Measures to protect water supplies – included in the deal – are insufficient and will not work, say locals.
The Czech government has angered local people by accepting 45 million euros in compensation from the Polish government and state-owned energy giant PGE in exchange for dropping its lawsuit over the Turów coal mine at the EU Court of Justice (CJEU).
The mine is located close to Poland’s border with Czechia and Germany.
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The deal came just hours after the court’s Advocate General confirmed Poland infringed EU law when issuing Turów’s licence, and just days after a court in Warsaw ruled the same.
The deal’s main provision for restoring water supplies relies on an underground protective wall that experts, and even the mine’s owner, PGE, say will not work.
“Today our government signed away our right to water,” says Milan Starec, a local resident speaking on behalf of the Uhelná Neighbourhood Association.
“This deal has been reached in total secrecy, without the involvement of affected people like me. PGE’s botched underground wall will do nothing to resolve our water crisis. Our government has basically consented to environmental damage to its own territory, which is against Czech and EU law. It has a moral and legal duty to rescind this deal, and initiate proceedings for environmental damage with the European Commission.”
A court in Warsaw had on February 1 ruled that the Polish authorities were wrong to implement an Environmental Impact Assessment at state-owned energy giant PGE’s Turów coal mine, close to the country’s border with Czechia and Germany.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in May of last year that the mine, whose accompanying power plant generates around seven per cent of Poland’s energy, must cease operations while the court processed the Czech government’s lawsuit against Poland.
Czechia filed the lawsuit in response to Poland’s decision to grant Turów a licence extension to 2044, which was approved by the government in Warsaw despite the absence of a proper public consultation, as required by EU law.
The European Commission is currently considering withholding budget payments to Poland over its refusal to pay almost 68 million euros in fines which it has accrued for refusing to halt operations at the site.
Czechia has long claimed that mining at Turów is sucking up water supplies and damaging Czech communities, but Poland has repeatedly refused to close it, saying that the suspension of operations at Turów could threaten the stability of the Polish power system.
As part of the deal struck between the two countries, an underground wall, which is currently under construction, is meant to protect local sources of water. However, experts at the Masaryk Water Research Institute and the Polish ambassador to Czechia, Mirosław Jasiński, have criticised it as insufficient to secure supplies: a view effectively confirmed in a leaked PGE document seen by environmental organisations.
“Poland’s ambassador to Czechia was recently recalled by his government for stating that PGE’s underground wall is not up to the job. This has since been confirmed by Czech geologists and PGE itself. Meanwhile, the EU’s Court of Justice and even a Polish court have confirmed that EU law was broken when licensing Turów. It’s a shame that the Czech government is unprepared to stand firm on its citizens’ rights,” says Zala Primc, a campaigner at Europe Beyond Coal campaigner.
Just Transition Funds at risk
In 2020, Poland generated 70 per cent of its electricity from coal, with the country responsible for 30 per cent of total EU electricity generation from coal in that year. This is projected to rise to 63 per cent in 2030 as other EU members exit coal.
The Polish government’s refusal to commit to a coal exit has also threatened to jeopardise its ability to access Just Transition Funds – non-reimbursable grants that are the European Union’s key tool to support regions most affected by the transition towards climate neutrality.
The Just Transition Fund has an overall budget of 17.5 billion euros for 2021-27, with Poland set to be by far the largest recipient: indeed, it is in line to receive 20 per cent of the fund, around 3.5 billion euros.
“Millions of euros that should be coming in the door courtesy of EU support to exit coal is being frittered away because of the government’s refusal to accept the coal era is winding up,” adds Zala Primc.
“Every other EU country has seen sense and announced a coal exit plan – most by the end of this decade. Even Poland’s regional governments are setting 2030 coal exit targets. Only the Polish government is denying reality.”
In June of last year, Poland’s Łódź region announced that the EU’s most polluting coal plant, Bełchatów, will close by 2036 and its mines – also owned by PGE – by 2038. Campaigners say it is now time for Poland to admit defeat at Turów.
“The only way forward at Turów is for the Polish government to remedy its legal and environmental wrongdoings, halt its expansion of the mine, and front up to workers, and people across the Zgorzelec region about the reality that Turów will close before 2030,” says Maria Wittels of the Foundation Development YES — Open-pit Mines NO.
“Polish coal, just like coal everywhere else in Europe, is in terminal decline; Turów is no exception. Studies show that a switch to renewable energy is the best way forward for the region, as it will create more jobs than coal, and they will be future-proof. Clinging to coal will just see the region miss out on millions of euros in EU funds to support a just transition, and lock-in a social and economic shock this decade.”
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