Lost Opportunity for a Just Transition: the Case of Turów Lignite Mine. PART FOUR: First Worries About the Water

A road in Uhelna / photo by Martin Veselka

In 2021, Czech Republic accuses Poland: border wells are drying up because of the Turów mine! In fact, the allegation was not new. Concerns that the massive opencast would have a negative impact on water resources first resounded 60 years ago.

Read also previous parts of the story:

On 25-28 June 1962, representatives of the People’s Republic of Poland, the GDR and the CSRS meet in Breslau for a conference to exchange comments on the coordination of regional plans for Turošov and the adjacent areas on the German and Czechoslovak sides. The participants agree: the construction of the combine could have an impact on the economy of the neighbours.

It is considered expedient that the regional plan for the Turošov District, which is being developed by the Polish side, should be coordinated with the regional plan for the adjacent border areas in the GDR and CSRS [1].

In the case of the GDR, this refers to the Hirschfelde-Benzdorf region, with which economic and personal contacts, if only because of the supply of coal to the Hirschfelde power plant, remained lively even after the German crew left Turoszów. In the case of Czechoslovakia, the issue concerns the Liberec-Frydland region.

The Czechoslovak delegation raises specific objections to the mine expansion and the construction of the power plant. The Czechoslovak delegation pointed out that the border region was not particularly important to the national economy: the smaller industrial plants there were considered to have no development prospects and as such were destined to be closed down sooner or later. More important than these were the farmland and forests. Here, too, significant losses were anticipated: air pollution, the conference participants argued, would lead to the destruction of fir and spruce forests, and contamination of drinking water sources in Hradek nad Nisou was also anticipated. The idea of building common water supply and sewage systems to serve settlements on both sides of the border was articulated [2].

These projects never materialised, although the idea of cross-border cooperation in theory did not collapse – there was even a joint Polish-Czechoslovak commission on water management.

The theme of the ‘water losses’ that could be caused by further open-cast mining operations was also taken up by the Wrocław Regional Plan Studio in the 1960s. Except that only localities in Poland remained in its sphere of interest. In 1964 it was even expected that south of the opencast, in Sieniawka and Opolno Zdrój, wells would dry up and – especially in the former – new water intakes would have to be built [3].

What about the villages on the other side of the border?

The author of the study of groundwater resources of the region, engineer Renata Bogda, prepared in 1965, did not answer this question unequivocally. She wrote cautiously: within the boundaries of the opencast area itself, the impact of coal mining on water levels will be greatest; on the periphery of the opencast area, water may even disappear altogether. To the east of the opencast, the decrease in water levels will probably be limited to the area of the town of Bogatynia itself. To the south, it will probably occur in border towns in Poland, but not on the other side of the border. To turn all “probably” into certain conclusions, she recommended long-term observations [4].

The potential water problem in the border areas of Czechoslovakia and the GDR was also signalled in a similarly cautious tone by Wladyslaw Rebandel, who wrote a study for the Regional Plans Laboratory [a state institution responsible for economic and social planning in Socialist Poland – author] in 1964 entitled “Destructive human activity in the natural environment of the Turoszow – Zgorzelec region”. First, he explains: in connection with preparing the area for the next phase of exploitation, work has already been undertaken to relocate the beds of the Jasnica and Miedzianka rivers outside the deposit. This means that more rainwater will flow into the mine workings. Underground water will also accumulate there, as mining must entail cutting through aquifers. A system of pipelines and pumps will be able to remove this water from the workings and discharge it into the Lusatian Neisse. However…

… this will result in a lowering of the groundwater level of the surrounding areas – concludes the author.

And although the water loss is small at the time of the study, the problem is likely to intensify in the future:

As the areas of future mining are surrounded to the south, north and partly also to the east by hills made up of crystalline rocks, and these rocks are poorly fractured and do not have major fracture water resources, the development of the opencast will not cause major groundwater declines in these areas. However, water damage may occur in areas south of the Sieniawka-Białopole line and in the area east of Bogatynia. There are water-bearing layers of sands and gravels of considerable thickness, among which there are also artesian waters with significant outflow. Once these layers are cut through by the open pit, there will be a significant increase in groundwater inflow into the pit, which may result in the drying up of water levels in the Miocene and Quaternary sediments. As a result, water in the area of intakes for settlements south of the open pit may disappear. The water damage caused by the expansion of the Turów mine may even reach the border territories of the CSRS and the GDR, but it is difficult to determine the extent and magnitude of the damage due to the lack of adequate data on the geological structure [5].

Twenty-five years later, another study is produced at the Poltegor Central Research and Design Centre for Underground Mining in Wrocław to assess the impact of Turow’s operations on groundwater in the border areas of Czechoslovakia. The authors state that there are still no long-term measurements to draw definitive conclusions. They stress that at the time of the rendering, the negative impact of the mine on the water levels of its neighbours had not been recorded. They do, however, identify an area which, in connection with the expansion of the opencast area, should be looked at in the future.

Assuming that the original location of the groundwater table of all aquifers in the CSRS area stabilises at approximately the same level, close to the ground surface, the development of a depression funnel in the CSRS area towards Uhelna cannot be ruled out as the drainage area moves eastwards [6].

This name is worth remembering. More than thirty years after the release of the Poltegor study, it is Uhelna that will be on the lips of the whole of Europe, alongside Turow.

(to be continued)

[1] State Archive in Wrocław, collection no. 483 (Zjednoczenie Przemysłu Węgla Brunatnego we Wrocławiu), ref. 2.8/1062, p. 10.

[2] State Archive in Wrocław, collection no. 483 (Zjednoczenie Przemysłu Węgla Brunatnego we Wrocławiu), ref. 2.8/1062, p. 34-39.

[3] State Archive in Wrocław, collection no. 332 (Prezydium Wojewódzkiej Rady Narodowej we Wrocławiu), ref. 36.1/134.

[4] State Archive in Wrocław, collection no. 332 (Prezydium Wojewódzkiej Rady Narodowej we Wrocławiu), ref. 36.1/135, p. 13-14.

[5] State Archive in Wrocław, collection no. 332 (Prezydium Wojewódzkiej Rady Narodowej we Wrocławiu), ref. 36.1/131, p. 6-9.

[6] Archiwum Państwowe we Wrocławiu, collection no. 1997 (Centralny Ośrodek Badawczo-Projektowy Górnictwa Odkrywkowego Poltegor we Wrocławiu), ref. 1.1/68, p. 9-14.

Cover photo: a road in Uhelna village. Photo by Martin Veselka (CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Piotr Lewandowski, Iwona Lewandowska and Czesław Kulesza co-operated in the preparation of this report.

This report was developed with the support of Journalismfund.

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