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ClientEarth Communications

5th March 2019

Fossil fuels

ClientEarth lawyers launch court fight to block major new coal mine in Poland

Approval for a huge new coal mine that would leave 3,000 people in search of new homes is being challenged by ClientEarth’s lawyers in Poland.

The Zloczew open-cast mine would be Poland’s deepest ever and, for the first time, use explosives to access the lignite (the dirtiest form of coal) beneath the surface. The process is set to displace seven billion tonnes of rock, putting the surrounding area at major risk of tremors – as well as serious water and air pollution.

A project of state-owned energy company PGE, the Zloczew mine would result in the displacement and destruction of 33 villages, including highly specialised modern farms, homes, schools, shops, chapels and fire stations.

The coal from the mine is destined for Belchatow, the notorious mega-polluter and largest lignite-fired coal plant in the world. It burns a tonne of lignite every second and emits over 37 million tonnes of CO2 – the same as a small country – each year.

Head of ClientEarth Poland’s energy team Ilona Jedrasik said: “The damage this mine would cause, socially and environmentally, cannot be overstated. It is a catastrophe, not just for the thousands of people whose way of life would be bulldozed to make way for it, but for the landmass it will destroy – and all to feed a hugely polluting coal plant. From seismic tremors to chemical leakage, it is extremely hard to see how PGE can justify this project.”

The environmental toll of the Zloczew mine

Operations at Zloczew would release five tonnes of mercury, 26 tonnes of cadmium and 168 tonnes of lead – all known neurotoxins and carcinogens – into the environment every year. Add to that its major predicted methane emissions and the project presents an inexcusable environmental and climate threat.

PGE is trying to start construction of the Zloczew mine via a ‘leapfrogging’ mechanism that skips the vital step of securing a final and binding environmental permit.

ClientEarth’s court case challenges the authority’s decision to grant immediate effect to the environmental permit, even though an appeal against the environmental permit is pending and it is not final and binding. This immediate activation of the permit allows the investor to seek further permits and concessions required to excavate and operate the mine.

Jedrasik added: “While other EU countries announce coal phase-out dates and just transition plans, Poland ploughs ahead with mammoth projects like Zloczew. This is totally avoidable. Lignite is the dirtiest form of coal and yet state-owned PGE is pulling out all the stops to give it a free pass.”

While the pit itself is set to span an area of up to 14km2, the Zloczew mine’s impact on the ground structure – the ‘cone of depression’ – would spread over 800km2.

The Zloczew mine would be 50km away from the plant itself, meaning an entirely new railway line also needs to be constructed to get the coal there – with a projected 13,000 train journeys a year.

The rationale behind the Zloczew mine is that Belchatow is about to exhaust the reserves of the current mine (the ‘Belchatow’ mine). It would then need to switch to coal from the Szczercow coalfield, which contains 30% more mercury and lead. Zloczew is the resulting alternative, but its environmental and human impacts are by no means less destructive.

ClientEarth Poland published a report last Thursday, by Dr Michal Wilczynski, formerly Poland’s chief geological expert. It compares the environmental and social impact of burning coal from both currently available mines or starting a new mine, concluding that neither option is defensible.

Energy policy in Poland is currently the subject of much national and international debate. Differing views seem to exist within government, but the economic arguments for solar and wind are clear – and becoming clearer to national energy companies.