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EU legal adviser slams Poland for blinding itself to science in running of mine

Already on the hook for millions of dollars in fines for operations of its state-run Turow mine, Poland shirked its duty to require environmental impact studies before renewing the mine's license, a court advocate general said Thursday.

(CN) — Poland suffered a fresh setback Thursday in its efforts to keep open its century-old state-run coal mine along the border with the Czech Republic after a legal adviser to the European Court of Justice said Warsaw illegally protected the Turow mine from having to conduct new environmental assessments.

Shortly after the European Court of Justice legal opinion was issued, however, the fight over the mine was thrown into further uncertainty as Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala announced an agreement to end the dispute. Poland said the deal will allow the mine to remain open.  

“No judge from Luxembourg, no official from Brussels, can dictate to us how we are to govern ourselves at home, how we are to govern ourselves in Poland,” Mateusz said.  

Under the deal, the Czech Republic promised to withdraw the lawsuit it filed with the Court of Justice. The agreement calls for keeping the mine open but also working to make the mine less polluting and protecting water supplies for nearby towns. The European Commission did not immediately comment on the deal.  

Poland has been in a major fight with environmental groups, Brussels bureaucrats, Prague and nearby Czech towns over plans to keep operating its open-pit mine for the foreseeable future.

Warsaw argues the mine is essential because it supplies lignite to a nearby power plant, but opponents say its operations are depleting groundwater in the region and leaving nearby towns in Czechia dry. Separately, environmental groups are seeking to shut it down because burning coal is a leading cause of global warming.

On Thursday, Advocate General Priit Pikamae, a legal adviser to the EU's highest court, said Polish authorities broke EU law when they renewed the mine's operating license in 2020 for another six years without requiring new environment impact studies. His opinion was not immediately available in English.

Pikamae's opinion comes in a case Prague brought to the EU's highest court against the Poland over the mine. Advocates general at the Luxembourg-based court provide nonbinding legal guidance to the court. Often, but not always, the court's judges follow their legal findings.

Poland is already in deep trouble over the mine.

Last September, the Court of Justice ordered the mine to be shut down under an emergency injunction but Poland refused to do that, prompting the court to impose a 500,000 euro (about $563,000) daily fine on Poland, one of the largest ever given by the court.

Smoke rises from chimneys of a power plant located by the Turow lignite coal mine near the town of Bogatynia, Poland, on Jan. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek, file)

In response to the fine, some 2,000 Polish miners staged a protest in front of the court. Meanwhile, Warsaw and Prague have held dozens of meetings to work out an agreement over the mine's future. So far, though, they have failed to reach a deal.

Last month, the European Commission began withholding 15 million euros (about $17 million) in EU funds from Poland as punishment for refusing to pay the court-ordered fines.

EU figures from 2018 show that Poland pays the EU about 4 billion euros (about $4.5 billion) a year and gets about 16 billion euros a year from the bloc. It receives so much more than it contributes because the EU budget is tailored to push funds into countries and regions that are underdeveloped.

Besides the battle over the Turow mine, Poland's ultraconservative government, headed by the nationalistic Law and Justice party, faces a high-stakes conflict with the Brussels over Warsaw's refusal to abide by other Court of Justice rulings. The EU court has ordered Poland to scrap judicial reforms that it said eroded the independence of the judiciary.

Poland was ordered to pay a daily fine of 1 million euros (about $1.1 million) over the rule of law dispute, but Warsaw has refused to pay those penalties too. As the dispute goes unresolved, the EU is blocking coronavirus pandemic recovery funds from going to Poland.

In October, Poland's Constitutional Tribunal sparked a legal crisis when it declared that Poland's constitution has primacy over EU laws.

Poland, though, may be ready to back down on the rule of law fight. On Thursday, President Andrzej Duda proposed a bill to roll back the contested judicial reforms, according to PAP, a Polish news agency.

In the Turow fight, Warsaw argues the EU does not have the legal authority to order it to close the mine. It cites a 2008 Polish law that allowed the mine's license to be renewed for six years without the need to carry out new environmental impact studies.

But Pikamae said that law is not in keeping with EU directives on how and when environmental impact studies must be done.

“Mining activities taking place over a surface area similar to that of the Turow mine present, by their nature, a risk of notable environmental affects and must necessarily be subject to an assessment of their environmental effects,” Pikamae said, according to a court news release.

The advocate general also chided Poland for not quickly supplying the Czech Republic with documents related to its decision to keep the mine open. He added that Poland provided an inadequate amount of documents.

“Poland has failed to fulfill its obligations under the principle of sincere cooperation,” the advocate general said. “In accordance with that principle, Member States are obliged to cooperate with one another in order to achieve the objectives of the European Union.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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