The water crisis caused by Turów mine is already happening. Polish authorities took a shortcut and instead of making sure that the Czech and German neighbours agree with the solutions proposed decided to issue the decision in a rush and make it impossible to challenge in courts. Neither Czech threats nor German pleas have stopped the Polish EIA authority to issue an EIA permit last week. PGE wants to expand the lignite opencast mine at all costs and prolong its life until 2044.
Efforts by Polish state-owned utility PGE to expand a brown coal mine near the Czech border is putting Poland at odds with Prague — normally a close ally on energy issues.
The Turów mine’s current license expires in April. PGE’s goal is to continue mining until 2044 and to expand the mining area to just 100 meters from the border. The Czech and German towns just a few kilometers from the mine and the smokestacks of PGE’s 1.3-gigawatt power plant — Europe’s seventh-most polluting — are furious about the idea. A new 450MW unit is due to come online later this year at the plant which supplies about 8 percent of Poland’s electricity.
The government in the Czech region of Liberec argues the keeping the mine open and expanding it could deprive 30,000 Czechs of drinking water. It filed a complaint to the European Commission, seen by POLITICO, arguing that Polish authorities breached a host of EU rules on trans-boundary environmental impacts and failed to effectively engage with Czech stakeholders.
“The water crisis caused by decades of Turów mining activity is already happening. The prolongation of mining can make it significantly worse,” said Martin Půta, the governor of Liberec.
The Commission said it is assessing the complaint.
PGE argues it consulted the planned extension with Czech and German stakeholders “to a very large extent,” adding that the Czech side has known for 25 years that “mining operations will be conducted in the border area,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email.
Although PGE said it monitors groundwater and that there are generally no pollution problems, it did admit that drinking water in the border town of Uhelná “may be impacted.” It is working on an underground cut-off wall to “limit the impact of the opencast mine on this water intake,” a company spokesperson wrote.
But that’s not soothing worried Czechs.
“The mine is causing trouble already,” said Milan Starec, 37, a businessman who lives in Uhelná, lying right on the border with Poland. In some border towns, water levels in wells are already low, forcing people to take fewer showers, to do their laundry at friends’ houses and to pump water from a nearby creek, he said. “We shouldn’t be getting used to it. It should be stopped and solved.”
Půta, the Liberec governor, said PGE is playing “roulette with our water resources.”
Prague is watching Warsaw closely to ensure that “the Polish party has [taken] into consideration the Czechs’ conditions. If not, the Ministry of the Environment of the Czech Republic will propose necessary steps for the protection of the environment of the Czech Republic,” said a spokesperson for the Czech environment ministry.
That’s bringing tensions to what is otherwise a close relationship. The two countries tend to see eye-to-eye on many energy issues — ranging from nuclear to compensation for shifting away from coal-fired power.
The convoluted shape of the border close to the mine means there are objections to the plan from Germany. The town of Zittau, just across the border on the German side, is also upset about how PGE has addressed cross-border pollution and noise from the mine and the power plant.
“In our opinion, this environmental impact assessment wasn’t made to fulfill laws, it was just made up,” said Zittau Mayor Thomas Zenker.
Zittau is in Saxony, a mining region which has committed — along with the rest of Germany — to phase out coal by 2038. It is also the twin city of Bogatynia, the Polish town closest to the mine where virtually everyone works for PGE.
That’s why Zenker is trying more diplomatic channels.
“We try to be honest, but not too harsh. Because the problems on our side are not comparable to the Czech side. So we try to support the Czech side without taking away from the Polish side every chance for development,” he said.
Neither Czech threats nor German pleas are stopping PGE.
The Polish climate ministry is currently considering a request from PGE to extend Turów’s mining concession to 2026. Because of Czech concerns, the decision has been delayed until February 10 “with the aim to resolve all crucial issues, especially those involving water,” the ministry said in a statement.
Last week, the Polish regional environmental authority issued a decision on the environmental conditions for PGE to continue mining operations — clearing another hurdle for the utility to request the ministry for an extension of its mining permit until 2044.
PGE’s plans are raising questions about Poland’s climate policies. The country generates about 80 percent of its electricity from coal, and that is only projected to fall to 62 percent by 2030 and 32 percent by 2040 — which is why Poland is the only EU country to opt out of meeting a pledge to become carbon-neutral by 2050.
At the same time, Poland is set to receive the largest share — €2 billion — under a Just Transition Fund proposed by the European Commission as part of its Green Deal program. It is meant to help mining and industrial regions shift away from coal and other polluting industries.
“A state-owned company, rather than preparing a phaseout plan and transformation, is steamrolling the expansion of an open-pit coal mine,” said Martin Hojsik, a Slovak MEP from Renew Europe, adding that “goes directly against” statements from Poland saying it needs Just Transition Fund money to decarbonize.