Published on March 12, 2018

Local community protests against new coal mining projects in Upper Silesia

, Izabela Zygmunt (PGN, Bankwatch)

In Imielin, a 9,000-strong Silesian town, local residents and authorities are protesting plans by Polska Grupa Górnicza (PGG) to start coal extraction in the Imielin-North field, which overlaps with half of the town’s territory.

‘Imielin is a green oasis, a heaven for anglers and cyclists, a quiet place where it is good to live and raise your children,’ says local teacher Alicja, one of the people opposing the new mine. ‘If the Piast-Ziemowit mine (Imielin-North field) gets the licence to extract coal using the cheapest and most aggressive ‘collapse’ method, the terrain may subside by as much as six meters, taking our homes with it!’

‘Nobody here wants to live in fear of our homes collapsing or tilting. We want to feel secure.’

The Polish government intends to develop at least two new coal deposits in Upper Silesia, in the hope of slowing down the decline of coal production and reviving the struggling coal mining sector.

However, in places like Imielin, the costs, which will be borne by the local community, very clearly outweigh the benefits, which will be reaped by the mining company.

Meeting of local residents opposing coal mining. 

The residents of Imielin are already suffering from the damage caused by PGG’s existing mining operation in the Imielin-South deposit, which the company has been reluctant to compensate for. Residents have shown us cracks in roads and homes provoked by previous mining.

If a new mining perimeter is opened, people fear even more damage to homes and to crucial infrastructure such as roads, water supply systems and a nearby gas pipeline.

People are scared of probable mining-related damage because the company plans to extract coal using the cheapest method, in which the terrain over the empty cavities is allowed to collapse (safer but more expensive methods would probably make the project unprofitable). This would result in major deformation of the terrain, as the ground is expected to subside by as much as six meters. In turn, this entails very high risk to homes in the area, which would likely be damaged or destroyed by mining-related shocks, putting the lives and health of inhabitants in danger.

Many houses in Imielin were built without special protective reinforcements because Kompania Węglowa (which has since been taken over by PGG) had informed the owners that there would be no coal extraction underneath Imielin. Residential homes in the town are also at risk of flooding because coal extraction would alter the area’s hydrological conditions.

‘Many of us did not protect our homes against mining damage because there was going to be no mining underneath Imielin,’ says Anna, another Imielin resident. ‘Now it turns out that the mine is seeking a licence to develop a new field and wants to dig underneath our homes. Our neighbours have sold their house and are moving out because they don’t want to waste their nerves fighting a state-owned company in court. They say it’s hopeless because no-one has ever won with the mine here. Is this going to happen to us?’

Mining in the Imielin-North field also poses risks to important local infrastructure including roads, water supply systems and gas pipelines.

The existing gas pipeline is not protected against the impacts of mining operations. Because of this, the Transmission Gas Pipeline Operator has called on the mining company to build a new gas pipeline at its own expense and either equip it with the necessary protections or build it in a different location, away from the zone that would be affected by mining shocks. However, such a project would be extremely costly and the construction works would cause major inconvenience to the residents.

Finally, coal extraction in the Imielin-North field would additionally adversely affect the natural environment. In particular, it risks damage to the Dziećkowice Reservoir, an artificial lake supplying drinking water and water for industrial processes to many entities in Silesia. Mining would also expose to risk the underground water reserves which local residents use to source drinking water.

Dziećkowice Reservoir

‘Extracting coal in a residential area with a complex geological structure, underneath an underground water reservoir and a surface reservoir of drinking water, at depths just below 180m in insufficiently studied rock formations will lead to irreversible consequences on the surface, impacting the environment and the residents,’ thinks Tomasz Lamik, president of the Imielin City Council.

‘The planned investment in coal extraction using the method where ground over the cavities is allowed to collapse will destroy our residents’ properties. Houses in Imielin are not protected against mining-related damage.’

The investor has not consulted with the residents before launching the permitting process. Meanwhile, the locals’ previous experience with seeking compensation for mining-related damage from the company warrants deep scepticism as to whether PGG would be willing to shoulder the responsibility for the negative impacts of its mining operation.

‘The local government of the town of Imielin shares the fears of our residents concerning the impacts and risks of the planned coal mining operation in several deposits in the Imielin-North field with regard to material damage and the fact that we would be exposed to such damage for many years,’ says Jan Chwiędacz, the mayor of Imielin.

‘The mine has not taken any corrective measures to fix the impacts of its current mining operations in the Imielin-South field, and we have no reason to believe that they will take any preventive measures to eliminate the expected impacts of the projected mining operation in the Imielin-North field.’

The residents and the local government of Imielin are participating in the environmental decision procedure for the new mining operation. Their view, shared by experts, is that the environmental impact report presented by the investor is incomplete, leaving out many important factors. The Imielin authorities have sent a letter to national and regional governments as well as to the investor to express their strong objections to the planned mining operation. A similar protest letter has been sent by the residents.

Coal production in Poland has been declining systematically because the currently operated deposits are increasingly depleted. Coal needs to be mined ever deeper, which makes extraction barely profitable or unprofitable, and increasingly risky. According to experts, Silesia’s coal reserves will last less than 18 years, and the Polish energy system’s demand for coal will increasingly be satisfied by imports. The mining sector is already struggling to meet its production targets. All this has been pushing the mining companies to seek new opportunities, often in areas which are not suitable for mining.

Despite this dim outlook for coal, and despite the fact that developing a new pit requires a massive investment that is not guaranteed to pay off, the government’s intention is to develop at least two new pits in Silesia. The potential locations include the Paruszowiec field near Rybnik, the Kobiór-Pszczyna, Studzienice and Studzienice 1 fields near Pszczyna, the Imielin-North field in Imielin and the adjacent Brzezinka 1 and Brzezinka 3 fields in the city of Mysłowice. In all those locations, local residents are protesting against the new mining projects, fearing further environmental degradation and mining-related damage to homes and infrastructure.

It is extremely unlikely that the downward trend in coal extraction in Upper Silesia could be reversed, because the coal deposits are nearing depletion, mining is increasingly risky and costly, and the mining companies are struggling to fill vacancies and meet their production targets.

Meanwhile, further mining-related degradation of the natural environment and damage to residential areas, which is inevitable if new pits are given a green light, will undermine the development potential of the region, which has identified improving quality of life and tackling environmental degradation among its strategic objectives. Silesia has in the last years developed many industries unrelated to coal, thanks to which the region has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Poland, despite the rapidly shrinking employment in mining.

Kościół Matki Bożej Szkaplerznej, main church and sightseeing sight in Imielin. Photo by Flickr user magro_kr downloaded from here

Imielin itself is a pleasant, green town of single-family homes with gardens, whose economy thrives thanks to a local cluster of fencing manufacturers. Extraction of coal in the Imielin-North field would destroy this positive development path and negatively affect the town’s development potential.

What Imielin needs is investment in air quality measures, energy efficiency of residential buildings, and projects that can realise the largely untapped tourism and recreation potential of the Dziećkowice Reservoir. Investments that directly or indirectly stimulate demand for coal will increase the pressure on the local community and hurt Imielin’s development potential.