Lost Opportunity for a Just Transition: the Case of Turów Lignite Mine. PART TWELVE: Uncertainty

Bogatynia’s mayor Wojciech Dobrołowicz canceled a meeting arranged with us at the last minute. We would not have the opportunity to ask him how he sees the agreement with the Czech Republic and its practical implementation one year after it was concluded. He won’t tell us what he thinks about ecological activists, how he sees cross-border collaboration with the neighbors from Zittau and the Liberec region, and how he imagines the city when the mine closes.

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Nor would we ask him to comment why, in his view, we were advised against going to Bogatynia while heading to Zgorzelec on the local train. – There is nothing there! – exclaimed one of the random traveling companions, who was also getting off in Zgorzelec. Another told us that Bogatynia, after a wave of arrests of drug smugglers across the border, had earned the informal name of “Baghdad”. Quite unflattering.

The mayor’s position on the future of Turow and a just transition remains to be reconstructed on the basis of an interview he gave to someone else – the pro-Law and Justice newspaper Gazeta Wroclawska, on the eve of the Law and Justice election convention in Bogatynia in June 2023.

In that talk, the mayor expresses a belief that both the Czechs and Germans are making unfounded accusations against the mine because they want to extract money from Poland or gain political popularity. – Even the Czechs admitted that the issue of the Turow dispute two years ago took place during election time, and this played some role as an election topic, he commented on the water conflict. Zittau’s complaint about landslides? Absurd, after all, nothing like this has happened on the German side for the last 75 years, he says.

The mayor likes very much the attitude of the government, which defends the mine with all its might and does not look at the rulings of Polish courts or the European Justice Court. Mateusz Morawiecki has put people higher than money, Dobrolowicz sums up with appreciation.

When asked about economical transition of the region, the mayor asks for time. He assures that the municipality is preparing investment areas at the junction of Polish, German and Czech borders, and that a wind power plant will be built on the site of post-mining dumps. But, although he explains in detail in the same conversation how the life of Bogatynia and the region depends on the power plant, he argues that the changes must happen naturally, in the long term. – Today, putting up a new plant is not a good solution, because there is no unemployment in our country. There are additional jobs at the mine and the power plant. Many Poles work in Germany and the Czech Republic. PGE plans to introduce a competence center to retrain miners and power engineers for new jobs. But today, when we have more than a 20-year perspective of Turów still operating, these activities are not justified. Therefore, we need calm – he concludes.

Bogatynia city hall. Photo by Piotr Lewandowski.

August 31, 2023. The Provincial Administrative Court decides to suspend further proceedings in the Turow case. The reasons are purely procedural.

The ecological activists and their legal time learn no sooner than during the proceedings that in 2022 PGE tried to change the contested environmental decision before it was even challenged. Later, the company withdrew from these efforts, so the General Directorate for Environmental Protection issued a decision to discontinue administrative proceedings in the case. However, this decision is still not final. And as long as the administrative proceedings are not definitively concluded – the WSA cannot continue to deal with the environmental decision.

The head of Turów Solidarity trade union Wojciech Ilnicki does not hide his joy at this turn of events. In an interview with the Polish Press Agency, he comments that suspending the proceedings is the best possible solution. In his view, if the court had found that the environmental decision was correct, the eco activists would probably have appealed the verdict and have brought the case to the European Court of Justice, where, according to the trade unionist, “they do not necessarily have any sympathy for Polish miners and mines in Poland.” When there is no final verdict, there can’t be another complaint either. The trade unionist, moreover, announces categorically, just like the prime minister had said: no court order will force Poland to stop mining, as long as there is something to be exploited.

According to Marek Jozefiak of Greenpeace, there is nothing to be happy about.

– Bogatynia residents have been living in limbo for years. The government keeps postponing the decisions that would secure their future. By refusing stubbornly to cancel an extension of mining, it has condemned them to be dependent on a single employer. In addition, the political games caused the loss of one billion PLN from the Just Transition Fund,” commented the environmental activist after the court decision was announced.

Interviewed by us, Józefiak argues that if the government stopped sticking to coal, the Zgorzelec region could remain an important point on Poland’s energy map.

It is possible to replace coal with green power and produce a similar amount of energy, betting on solar panels, windmills, a pumped storage power plant that would be built in place of the openpit mine. There are studies showing that this is possible, or even more – that it would offer up to twice as many jobs in the region. But the government has set its sights on coal – says the Greenpeace spokesman.

He also expresses hope that should the Polish authorities decide to turn to RES after all, the European Union will appreciate the move and allocate funds for a just transition.

It is still uncertain whether the 20-year mining prospect that the mayor of Bogatynia and PGE’s board firmly speak of is really there. And whether it really is the best prospect for local residents. In 2030, lignite, Bloomberg and Energy Forum analysts estimate, will be Poland’s most expensive energy source.

Without a big opening to renewable energy sources, argues Marek Józefiak, Poland will be only getting into more trouble. – We will simply import energy, face high energy prices and pay for the omissions of those in power. And while the government boasted about defending Polish coal just a few years ago, last year the narrative changed and those in power boasted that they had succeeded in importing coal from all over the world, the activist sums up.

(to be continued)

This report was written with the support of Journalismfund.

Cover photo: a now closed factory in Bogatynia. The mine and power plant remain the only big employers in the region, and their closure would be a nightmare to the local population. Photo by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.

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

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