Lost Opportunity for a Just Transition: the Case of Turów Lignite Mine. PART SEVEN: Arrogance and Lack of Empathy

The case of the Turów lignite mine on the border between Poland and the Czech Republic in 2021 and 2022 stirred up not only the Czech and Polish media. The main reason was the historic Czech complaint to the European Court of Justice, but this was only a culmination of years of disputes.

Read previous chapters of the story:

The lawsuit was the culmination of years of disputes over the impact and operation of this large open-pit mine. The Turów mine operates on Polish territory, but mining and burning coal at the local power plant also affects close neighbours in the Czech Republic and Germany. There are a number of transboundary impacts, the most serious of which appear to be long-term groundwater loss, droughts and geological changes in the soil, also felt in Germany. A separate issue is the effects on human health associated with the use of coal as an energy source. It is not only the high CO2 emissions from burning coal, but also the dust and dustiness that pollute the air and have been shown to cause a range of health problems and diseases. It is the responsibility for and extent of these impacts that has been the subject of controversy around Turow in the past.

But the Turow story is not just a local one. It is a small story that relates to the ‘big issues’ of the modern world.

It includes such complex issues as the promised transition to a green economy in the European Union, a just transition and the so-called ‘phasing out of coal’ that preceded the Green Deal. All these issues are very important in a national and cross-border context for the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, but not only for them.

We are not only talking about a green economy with low emissions, but also about jobs, livelihoods and people’s health, as well as environmental quality, sufficient water resources or the future in the broadest sense. There is also the question of the technological, social and political changes brought about by the planned shift away from fossil fuels, which has provided the framework for the modernisation of European societies, and what it will actually mean in the future.

Will it lead to greater democratisation or vice versa? Is there a genuine concern for nature behind it, or a profit-driven quest for technological dominance?

Another big question mark is that even the Green Deal has not freed itself from the exploitative paradigm on which the modern industrial age was based and which is one of the causes of the current environmental crisis. This paradigm is still based on man’s dominion over nature and on the motto of the modern era: “I want, therefore I am”. It is clear that even a ‘green’ economy, even if it is not mainly based on combustion, will require extraction with all its effects and consequences.

– Climate crisis is only part of the environmental crisis. Coal issues are part of an environmental crisis that is planetary in scale, not just about local changes. It is clear that the system of institutions of the modern world is not able to focus on this complexity of the problem,’ sociologist and environmental crisis specialist Oleg Suša of the Czech Academy of Sciences told us.

– I would no longer talk about an ecological crisis, but about heading towards an ecological catastrophe. Its accelerator is profit-focused global capital. Its source is the plundering and devastation of the global ecosystem, which is an ongoing process – he continues.

Above all, the Czech sociologist fears that the Green Deal will become a tool to serve business interests in the so-called co-option of revolutionary ideas, as has happened in many cases in the past.

From a Czech perspective, then, the Turow case is not just the story of a battle waged by environmentalists in the context of the passing of the coal age on the Polish-Czech border, or the story of a certain cross-border dispute between two neighbours. It concerns much broader issues. That is why our texts take a look at the topic from a number of perspectives, including those that have not found resonance in the Czech media in the past, as an analysis carried out some time ago by the Newton media showed.

The Liberec region in the north of the Czech Republic is not a coal region, but people on the border with Poland – especially in Hrádek nad Nisou and surrounding villages such as Václavice and Uhelná, but also in the Frýdlant region – deal with the effects of coal mining on a daily basis.

Some of them experience only heavy dust, while others face an increasing shortage of water for their households or farms and the surrounding nature, which they associate with the mine.

The owner of a guesthouse in Hrádek nad Nisou, where we stayed while working, immediately commented on the words “Turów mine” that she wipes dust off the tables in the garden almost every day – an everyday occurrence here. She blames the Turów mine and power station for the high dust levels. Residents of the picturesque village of Uhelná, located right on the border with Poland and almost directly adjacent to the mine, have long complained about the lack of water, noise, dust pollution and excess light caused by mining near their homes.

The Czech Republic finally took Poland to court over mining activities at the mine. The whole story became an example of a relatively successful activist grassroots campaign. Today, however, many residents do not want to hear any more about the Turow problem. They do not believe that anything will change. Others are not, and have never been interested, in the dispute or the mine. As everywhere, people in Uhelná and Hrádek have different opinions. But the mine still exists, and the disputes and question marks around it are not going away. Now the German town of Zittau, which is also close to the mine, on yet another side of the border, is also suing the mine over its expansion plans.

If all the Polish mining plans come into being, the Turów mine is to extend up to 70 metres from the Czech border. It will be within sight of the nearest Czech village.

