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Thirsty for justice, the Czech Republic takes Poland to court over Turów coal mine

A small finger of Polish land, rich in low-quality lignite, juts into the Czech Republic. Its Western border separated from Germany by the Lusatian Niesse river, the area is almost an island in the middle of the three countries, housing a handful of small villages and connected to greater Poland with a narrow isthmus-like strip of land and one main road.

It also hosts the vast, expanding, Turów lignite mine and the power plant it feeds. Both face controversy and an uncertain future in a Europe making rapid moves towards decarbonisation and from a public fed up with the damage coal continues to do to their health and livelihoods.

As the Turów mine is wedged between both Germany and the Czech Republic, citizens in nearby villages feel the impacts of the mine very keenly. It saps their groundwater supplies, drives subsidence of their land and when the coal is burned: pollutes their air. The lignite burned from Turów has also been estimated to have caused 120 premature deaths in 2017, along with 2,100 asthma attacks, 60 new cases of chronic bronchitis, 110 hospital admissions and 51,000 days of sick leave from work per year in all three countries, though due to its geographic situation, 80 out of the 120 premature deaths from Turów take place outside Poland’s borders. Germany and the Czech Republic are the most affected.

The mine also withdraws about 30 litres of water per second from under its neighbours’ feet, leaving entire villages dry and threatening people’s right to drinking water. In 2020 alone, the groundwater level in the Czech border region Liberecky fell by an alarming eight metres, which is double what PGE, the Polish state-owned operator of the mine and plant, said would happen by 2044. A study came to a similar conclusion for the impacted German region: the mine has already lowered groundwater in the region by 100 meters, with a further fall of 20 meters expected. Soil subsidence has reached one meter there too, leaving glaring evidence in the form of cracked walls in homes and sunken streets.

PGE has consistently ignored the reality of the situation it is putting thousands of German and Czech families in. So much so, that when its mining licence for Turów was due to expire recently, it chose to instead secure a dodgy permit for a six-year extension from the Polish government, without a public participation process or a proper environmental impact assessment. The mine has now been operating illegally under EU law for almost a year. PGE even applied for another license to further expand it and prolong operations to 2044 – 14 years after the needed 2030 end date for coal in the EU under the UN Paris Climate Agreement, confirmed by UN Secretary General António Guterres.

Not willing to let the impacts on its people continue after negotiations with Poland failed and after the European Commission remains reluctant to bring an infringement case forward, the Czech Republic has launched a lawsuit against Poland in the European Court of Justice.

This is the first such case in EU history where one Member State sues another for environmental reasons and critical to protect the rule of law given the European Commission has so far failed to do so. If successful, the Czech Republic will not only protect its people, it will also hasten the already growing momentum behind coal phase-outs across Europe and show that the rights of all EU citizens are equal. Both Germany and the European Commission should be standing shoulder to shoulder with it.

The reality is, coal’s collapse is happening faster than anyone expected and the EU’s increasingly strong moves to cut emissions and live up to its responsibilities under the UN Paris Climate Agreement mean the walls are closing in on countries that don’t plan a proper transition away from carbon-intensive energy sources. PGE’s irresponsible push to keep Turów operating for two more decades will only end up harming its workers and the communities around the plant and mine that are already suffering.

So far, 14 European countries have committed to phasing out coal by 2030 at the latest. The Polish government is not among them and its determination to keep coal mines and plants operating well into the 2040s and beyond is isolating it, like the lonely island housing Turów.

However, with 57 per cent of all EU coal plants in operation in 2016 now retired, or having confirmed retirement before 2030, the economic case for coal has shattered in the new renewable Europe and with even 76 per cent of Poles wanting to abandon coal by 2030, sooner or later Poland will have to reckon with its unhealthy relationship with Turów, and coal overall. Sooner will be better for all involved.

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