The Turow Mine: Unpacking The Issues Of Transitioning To Sustainable Business

Negotiations regarding the Turow coal mine have begun between the suing Czech Republic and the accused nation of Poland. The suit asserts that the Turow coal mine, located near the border between Poland and the Czech Republic, is causing damage to nearby Czech towns through noise, dust, and other industrial pollution, according to Reuters. Sitting in the junction between the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland, the Turow coal mine has been a source of contention in recent years. The Polish, state-controlled mine, operated by Polska Grupa Energetyczna (PGE), has been accused by the Czech government of harming communities over the Czech Republic border with environmental pollution. In February 2021, the Czech Republic filed a lawsuit against Poland for this pollution to the bloc’s Court of Justice. In May 2021, the court ordered Poland to stop mining, as Reuters reports. Although Warsaw rejected the order, they did allow for the beginning of negotiations with the Czech government regarding the lawsuit and its potential withdrawal.

The Czech Republic is not alone in this suit against Poland. The European Commission announced in early June 2021 that it would support the Czech Republic’s lawsuit over the expansion of Turow. The assertion that Poland had incorrectly applied European Union (E.U.) laws, specifically requiring the consultation of neighboring communities or nations over the sustained use of the mine, was reason enough for the commission to support the Czech Republic’s lawsuit. The Turow coal mine has existed since the early 19th century, soon after the discovery of lignite there in 1740. However, it was not until 1904 that a joint stock company was established, and the mine began to take shape as the lucrative corporation it is today. It was the recent extension of the expiration, originally set for April 2020 but extended until 2026 in March 2020 by the Polish government, that has recently sparked a dispute. The ensuing lawsuit leveled by the Czech governments against Poland at the European Court of Justice in February 2021 is the first case of a European Union member suing another for environmental reasons.

Among the reasons for the Turow mine’s continued controversy the general theme of an unsustainable status quo, one that is deeply reinforced by wealthy industries built on that status quo, being extremely difficult to be dislodged is discovered. The sustained use of the Turow mine may be, in part, due to Poland’s history of dependence on coal. As the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) article in 2012 thoroughly explained, at the time, 93% of Poland’s electricity came from coal. The money that continues to exist, profiting from the coal industry, helps to perpetuate the harmful practices of the Turow mine. With sponsors and donors having a significant, dangerous influence over politics and therefore policy-makers, it is logically sound to assume that corporate interests are at least partially if not entirely responsible for the continuation of the Turow mine. Furthermore, such a formidable industry also employs many people. The deeply entrenched economic benefit of having the industry is a further reason that the pollution and damage may be persisting. 

Efforts to halt operations at the Turow mine have been limited in their success. For example, the supposed closing of the mine in April 2020 only for the mine’s license to be then extended. By allowing this, the Polish government was fulfilling the PGE’s wishes, supporting corporate interest in opposition to the health hazards the mine presents to not only their own Polish citizens, but the neighboring citizens of the Czech Republic as well. The corporate interests having such weight in politics is not new or surprising. The wealth that the PGE both generates and currently has may both be used as major motivations for the Polish government to extend the mine’s license.

In line with the recent, global strides towards sustainability in an attempt to address climate change, Poland too has begun to work towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with the European Union. Among these goals, the objectives to improve air quality (SDG 6), implement the sustainable management of terrestrial resources (SDG 15) and to mitigate the impact of noise on society (SDG 3). The Polish government’s implementation of the 2030 National Environmental Policy, meant to guide the government’s internal development and initiatives. Among these initiatives, the Polish government established a new Ministry of Climate (MoC). With the mission to ensure the “long-term, sustainable national development with respect of natural heritage and human rights,” the ministry is an essential first step in promoting sustainable development. However, the powers granted to the ministry must be significant enough to have some meaningful impact on policymaking, a difficulty that has existed in recent attempts for sustainable development. 

The prioritization of human rights and lives is absolutely imperative when moving forward in regard to the Turow mine. As with other environmental polluters, the coal mine risks the poisoning of generations of numerous towns. Only 20 kilometers (km) northwest of Liberec, Czech Republic, and similarly distanced from towns in Germany, the mine poses legitimate health hazards to the residents. While many of the immediate risks cited by sources such as the United States’s Center for Disease and Control (CDC) and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) include slope stability and failures, with the environmental cost also being very significant. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, environmental and health hazards exist in every step of the open-pit mining process. As the CDC summarizes, exposure to coal dust can cause a variety of pulmonary diseases, including coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Lung diseases can lead to “impairment, disability, and premature death,” serious risks to impose upon numerous residential communities. Especially in this case where the Czech communities would not even receive the economic benefits of having a mine, damaging the community and residents is understandably a source of contention for the Czech Republic’s government. 

With the strategic material; coal, being an incredibly valuable resource for Poland, the mine is not only a lucrative business venture but also deeply ingrained in the economy. Mitigating the loss of jobs and workforce must also be considered in order to respect and maintain both the local and national economy. To do so, it would be most ideal to create a sustainable industry to employ and maintain the same workers. However, there are many logistical errors that do get in the way of this ideal. The creation of an equally lucrative industry that could exist in the same area would require great strides such as the establishment of green business and the retraining of an entire workforce. 

However, there is hope. As public interest in sustainability and protecting the environment increases, including in Poland according to a briefing by the European Environmental Agency in December 2020, social and political pressure has been placed upon harmful industries, such as the coal industry. This pressure not only backs the Czech Republic’s current lawsuit, but also would incentivize other industries and businesses to move towards more sustainable practices. While that is currently creating a wave of greenwashing or sleight-of-hand in companies’ public press, it is also probable that some lasting change may come about. In correlation with the public’s interest in sustainability, the grounds for a new, green company to take place is quite fertile. Companies that already have an environmentally friendly reputation, such as Tesla, have generally been idolized and promoted in the media in recent years. While financial standings can be hard to interpret, especially with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019 and the consequential closing of the world for most of 2020, companies like Tesla remain at the forefront of the sustainable media. With its social popularity, it is logical to assume that people are also interested in investing in more sustainable business ventures. The social pressure that larger, unsustainable companies, such as Coca-Cola, British Petroleum (PB) and ExxonMobil, have been facing recently is also encouraging.

Ideally, this desire would be enough to halt the Turow mine’s operation and allow for a sustainable company to replace it. The economic burden of the transition should not fall on the local communities, therefore a lucrative replacement would ideally be established quickly after the closing of the Turow mine. Overall, globally, the culmination of public will to support sustainability is encouragingly increasing. While undoubtedly there remains many logistical challenges in transitioning current businesses and policies towards sustainability, public will is a first and crucial step.

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