, the Frank Bold foundation and the German Zittau concerning the environmental decision that granted the Turów mine a concession valid until 2044 was already waiting in the administrative court. Morawiecki and other members of his government openly challenged the court, repeatedly stating that no verdict would lead to the actual closure of the mine.
Morawiecki speaks to the miners, June 2023. Photo: screenshot from an official video of the Prime Minister’s chancery.
During the economic transition of the 1990s, plants and factories deemed unprofitable and redundant were closing all over Poland, sometimes overnight. If they were the largest employers in a given locality, the residents were left out in the cold. In theory, they were expected to adapt to the capitalist economy and demonstrate spirit of entrepreneurship. In practice, names such as Wałbrzych, where coal mines were liquidated at an express pace, became synonymous with collapse: mass unemployment, degradation of infrastructure, the sliding of entire communities into poverty.
Both representatives of the Polish government, local government officials and the board of PGE, to which Turów belongs, assure that they will not allow such a catastrophe to happen. Can they be believed? Opinions among Poles – also among Bogatynia residents – are divided. One thing is certain: there is not much time left.
A plan to transform the local economy and a readiness to implement it are needed now.
We are speaking of a region that has undergone social transformation more than once. For the first time, when the first mine was established there and heavy industry emerged in this agricultural corner of Saxony. Then, when new boundaries were drawn and Poland, by building a new power plant, made Turoszów one of the key points on the energy map – at the cost of the local landscape and environment. Then, when, thanks to modernisation, these gigantic environmental losses were reduced.
Could another transformation, with local people at the centre, also succeed?
(to be continued)
Piotr Lewandowski, Iwona Lewandowska and Czesław Kulesza co-operated in the preparation of this report.
This report was developed with the support of Journalismfund Europe.