Published on November 30, 2018

Imielin, Poland: a community takes on the coal industry

Citizens and local authorities in Imielin have created a united front to oppose destructive coal mining in their green town.

Imielin is different from what most Poles understand by a city in Upper Silesia. “There is not a single apartment block here,” says mayor Jan Chwiędacz in an interview at his office.

Blocks built for miners usually define the landscape and identity of Silesian towns, but not in Imielin. Instead of the overwhelming, decaying architecture inherited from the decades of peak coal production of the last century, Imielin features green landscapes, a panorama of the Western Tatras and recreational water reservoirs.

Almost all of the 9 000 inhabitants of Imielin live in independent houses, some built eagerly not long ago. This, however, does not mean that mining is distant for locals.

“15 years ago, in every second household it was a miner who supported the family,” says the mayor. “Up to 2 000 residents of Imielin were employed in the mine.”

The mayor refers to the Ziemowit coal mine (part of the Piast-Ziemowit complex), which lies under the southern part of the city. The mine is owned by Polska Grupa Górnicza (PGG), the largest coal mining company in Poland and in all of Europe.

While extraction in the mine takes place at a depth of 550 metres, inhabitants of Imielin are very conscious of the underground activities: a shaky ground and other damages from mining have affected an estimated ten per cent of the area of the town.

“The foundations of houses in the south are secured in the event of shocks and subsiding of land,” says Tomasz Lamik, chairman of the city council in Imielin. “For the resulting damage, the mine paid compensations. This is a normal practice here.”

Finnish houses in Imielin with chimneys destroyed in recent shakes

If mining stopped here, the town could go ahead to plan further investments and attract new residents seeking a break from living in the big cities to the west.

“We had assurances that the mine would not grow outside of its present area so people were not preparing for larger damages,” continues the chairman. “But in October last year, we were informed that the new Imielin Północ (Imielin North) deposit will be exploited. Nearly half of the town lies on its planned surface. The extraction is to begin in two years and will last until 2046. They want to dig at a depth of only 180 metres, the cheapest possible method. The ground is expected to sink by at least 6 metres. It was a shocking news”.

Locals rise up

My trip to Imielin happened exactly one year after the announcement about the new mine.

At the train station, I was greeted by Alicja Zdziechiewicz, a secondary school literature teacher with 17 years of work experience, activist of the Green Imielin association and mother of two.

“I work with my husband for the Green Imielin association,” says Zdziechiewicz. „We did not have to be persuaded in any way. We got involved immediately after the information meeting at which the mayor told the inhabitants about the plans for the mine.”

Alicja Zdziechiewicz

Zdziechiewicz tells of how several citizen groups were created, sending out newsletters and placing large information banners across the region. I can still see some of the posters in strategic locations like a bus stop in the town’s centre.

Thanks to the determination of the involved residents, up to 350 people applied and became a formal party in the administrative case about the new mine. Another 1 200 inhabitants were listed as supporters of these applications.

“The first serious test for me was to organise a protest in May 2018 in front of the Regional Directorate for Environmental Protection,” says Zdziechiewicz. „We the inhabitants prepared the protest together, we shared our tasks and made banners. We gathered about one hundred people and went to Katowice. I took the megaphone in my hand and I had to make it work. We made a lot of noise and the protest got covered by the media.”

Zdziechiewicz says that eventually large environmental organisations supported their efforts, and Polish and foreign journalists started coming to Imielin. As representatives of Green Imielin, Zdziechiewicz and her colleagues even went to Brussels this year, to attend a meeting of the European Commission’s Platform for Coal Regions in Transition, during which they told EU politicians and others about Imielin. In 2018, Silesia was one of the pilot regions of the Coal Platform, which is meant to assist European regions transitioning away from coal.

„I had to overcome stage fright before speaking at the European Commission building in a foreign language,” Zdziechiewicz remembers.

Zdziechiewicz accompanied me at the meeting with mayor Jan Chwiędacz at the town hall. When we arrived for the interview, Chwiędacz was holding a paper with the official decision of the Regional Directorate for Environmental Protection concerning the Imielin North mine. He had just received it.

The environmental permit is key for the mine to go ahead. Chwiędacz and his colleagues, with the help of geology experts and lawyers, spent a lot of energy persuading the Regional Directorate not to issue it. But the mayor’s expression is unambiguous. The mine received the green light.

“Our law office is already checking the decision,” the mayor said. „We have two weeks from the date of publication to appeal.”

