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Massive Polish coal mine sparks international dispute

UHELNA – Polluted air, noise, dry wells.

The Turow lignite coal mine in Poland is causing trouble for the environment and local communities - even in Germany and Czech Republic, whose border is just a short walk away. Plans to further expand the huge open pit mine have caused alarm among residents who fear things might get even worse.

With Poland set to remain heavily reliant on coal for energy, the state-controlled PGE utility is aiming to extend until 2044 its license to mine in Turow, due to expire in March.

The move has spawned a rare diplomatic dispute with the Czech government, a longtime ally. And it comes in the face of the United Nation’s call to cut greenhouse gas emissions immediately and sharply.

“What they do is horrible,” said Milan Starec from the tiny Czech village of Uhelna. The village is two kilometers from the mine, but that distance would be almost halved if the mine is expanded. And a piece of land with a forest that currently forms a natural barrier and keeps the mine out of sight would disappear.

“From a human point of view, there’s no place whatsoever for (the mine) here. It should end,” said Starec.

Lignite, a low-grade form of coal, is a fossil fuel that produces large amounts of the greenhouse gases that are warming the atmosphere. Scientists say coal use has to end by 2050 to curb global warming.

Most of the lignite is burned in the Turow power plant located just next to the mine. The plant ranked as the 19th biggest carbon dioxide emitter in the EU last year and as the 10th-worst coal EU plant for its impact on human health in 2017, according to the Europe Beyond Coal environmental group. The rest is sold to households and businesses, contributing to a thick smog in the nearby Polish town of Bogatynia.

The mine is set to increase its surface area to 30 sq. kilometers (11.7 sq. miles) and would extend to just 70 meters (230 feet) from the Czech border. The bottom will be 330 meters (1,083 feet) below the surrounding surface.

One big worry is that expanding the mine is expected to drain away ground water, depriving Uhelna and other communities.

That has already happened in Vaclavice, a village in a valley near Uhelna that dates to 14th century. The local wells provided enough water for centuries until it began to disappear in recent years.

Michael Martin, who has lived there for 20 years, says there is just enough water in his well for his family of four to take a quick shower in the morning, after which they are left with nothing for the rest of the day. The problem is shared by other residents.

“Something is wrong,” says Martin. “It doesn’t happen in the 21st century in a developed country.”

A Czech study suggests that the Polish plan would put at risk water supplies for some 30,000 people. Local authorities are working to finalize a plan for a new water network but it’s not clear that it can be built in time.

The Czech Environment Ministry objected to the Polish project in November based on its environmental impact and set a series of conditions like ensuring water supplies. If the Czech requests are ignored, the country could file complaints or lawsuits at the EU level. Some 5,000 Czechs also sent complaints to Poland.

Polish President Andrzej Duda visited the Turow mine on Saturday to celebrate Miners’ Day and show support.

He acknowledged Poland will need to reduce its use of coal but also said a shift should allow for the "reasonable use of our natural resources.”

“Let’s keep looking for new energy sources, let’s continue our research, but we should not accept the point of view saying that we must completely do away with our industry tomorrow,” Duda said. “We will not be forced into that.”

It is rare for the two countries to have this level of a diplomatic dispute, particularly on environmental policies. In June, they joined forces to block a European Union proposal to make the bloc's economy carbon neutral by 2050.

Poland relies on coal for 80% of its energy and the government aims to reduce that very gradually, to a still hefty 60% by 2040, as coal mining is one of the nation’s biggest employers.

The head of the Solidarity trade union, Piotr Duda, said that becoming carbon neutral by 2050, as the EU proposed, would mean a “disaster not only for Poland’s mining and energy sector but for all of Poland’s economy and for the individual consumer.”

The wind turbines that dot the nearby hills in Germany and the Czech Republic contrast sharply with the open pit mine and the power plant in Poland, but the Czechs and Germans are also big coal users.

Germany gets about a third of its electricity from coal but has been taking major steps to change that and is planning to stop burning coal for electricity by 2038. The Czechs get about 40% of their energy from coal and the government wants to wean the country off it, though it has yet to set a target date.

Poland has closed some mines but is planning to open new ones.

“It is hard to imagine that the current government would be against the mine expansion,” said Kuba Gogolewski of the Polish foundation called "Development YES - Open-Pit Mines NO."

Pavel Farsky, deputy mayor in the town Hradek nad Nisou, said it’s unlikely that the Polish would address the Czech concerns.

“An ideal option would be that there is no expansion of the mine, the mining stops, and we live in a normal environment,” Farsky said. “But that’s utopia.”

Across the border, in a German town called Zittau that is located just a few hundred meters (yards) from the mine, activist Horst Schiermeyer shared that view.

“It is absurd if the burning of lignite here continues for another 25 years.”

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Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.