A 2015 report by Poland's national environmental protection body has shown that air in this region is dirtier than national legislation allows for about half of the year
The tiny village of Upper Vitkov, located in a valley right next to the border with Poland, in the Czech Liberec region, is home to around 100 people living in picturesque homes surrounded by forest.
On first sight, life in Vitkov seems idyllic. But right on the other side of the hill bordering the village, lies the Polish Turow lignite mine, an open-pit quarry stretching over more than 3,000 hectares.
In more than half a century of operations, the mine - which uses an estimated 200 million cubic meters of water a year - has been drying up ground and surface waters in the region, including this Czech village of Vitkov.
Inhabitants of Vitkov point to dried up creeks and tell stories of how they have to dig their wells deeper and deeper to get drinking water. To provide water for the local kindergarten, the municipality had to invest 37,000 euros to dig a well as deep as 70 meters. And most locals have had to use their own money to rebuild their wells over time.
The Turow mine was initially planned to operate until 2020. But now Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE) - the Polish state-owned company operating Turow - wants permission to keep digging until 2044. It says the coal is needed to fuel a new 450 MW unit the company is planning to build at the Turow power plant, a project for which financing has already been secured.
But locals in Vitkov, together with their Mayor are alarmed at the prospect of prolonged mining and don't want it.
"We've just had to rebuild many wells in Vitkov after a big flood that hit the village in 2010," says Michal Canov, the Mayor of Chrastava, under whose jurisdiction Upper Vitkov lies. "We are really worried about what may happen if they expand the mine. We have studies showing that water levels will be hit and we would have to rebuild even wells. We just don't have money for that."
Together with other Mayors from the Liberec region, Canov is now pressing the Czech government to ensure the damages from future mining are properly assessed and, if the mine goes ahead, ensure that it will be the Polish beneficiaries that pay the costs.
"The Polish have been insisting there are no negative consequences of their mining on the Czech side, but we have studies that show that there are," explains Canov. "We may eventually need a neutral, third party, maybe the European Commission, to step in and settle this dispute."
Fearing massive damage to the local water systems, the Czechs are struggling to make predictions in order to plan mitigation measures. The Frydlant water company, which manages the water supply in Frydlant, a part of Liberec region, commissioned a study that looks at possible future scenarios. In the worst version - Petr Olysar, the director of the Frydlant water company calls it ‘catastrophic" - water sources for the town of Frydlant and nearby villages will all be disrupted, calling for an investment of 75 million euros to bring in water from the mountains.
Similar sums are brought up by Mayors of other towns and villages in this part of Liberec. Over 30,000 people in Liberec region would suffer from the projected loss of water.
In reality, however, no one can yet correctly estimate the possible damage because PGE has not provided enough information for the Czechs to be able to make more realistic calculations.
This year, the issue has exploded in the Czech Republic, ending up on the agenda of bilateral meetings between the Czech and Polish Prime Ministers and their respective Ministers of the Environment.
The Mayors in Liberec are members or allies of a Czech national party called Mayors and Independents, which promotes the interests of municipalities. The Mayors' party has representatives in the Parliament (Michal Canov is a Senator) and scores well in local and regional elections. The Mayors' political clout forced national politicians from other parties to take on the issue earlier this year.
Martin Puta, the Mayor of Liberec region and a former head of the Mayors' party, says municipalities in Liberec now have as much information as the Czech Ministry of Environment and that they are represented in the negotiations between the Czech and Polish side.
The high-level political pressure has forced an opening up from the Polish side.
PGE said that a Polish-Czech hydrologists expert group was formed this year and has now met twice to exchange information. According to PGE, after these meetings, the Czech Ministry of Environment was still requesting some geological data and additional clarifications which the company has promised will be provided via the expert group.
PGE added that it was considering two scenarios for the future of the mine: in one version, it would shift the mine by 20 hectares in the direction of the Czech Republic, advancing by 200 meters into the Polish border village Opolno Zdroj; in the second, it would leave the village untouched and even withdraw slightly from the direction of the border (in both scenarios, PGE says the overall area of the mine would reduce compared to now). The options would be weighed during the process of getting an environmental permit for the post-2020 mine.
The Czech Ministry of Environment says that the Polish and Czech sides have started exchanging information and in upcoming months work will start on creating a hydro-geological model to anticipate the impact of future mining.
"We are very concerned about the potential loss of drinking water in connection with the mining and the expansion of the mine at Turow in Poland," the Ministry has stated. "We must add that at the moment it is uncertain whether the mine at Turow will expand."
Some of the uncertainty over the mine expansion comes from the long permit process PGE must still complete in order to prolong mining at Turow beyond 2020.