The mayor did not seem dispirited, but rather focused, his mind clearly full of fast thoughts.

“They did not even send this decision to us,” the mayor noticed. „They published it on the internet yesterday. We have to get to the information ourselves, as if we were denied the role of party in the proceedings. That’s how it looked like from the very beginning. They announce their decisions to us without asking people for their opinion.”

I spent an hour in the mayor’s office listening to the mayor speaking to Zdziechiewicz and Lamik from the city council. It is the close cooperation between residents and officials that seems to me to be the greatest asset of this community.

“While the residents’ associations organise a demonstration in Katowice and keep pressure on the management of the mine, the mayor’s office looks for legal and administrative solutions,” Zdziechiewicz explains of the division of roles. The goal is convergent despite the fact that motivations can seem different.

“People have taken lifelong mortgages to build houses here and now they fear that in a few years the walls will break like it happened in nearby Bytom,” says Zdziechiewicz.

“It is impossible to plan for the renovation of sewage systems or roads with the awareness that the ground beneath will slip. We have just built two sports halls in the city. It is not known what damage they can withstand,” says the mayor. Lamik speaks about threats posed by the new mines to the water system, nearby forests and local railways.

The mayor gave me a lot of time from his day so our meeting has to end, but Zdziechiewicz and Lamik want me to see what all the fuss is about. We drive up to the nearby hill which has a clear view of a dozen kilometres in each direction. From here, one can see the distant mountains and a nearby lake. Visible are also many workshops, warehouses and shafts indispensable to the surrounding mines, including those belonging to Piast-Ziemowit.

“So they want to build another one of those somewhere here?” I ask, staring down at the shafts. “Oh no,” says Lamik. “They want to dig new tunnels from there to the other side of the city, to avoid building a costly new shaft. As shallow and cheaply as they can, because this coal is anyways bad and sulphated so hard to profit from”.

With the help of retired miners, the inhabitants of Imielin have learned a lot about mining techniques. They know that the mining company will try to avoid leaving the intact parts of the deposit as pillars supporting the ground and will not carefully fill up existing excavations with new material in order to prevent slides, as they should. The company will be looking for cost cuts in all possible ways, locals in Imielin expect.

A ‘Save Imielin’ banner action

“Here, people are very entrepreneurial, they set up businesses, they deal with small but profitable production of various types. New residents are still arriving and the number of miners has dropped to 200 people. We want to be able to offer people conditions for development, which requires reliable infrastructure and nearby comfortable homes and woods or reservoirs for leisure,” Lamik says of his vision for Imielin.

Bytom, a cautionary tale

Located 30 kilometers away from Imielin, on the other side of regional center Katowice, Bytom has always been infamous for stories of “earthquakes” caused by mining and crumbling buildings. I myself heard these stories about Bytom growing up.

Bytom has become a point of reference for Imielin residents, so Zdziechiewicz insisted I should visit. In Bytom, I met local activist Arkadiusz Rusnak, who for many years has helped people seek compensation and repair works from the local mining companies.

Only two mines are still operational in Bytom, from the total of seven that used to be there.

In the last 20 years, the number of residents has fallen by almost 40 000 people, according to the Central Statistical Office of Poland. It is not only the lack of jobs, but also the quality of life in Bytom that made people leave. The destruction caused by mining to homes and infrastructure is the most obvious problem. Additionally, locals suffer from high levels of smog and the waste industry which replaced mining has polluted the environment.

“Get in the car,” Rusnak tells me. „You will take pictures and show people in Imielin the fate that awaits them when mining starts.”

We only have an hour and a half so I see it all at fast pace: a newly bought and renovated house, in which one corner is collapsing, walls bursting outside and inside the home despite the steel rim around the building; a pre-war tenement from which, because of the risk of collapse, inhabitants were displaced; a football pitch sunken in the middle; a “Finnish” housing estate where two months ago the chimneys were destroyed because of the shock, leaving people without heating for the upcoming autumn.

Before leaving Silesia, I ask Alicia Zdziechiewicz how the fight for the community changed her life. “I have a strong sense of the meaning of what I do. We are opposing a looting economy, we want to protect the environment and live in peace in our green city,” she says, adding that as the campaign advanced, she became more interested in the environment and climate change and that she learned about cooperating with others.

„It turned out that more people have problems like us and that we can and should support one other,” the teacher said. „The only thing that I am afraid of is that the decision about the new mine was already made in Warsaw a long time ago and that, despite our protests, the politicians do not really listen to us.”

Text and photos: Jakub Szafranski