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Czech villagers rail against giant Polish coal mine

·3-min read

For the past 18 years, Czech physics teacher Karel Rehak has seen the water level in his well drop steadily, a phenomenon he attributes to a nearby sprawling Polish brown-coal mine.

The open-cast Turow lignite mine spans 28 square kilometres (11 square miles) and supplies a power station that accounts for some seven percent of Poland's electricity consumption.

Located in the middle of Europe where the borders of Poland, Czech Republic and Germany intersect, the mine is now at the centre of a bitter dispute between Prague and Warsaw.

"I moved here in 2001, and we had fantastic water, but two years later the water level in my well dropped by a metre," said Rehak.

"Of course I had to react, so we made the well deeper, from 10 to 30 metres (32 to 100 feet), and the water level keeps falling," he added.

Rehak lives in Horni Vitkov, a village just across the border from the Turow mine, which has to pump out large volumes of water in order to save itself from getting flooded.

Complaints by locals have led the Czech government to file a lawsuit against Poland with the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

In May, the ECJ ordered Poland to suspend mining there, but the Polish government refused, leading the Czechs to ask the ECJ to fine Poland five million euros ($6 million) for each day the mine remains open.

The governments of both countries started official talks on the situation in June, vowing to strike a deal.

Both Germany and the Czech Republic have complained about the mine and its planned expansion, saying that it has also caused increased noise and dust levels in the area.

But Poland's largest energy group PGE, which owns both the mine and the plant, is planning to extract coal at Turow until 2044.

Operating since 1904, the mine employs some 4,000 people.

Poland relies on coal to meet up to 80 percent of its energy needs, but has vowed to develop green energy sources and to shut all of its mines by 2049, in line with EU targets for emissions cuts.

- 'We're really suffering' -

For the Czechs, the closure of Turow cannot come soon enough.

Geologists registered a 50-metre drop in groundwater levels in deeper sediments between 1985 and 1999.

"The decrease was more or less stagnant until 2013, when the groundwater level started to fall again, with the total decrease reaching some 60-70 metres," said Ondrej Nol from the Czech Geological Survey.

"This decrease is attributed purely to the influence of the Turow mine," he said.

Alena Teslikova, who works at the Horni Vitkov school, said her daughter is struggling with a severe shortage of water.

"They have a well and it's empty, so they have to pump water out of a well in the neighbouring plot. I lived there when I was younger and there was never a problem with water," she said.

In the nearby town of Chrastava, mayor Michael Canov said he did not expect Poland to close the mine in the near future but hoped it could at least help build public water pipelines locally.

"Neither the town nor the local water company have the money to build it because the pipelines are complicated and expensive," he told AFP.

"The Polish side has always rejected this, saying nothing has been proved about the water, and I think the ECJ ruling made them join the talks," Canov added.

He said the northern Czech region already had a project for pipelines.

"It would be best if they started building it next year, because we're really suffering," said Karel Rehak.

"It's time to act."

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