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Czech Republic takes Poland to court over coal mine: Why it matters

Prague, Czech Republic – The Czech Republic will file an EU lawsuit against Poland over the expansion of the Turów coal mine, local authorities announced last week, an unprecedented step in the bloc’s history.

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The Czech government has decided to sue neighbouring Poland over the expansion of the Turów brown coal mine, located in the border region between Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. This is the first case in history where an EU member state takes another one to court over environmental issues.

The two Central European neighbours and V4 allies have long been at odds on the topic, which serves to highlight both countries’ diverging approaches on environmental and energy issues.

For years, the Czech Republic has expressed concerns over the mine’s health and environmental impact in its northern region. In 2016, Prague asked its Polish counterparts to release more information regarding the expansion amid growing concerns on its impact on agricultural land, water resources and pollution in the north Bohemian region of Liberec.

Communities at risk in Czech Republic’s northern regions

Both sides have been negotiating ever since. While the Czech Republic says Warsaw hasn’t been transparent enough, Poland argues specific provisions and adequate measures were being taken to address Czech concerns. Despite the opposition from its neighbour and a number of studies showing the plan could undermine the quality of life for tens of thousands of people across the border, the Polish government gave its green light for the expansion of the mine, operated by state-owned energy giant PGE.

PGE’s mining license for the Turów mine was already extended by six years last March despite Czech protests. Last December, the European Commission said that Poland had wrongly assessed the environmental impact of the expansion, which would allow it to extract coal until 2044, partly lending weight to Prague’s claims.

The latest round of negotiations last month failed to reach any argument, prompting the Czech Republic to announce its decision to file a lawsuit against Poland for breaking EU laws at the European Court of Justice. Czech officials also said they would seek an injunction that would halt operations of the mine pending the official ruling, which could take years.

“It is regrettable that a lawsuit is necessary when most of Europe is looking for ways to phase-out coal mining due to climate change,” Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said, adding that Prague remains open to resume negotiations with Poland to find a solution outside of the courts.

“We will naturally continue talks with Poland, but the current mining is unlawful,” according to Czech Environment Minister Richard Brabec. “Its continuation already threatens our citizens, our water, our environment.”

Representatives from the Liberec region, along with a number of environmental organizations, said they supported the lawsuit.

Poland “surprised” by Czech legal action

The decision appears to have taken Poland by surprise. Pointing to the large-scale consultations undergone with both Czech and German authorities on the matter, Warsaw claimed that the latest round of negotiations appeared to point in favour of an amicable agreement and that PGE, the state energy company which owns and operates the Turów lignite mine and adjacent coal-powered plant, had provided extensive safeguards regarding the expansion’s environmental impact.

“During the recent visit by the Czech government’s delegation to Warsaw, it was possible to assume that there was a chance for an amicable settlement of the dispute,” Aleksander Brzozka, a spokesman for the Polish Climate and Environment Ministry, said.

PGE added that “broad transboundary consultations with the Czechs and Germans were conducted. We replied in detail to several thousand questions from both the Czechs and the Germans, addressing all the issues which were raising any concerns.”

Dependant on coal for about 80% of its electricity needs, Poland plans to phase out coal until 2049, over a decade later than the Czech Republic, as part of its efforts to find more sustainable sources of energy and respect its environmental commitments.

But while Polish authorities remain determined to protect the country’s historic coal industry and argue the EU’s climate neutrality goal is unrealistic, environmentalists say Poland is doing too little, too late, to transition away from coal and curb its emissions. A report last year found that Poland had become the EU’s largest coal generator, surpassing Germany, and generates almost as much energy from coal as all other 25 EU countries combined.

First environmental lawsuit between EU member states

At present, the Turów mine, in production for more than 115 years and the adjacent coal-fired power plant, in operation since 1962, provide approximately 8% of Poland’s electricity supplies.

The first ever lawsuit brought by an EU member state against another on environmental issues, the Turów mine affair also highlights the long-standing divisions between the two Visegrad Group allies despite their attempts to show a united front on major issues.

The case also brings into focus Poland’s increasingly controversial and debated reliance on coal.

“Poland’s increasingly irrational support for coal expansion is not only harming health, water supplies and worsening the climate crisis, it’s isolating us from our friends and neighbours,” warned Anna Meres from Greenpeace Poland, adding that 78% of Poles would like to abandon coal by 2030. “It’s time to listen to them.”

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.