It is this plan, in addition to the extension of the mine’s operating licence until 2044, that ultimately became the main point of contention between the two neighbouring countries, NATO allies and EU members. Poland, which is still heavily dependent on coal energy, was very uncompromising in telling the Czech side that it would mine local low-quality lignite “until the end”, regardless of the interests and problems of others on the other side of the border, because it was in its national interest.

In order to get a better picture of what we are going to talk about, let us present some facts. The Turów mine extends to a depth of about 225 m and has an area of about 28 km2 . In other words – it is a huge, still expanding hole in the ground from which some 27.7 million tonnes of lignite are extracted annually. This is then converted by a local power plant into electricity and heat through combustion. The mine and the power station are owned by the Polish Energy Group, PGE, which is more or less the Polish equivalent of the Czech CEZ, with the Polish state owning almost 60% (in the case of CEZ it is almost 70%). The mine has been in existence since the beginning of the 20th century and is a monument to the classic industrial era, which was based on coal and its combustion. Coal has been known here since at least the 18th century.

The mine is surrounded by Czech and German territory. When we look at the map, it seem to plunge into the territory of the two other countries. This means operating in a immediate vicinity of non-Polish villages and towns.

The name of the nearest Czech village, Uhelná, originally Kohlige in German, refers to coal, but it is misleading. Uhelna got its name as it was a settlement of charcoal burners, it has nothing to do with lignite mining, although coal is now the village’s main concern. As the locals explained to us, one of the reasons for settling the site was that historically there was plenty of water. From today’s perspective, when locals worry about running out of water, this is a paradox.

Uhelna in winter. Photo by Roman Sedláček.

From campaign to court

In the spring of 2021, the small village of Uhelná on the very border of the Czech Republic will become the most famous village not only in the Czech Republic, but also in Europe. Why? From at least 2019 onwards, PGE, as the owner of the Turów mine in the vicinity of Uhelná on Czech territory, has been pushing for an extension of mining operations at the mine, first until 2026 and then until 2044. In 2021, despite arguments about the mine’s negative impact on the surrounding area and the territories of its neighbours, the Polish authorities decided to continue mining until 2026. However, PGE was interested not only in allowing mining to continue until 2026 or for another two decades, but also in extending the mine towards the very borders of the Czech Republic. Not extending the mine to almost the immediate vicinity of their homes and addressing the impact of mining on the surrounding area became the main focus of a campaign led by local organisations, some citizens and also Greenpeace. The Turow controversy eventually reached the European Court of Justice when the Czech Republic sued Poland for violating European law.

Although the authorisation of mining at the Turów mine in Lower Silesia and its expansion were primarily the responsibility of the Polish authorities, due to the location of the mine, the Czech side was entitled to have its say in the proceedings. Poland is obliged to listen to the Czech voice under the so-called Espoo Agreement, otherwise known as the Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context. In addition, like any similar project, the mine expansion had to undergo an environmental impact assessment procedure, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). As part of this procedure, some 4,000 comments were received from the Czech Republic in 2019. This in itself complicated the situation for PGE.
In November 2019, the Czech government also gave a negative opinion of the Turów mining expansion.

The then Minister of the Environment Richard Brabec (ANO) commented:

The opinion of the Czech Republic is negative. We have also formulated, in cooperation with geologists, the region, municipalities and the professional public, conditions, agreed by the Liberec state, which are absolutely unbreakable for us if Poland decides to continue mining at Turów despite our opposition.

The conditions covered all areas of the mine’s environmental impact: noise, water loss and air protection. In addition to this, the Czech side also demanded the construction of a wall that would visually separate the mine and the depressing lunar landscape it creates from the Czech side. However, these objections and signals from the Czech side made no impression on Poland. There was absolutely no indication that Poland wanted to solve the problems identified in cooperation with the Czech side.

To be sure, in parallel, PGE submitted another application to extend the concession for a further six years, until 2026. This application was considered by the Polish Ministry of Climate and Environment in March 2020, in secret and without taking into account the environmental impact assessment. This step became one of the main points of the Czech lawsuit. The Czech Republic argued that Poland had violated at least one EU directive, i.e. European legislation, by taking this step and thus questioned the legality of the entire move. Furthermore, the Czech Republic argued that Poland had violated the principle of loyal cooperation, one of the points and principles of the Treaty on European Union.

However, the road to the European Court of Justice was complicated. It seems that Czech politicians did not actually want to sue the neighbouring country.