Authorities in Bogatynia, the Polish municipality where the Turow plant and mine are located, have started changing plans to include the new location of the mine for its post-2020 operations (they are planning for the scenario where the mine would advance 20 hectares in the direction of the Czech Republic).
But Polish environmental authorities have imposed stringent requirements on PGE for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that must be completed if the mine is to go ahead. PGE will have to take into account the trans-boundary impact of the mine and the opinion of the Czechs (and of Germans, who may be affected too).
"These are some of the toughest requirements I've ever seen placed on an EIA," says Kuba Gogolewski from the Foundation 'Development YES -Open-pit Mines NO', which represents Polish local communities opposing lignite mining. "And as a result, the permission process could take much longer than four years, especially if the EIA is challenged in court, which often happens nowadays."
In the Polish village Opolno Zdroj, sitting right at the edge of the mine, locals are waiting for their fate to be decided by PGE and Polish authorities. They heard about PGE plans to shift the mine 20 hectares in the direction of their village but not about the second scenario PGE is considering - that of not expanding the mine their way.
A century ago, Opolno Zdroj was a booming spa resort where people from across the Saxony region came to heal from rheumatic and other sicknesses. Today the mineral springs are all dried up as a result of the mining.
A 2015 report by Poland's national environmental protection body has shown that air in this region is dirtier than national legislation allows for about half of the year (to heat their homes, people in Opolno Zdroj burn lignite from the Turow mine in their ovens and black smoke coming out of chimneys fills the atmosphere.)
The village has about a thousand inhabitants, after some 500 people moved away over the last few years, according to Przemyslaw Kiślak, the village head. Kiślak says the proximity of the mine and the prospect of its planned expansion make it increasingly unappealing to live in Opólno Zdrój.
"You won't be able to do much over here, you won't be able to buy bread, you won't be able to go to the doctor," he says, summing up what lies ahead.
According to Kiślak, about 30 houses on the edge of Opólno Zdrój bordering the mine will be destroyed to make way for the mine expansion. Some of them - colourful 19th century villas - already lie abandoned.
Remaining owners look forward to being bought out by the company. A woman who moved to the village over 30 years ago, said it has become impossible to live in the part of the village that is close to the mine. She said she was forced to get a dog because wild animals, boars and deers, would roam in her gardens and on the main road, coming in from the mines.
Mayor Kiślak agreed that it would be better if some people were simply paid to move out. "We can try to protect what will be left of the village, but we cannot protect everything. Now that the mine exists, it makes sense to continue exploiting it. It's in the strategic interest of our country."
Across the border in Liberec, mayor Martin Puta looks at the buying out of Opolno Zdroj as evidence that the mine will expand. "They are building a new block so they will have to expand the mine, there is no other way," he says.
But Kuba Gogolewski points out that many new power plants face legal and financial challenges in Poland today, and the same is likely to happen to the new Turow unit - potentially undermining the rationale for prolonging the functioning of the mine.
PGE, the largest energy company in Poland, has ambitious expansion plans apart from Turow, including building two new 900 MW units at another plant, Opole, and two new ‘green field' mines. But the company, which is responsible for implementing the Polish government's pro-coal vision, has to face tough economic realities: Polish coal is notoriously expensive to produce, burdening companies like PGE which have been mandated by the government to absorb losses in the sector; modernisations to keep up with EU pollution standards are compulsory and expensive; and international financial institutions are increasingly reluctant to lend to coal.
The resistance of the Czechs came as an additional unexpected obstacle for PGE. Unlike the Poles on the other side of the border, the Czechs have only suffered damages from mining - seeing no gains like job creation or budget revenues. They have little motivation to just accept plans made by a foreign company at their expense.
"Last time PGE got a concession for a new mine, Poland was not even in the European Union," comments Kuba Gogolewski. "Now they have to face strict environmental, social and health criteria. There's a lot of concern about impact on water this time around too. In this sense, we live in a brave new world. Citizen opposition at another PGE border mine, Gubin-Brody, meant the company never got the environmental permit. This too will be an uphill climb for them."
Claudia Ciobanu is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw. Her articles have been published by Reuters, Guardian, al-Jazeera, and others. This story has been written with the support of Foundation "Development YES -"Open-pit Mines NO".
Foundation "DY-OPMN" is the formal and legal representation of the PolishNational Coalition ‘Development YES - Open-pit mines NO" - a civil society grassroots movement to prevent plans to build new lignite open-pit mines and support the transformation of the Polish economy from the one based on ossil fuels to a resource-efficient and new renewables-based one.