The Czech Republic has sued Poland over a lignite coal mine it says violates European environmental laws. Poles say it’s crucial for jobs and the local economy.
BOGATYNIA, POLAND — The huge hole in the ground, dug ever deeper and wider by generations of Polish strip miners feeding their country’s voracious appetite for coal, has devoured a dozen villages and nibbled away at land and homes in a 19th-century spa town on its rim.
The hole has grown so big, sucking in water from miles around, that wells over the border in the Czech Republic are running dry, local residents say.
Michael Martin, a German train driver who lives in a Czech village across the border from the Polish mine, said the well in his garden, previously his main source of water, is now nearly dry and he runs a pipe to a deeper communal well more than 100 yards away.
“They say they want to be good neighbors,” he said of the miners in the nearby Polish town of Bogatynia, in southwestern Poland, “but why do they keep digging for coal and taking my water?”
Coal, with which Poland generates around 70 percent of its electricity, more than any other European country, has a tenacious grip in this part of the world: it provides energy, jobs and votes to those who defend it, like the conservative governing party, Law and Justice. And, in a deeply insecure country whose striking miners helped set in motion forces that toppled the Soviet empire, coal also provides a rare sense of security, sparing it from heavy dependence on Russian natural gas.
Poland is so dependent on coal that, just as the International Energy Agency called this month for a halt to the approval of new coal-fired power plants, a coal-powered electricity station next to the gigantic mine at Bogatynia opened a new $1 billion expansion.
The plant uses lignite coal, which emits far more carbon dioxide than other varieties, from the adjacent open-cast mine, known as Turow. The mine was to have shut down this year but, to howls of protest from environmentalists, the government in March extended its license until 2044.
Europe’s highest court demanded earlier this month that operations at the Turow mine halt until judges can rule on a Czech lawsuit filed in February against Poland for violation of European environmental rules, a process that could take years.
The Czech action has stirred an ugly ruckus suffused with nationalism in a European bloc that usually manages to smother open disputes between member states.
It has also put a harsh spotlight on Poland’s enduring attachment to coal.
Krzysztof Wozniak, a builder who has watched the lignite mine advance steadily toward his house in Opolno-Zdroj, a crumbling former spa town next to Bogatynia, said that coal mining was so enmeshed with the area’s past and, most residents believe, its future, that “you very quickly become a public enemy around here if you talk against the mine.”
The coal mine and adjacent power plant do not employ more than a few thousand people, he added, but have “become a cult” that few dare challenge.
The legal challenge by the Czech Republic has set off spasms of conspiracy-tinged fury. Poles accuse the Czechs of trying to expand sales of their own coal while Germans are accused of exploiting carbon emission targets to boost sales of their green technology. Czechs along the border say Poland is strangling them by draining their water.
Czech and Polish officials, eager to calm the furor, are now haggling over a possible deal that would allow the mine to stay open, at least for a time, and would require Poland to fund projects aimed at ameliorating water shortages in the Czech Republic.
But this will not solve a bigger problem. A sudden retreat from coal, many in Poland fear, will push the country into the position of Germany, which is heavily dependent on imports of natural gas from Russia.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland said this month that the government would not allow the Bogatynia mine to close because “this could put Poland’s energy security at risk.”
Of more immediate concern, however, are the domestic political risks of moving away quickly from coal.
On a visit to Bogatynia before Poland’s election for president last year, the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, said that coal miners provided a “great service” to Poland and that they would not be abandoned. The town’s voters backed him in the election, helping him to victory.
Andrzej Grzegorowski, a trade union leader at the power plant next to the Turow mine, said he voted for Mr. Duda because “he ignited great hopes for the future of coal.” Whether he votes for Mr. Duda’s governing Law and Justice party again, however, will depend on whether it keeps the mine open, he added.
Fearful of antagonizing miners, a shrinking but well-organized and vociferous constituency, Polish politicians have long struggled to balance demands for green energy emanating from Brussels with voters’ demands for jobs.
“Everyone in my family has always been connected to the mine here,” said Bogumił Tyszkiewicz, a union leader at the Turow mine. His two brothers, two brothers-in-law and his sister all have jobs with Polish Energy Group, or PGE, a state-owned company that operates the mine and the adjacent power plant. Only his son, who found work with a green energy company in another town, does not depend on the mine for his livelihood.
Solidarity, the union that spearheaded protests against communism and is now aligned with Law and Justice, has campaigned vigorously to keep the Turow mine open. Closing it, said Marek Dolkowski, a local Solidarity activist, would “mean doom for this whole region.”
Trying to put pressure on the Polish authorities to keep their mine open and on the Czech government to drop its legal action, hundreds of Turow miners gathered this year on a highway interchange outside of Bogatynia, paralyzing traffic in a narrow isthmus of Polish territory between the Czech Republic and Germany. They held up a big sign: “Hands off Turow mine!”
PGE has started its own campaign to rally sympathy and support for coal mining, while promising to put renewable energy at the center of its future plans.
The company recently put up posters in Prague and Brussels that feature a sad-looking young girl next to the message “Why do you want to take away my family’s livelihood?” (The girl, it turned out, had no connection to Bogatynia or coal mining: Her picture had been plucked from a stock image archive.)
PGE, whose power plant at Belchatow in central Poland is the European Union’s top greenhouse emitter, according to environmental groups, declined interview requests in Bogatynia.
Brussels hopes to reduce carbon emissions in the European Union by 55 percent by 2030 but, environmentalists say, a Polish energy policy announced in February means it will fall far short. While promising to phase out coal, Poland expects the fuel’s share of electricity generation to still exceed 50 percent by 2030, instead of the 2 percent demanded by Brussels.
Widespread fear of what a coal-free future would mean to Bogatynia derives in a large part from the grim experience of other Polish towns that suddenly stopped mining.
When coal mines in Walbrzych, a town to the north, shut down in the 1990s, unemployment and crime soared, prompting jobless miners to dig their own mines so they could feed their families.
Janusz Kurc, a former Walbrzych coal miner, said he understood why Bogatynia’s miners didn’t want their mine to close but “they are talking nonsense.” He added, “Of course it is sad when mines close, but coal is finished.”
The European Union is offering nearly $20 billion in funds to help countries shift from fossil fuels. But regions that keep coal mines going are ineligible.
Bogatynia’s mayor, Wojciech Dobrolowicz, said that he would like to get European money and move beyond coal but that his first duty was to keep jobs that already exist. More than half of Bogatynia’s jobs are linked to the mine, he said, and closing it now “would be a social and economic catastrophe.”
Without taxes paid by the mine and its workers, he said, the town would lose at least a third of its revenue and risk having to shut schools and even hospitals.
Facing an election next month as a candidate for Poland’s governing party, the mayor pointed out his office window to a big billboard that he said summed up his position: “We will defend Turow,” it read.
Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.