A year passed between the Polish authorities’ decision on the Turow case in spring 2020 and the filing of the lawsuit in February 2021, during which Czech politicians tried to convince their Polish colleagues of some form of compromise. The Czech Republic insisted on its conditions to at least protect its citizens, and also claimed that Poland had violated European law. All in vain.

As late as 12 February 2021, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Tomáš Petříček (ČSSD) visited Poland. The Czech Republic wanted Poland to take a number of measures to protect Czech citizens living near the mine: the construction of a protective wall to protect Czech residents from increased dust, the payment of compensation for the loss of water near Uhelna in the amount of CZK 175 million. Czech politicians also requested a commitment to continue negotiations on the construction of alternative water sources in the affected areas (the estimated cost at the time was CZK 800 million), the creation of a fund to finance smaller protection projects (CZK 2.5 million) and the establishment of an intergovernmental commission to regularly assess the impact of mining.

Apparently, the Czech head of diplomacy in Poland again did not win anything, because on 26 February 2021 Czech Republic filed a lawsuit against Poland for violation of EU law, which, according to Czech media, was supposed to surprise the Polish side. Already in December 2020. The European Commission gave the Czech Republic credit in its reasoned opinion, admitting that Poland had incorrectly assessed the environmental impact of mining. As part of the lawsuit, the Czech authorities demanded that Turów mining be halted until the court had ruled on the merits of the Czech lawsuit.

If we start to use the logic of sovereignty, which resonates so widely in Poland in the case of Turow vis-à-vis its Czech neighbours, it becomes clear that the Czech action was also an expression of the defence of sovereignty.

The Czech Republic chose to protect the interests of Czech citizens in a situation where, in its view, the Polish side gave no indication that it was interested in compromise and agreement, or that it would even consider its neighbours on the other side of the border (and beyond its sovereign jurisdiction).

From a Czech perspective, the Turów mine is very much an example of the darker side of the otherwise important concept of state sovereignty. According to Nikol Krejčová of Greenpeace ČR, who has been following the case from the very beginning, from the very beginning there was a clear position from the Polish side, both the owner of the mine, the state-owned company PGE, and the Polish authorities, the Polish government, that it was in the Polish national interest to mine the entire Turów resources. No one wanted to back out of this, mining was to continue at all costs – until 2044 and until 70 metres from the Czech border. This meant that the maximum possible was to be extracted and there would be no compromise – for example, limiting the time or place of extraction.

Liberec Hejtman Martin Půta (head of the local administration of the Liberec Region, the equivalent of a Polish provincial marshal/governor in English) described the whole dispute and its origins to us as follows:

‘Coal has been mined in Turow for seventy years, and thanks to a change in European legislation, the Czech Republic, the Czech people, the Czech local government, for the first time in history had a real influence on a cross-border environmental impact assessment. It used to be that we were simply told: we are going to build a new power station block, we think everything is fine, write your comments. But in reality it was just a formal settlement. Now, for the first time, it was a bit different and I think there was surprise on the Polish side that we were active. Here I have to say that we said the same thing over and over again. We respected the fact that mining permits on Polish territory are to be issued by Polish elected authorities and institutions. We just wanted to ensure that Czech environmental standards would not be violated on the Czech side. This is what the Region has been saying all along. At the same time, even before the negotiations started, we said to PGE: if you want a conflict not to break out, offer some compensation to those people who live closest….

Paradoxically, the controversial situation around Turow was perhaps best described by the then Polish ambassador to the Czech Republic, Mirosław Jasiński.

The Polish diplomat said in January 2021 that the whole dispute over the mine between the neighbours was the result of a “lack of empathy and arrogance”. The statement criticised the Polish side in particular. Jasinski was subsequently recalled by Warsaw from his position as ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Warsaw was perhaps most strongly angered by another statement in the same interview, which questioned the importance of the underground screen, which is now being presented as one of the main steps taken by the mine in favour of the Czech side and water protection. In fact, Jasiński admitted that the purpose of building the screen was primarily to safeguard the mine’s interest – due to the seepage of water into the mine.

Jasiński said:

There are specific geological conditions. This great barrier in the depths of the earth, which has been propagandised as an additional protection against groundwater run-off, is actually there to protect the mine from being flooded with tertiary, or deeper, water and has no relevance where the boreholes are. So let us be honest and admit that the reason for the dispute was the arrogance of some people.

The Polish ambassador at the time said something that probably should have been kept quiet and was immediately punished because he did not protect Polish interests. Nevertheless, in February 2022, the Polish side succeeded in making the underground screen one of the main measures in favour of the Czech side as part of the interstate agreement between Poland and the Czech Republic. At least this is how the screen is officially presented to this day.

(to be continued)

This report was developed with the support of Journalismfund.

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

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