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The Czech Republic is suing Poland before the ECJ: lawsuit against coal fortress

The Polish power plant Turow is located in the border triangle with the Czech Republic and Germany. Prague has now filed a lawsuit against the lignite mining.

Chimneys of contention: Torow lignite power plant and open pit mine in southwest Poland Photo: Karol Serewis / Zuma Press / imago

PRAGUEtaz | A concrete fortress rises above the young Neisse, just behind the Lusatian Mountains, and persistently snorts high clouds of steam into the sky. It has long since become the dominant feature of the triangle where the foothills of Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic have merged into a European region. However, there is so much rumbling beneath the surface that the first cracks threaten life and coexistence in this historic borderland.

The Polish power station Turow may seem like a fortress with its six huge cooling towers that blink like red eyes at night. In reality, however, it is the stronghold of an industry that was soon to be believed to have passed: lignite open-cast mining. Commissioned in the early 1960s, Turow today covers eight percent of Poland's energy needs with an output of 1,900 megawatts. The power plant draws its coal from the adjacent large open-cast mine of the same name, a 225-meter-deep hole that stretches 25 kilometers along the German border before it meets the Czech Republic in the south.

The state-owned Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE), Poland's largest energy producer, extracts almost 28 million tons of lignite, a quarter of total production, from the ground here. The dismantling permit expired in March 2020. Since there is still enough coal in Turow to continue digging for the next twenty years, PGE received permission from the Polish state in spring 2020 to expand the open pit mine in order to feed the power plant until 2044.

Poland has thus presented its neighbors in Germany and the Czech Republic with a fait accompli. The hole in the triangle is not only supposed to be 330 meters deep, but also to extend over a total of 30 square kilometers until it meets the border with the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic is going too far.

Open pit mining lowers the water table

The government in Prague filed a complaint with the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on Friday. "Continuing operations endanger our citizens, our water and our nature," said Environment Minister Richard Brabec, explaining the move to erect an earth wall at the border, which should keep the dust pollution as far as possible on the Polish side of the border. In addition, the Czechs are demanding around 40 million euros in compensation for the threat to the drinking water supply caused by the dismantling.

The Czech government has now joined in a dispute that has been smoldering over the border triangle for at least two years. The district of Liberec (Reichenberg), which borders the opencast mine, has been complaining for a long time that the groundwater level in the region continues to fall as a result of the opencast mine.

In the village of Uhelná, which is closest to the hole on the other side of the border, the wells have long since dried up. Next door in Václavice it has happened to everyone that suddenly no more water came out of the tap. According to another study, the Polish expansion plans are intended to jeopardize the water supply for 30,000 people in the Czech Republic. Thousands of residents from Liberec County have already sent letters of protest to Poland.

The groundwater that the Turnow opencast mine eats would fill 100 cisterns a day, the citizens' movement “Voda nebo úhlí” found out. The Czechs particularly annoy the fact that Poland has extended the dismantling process in complete secrecy and without any further environmental reviews, despite the discussion. Foreign Minister Tomás Petříček therefore flew to Warsaw last week to give his counterpart an ultimatum.

German support uncertain

The Czech Republic had already submitted a complaint to the European Commission about the opencast mine in September 2020. This is considered a preliminary stage to the lawsuit, which is now at issue. It is still open whether Germany will participate. In Zittau, which is less than 20 kilometers from the opencast mine, people complain of similar groundwater problems as on the Czech side.

A year ago, the city therefore also lodged a complaint with the EU. "We feel compelled to do this because we have not been treated correctly on the previous way of environmental impact assessment," said Mayor Thomas Zenker from Zittau. In contrast to his neighbors in the Liberec district, however, he has no further support. Czech circles doubt that Germany will join the lawsuit.

But that may not be necessary at all. The EU Commission has now responded to the complaints. She recognizes that the enlargement is incompatible with European guidelines and accuses the Polish side of violating the principles of sincere cross-border cooperation.