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The Brown Coal of Konin

As we drive deeper into the mine, an endless stream of coal flows towards us carried on conveyor belts, rollers spinning and glinting in the last rays of sunlight. Arkadiosz Michalski takes me on a tour of his open cast pit, he is in charge of the mine’s environment policy and proud of its achievements. We visit a lake where the mining company have diverted a river to fill an exhausted pit, then at another pit he shows me a swathe of small saplings that he hopes will one day be a forest. This man has become expert in finding beneficial things to do with huge redundant holes in the ground.

The Konin mine in central western Poland, is actually a series of open pits scattered across the area, run by the state company Kopalnia Wegla Brunatnego (KWB), employing nearly 4,000 people. It is the second largest lignite mine in Poland and expanding. The land across Konin is not permanent, no earth is sacred for long before it is moved around by 100s of rattling conveyers. Coal is swapped for soil, value is extracted and back-filled with waste. Lignite or ‘brown coal’ lies close to the surface only 30 metres below ground, viewed from a distance the dark brown seam appears to merge with the surrounding soil; on closer inspection the coal is dark not black. Reaching the seam Arkadiosz stops the vehicle allowing me to jump out onto the exposed layer of lignite and walk around on it, the coal feels soft and fibrous like compost beneath my feet.

Coal like this supplies 93 percent of Poland’s energy, in Konin it is burnt by the 3 nearby power stations overlooking the mines. The distinctive red striped chimneys and plumes of smoke of two of them, Elektrownia Konin and Elektrownia Patnów, are visible for miles around. Like the mine area, the village of Goslawice is also dominated by coal, but in another form; a mixture of waste ash and water from the power station is piped from the power station behind the village, pumped into a pit made by a former mine. A lake of white ash fills the space, that feels like it belongs to an era we have left behind.

In Gosawice we meet Rafal Dabrowski with his two friends sitting on the steps in the playground of the Junior school, one of them making a snowball. One of their fathers works for the plant. Like any small town teenager they say “It’s boring here, we don’t have anything to do” Rafal is going to High School (16 to 18) next year, the others are in junior school (14 to 16). As we walk the ash pipes, I ask them if they have heard about climate change? “We learn about climate change in Geography class in school, but it’s boring, maybe other people are more interested, that’s up to them ” I ask them how it feels being surrounded by two power plants? “When we were young, it was interesting, we used to play on the pipes, but now it’s just the everyday view, it’s normal”. As we walk through the village, we can smell the coal, thick in the freezing evening air. I asked them if the smell of coal made them cough “It smells like this all the time, it doesn’t bother us any more” Some day they hope to leave the village, Rafal says he would like to live in Poznan.

A paper on coal science from the Institute of Chemistry and Technology of Petroleum and Coal at the Technical University of Warsaw, has lignite as this: “(lignite) consists largely of a complex mixture of polymeric macromolecular organic material formed from specific tissues of higher plants which have undergone microbial and diagenetic alterations.”. Back in the mine I can see this plant tissue hanging from the jaws of the monster machine above me, pieces of wood fibre caught between it’s teeth. I pick up pieces of fossilised wood from the floor and tease them apart with my fingernails, the laminated slivers separate and millions of years of ground pressure unravels. While Arkadiosz tells me that the Konin lignite contributes 9% of Poland’s energy, I look at the bits of tree in my hand and wonder how it burns.

Coal, both brown and black is widely accepted as the most polluting fuel we have, it is the number one contributor to the build up of Co2 in the atmosphere. There is a paradox with climate policy and coal, the EU has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020, yet there are plans to build over 50 coal plants in the EU alone. No efforts to address climate change can be made without drastically reducing coal burning. It is within the EU that the current round of UN climate talks, known as the Cop14 will be hosted, by Poland, in the city of Poznan this week.

Alternatives to coal in Poland are slow to emerge with renewable energy lacking the support and investment it urgently needs. Overlooking the Konin mine are three wind turbines, curiously not turning even though the wind is blowing fiercely over the flat landscape. Their owner Marek Matuszak knows all about the difficulties of investing in renewable energy, as a local business man he has battled for two years to get permission to build and run just three small wind turbines on land next to his home. He has another month to wait before a final decision is made, but despite this he is hopeful for the future. “Now Poland is part of the EU we are taking experience from other countries, there are many renewable energy sources available which we don’t yet have in Poland, I think one day there will be many wind turbines and biomass burning plants in Poland.”

I Climb the seemingly endless ladder to the very top of Marek’s turbine, at the top I unlatch the small hatch, squeeze my shoulders through the gap and feel the full force of the cold wind around me. For miles around I can see and smell open pits, the other environmental threat from coal is clearly visible. It is not only climate change that coal threatens, it also gobbles up vast quantities of land, far below me villages look like islands in this sea of disturbed soil. It requires 1100 Hectares of new land containing the lignite seam to meet the demands of the hungry power stations of Konin and Patnów.

The mining company KWB has a licence to compulsorily purchase this new land which is 10 Kilometres away from it’s office. Wieslaw Michalak is one of many farming the fertile soil above that seam, his village, Tomislawice, is one of twelve that will be destroyed, literally removed so the coal can be exposed. He takes me for a walk around his land, on the way, lighting a candle on the graves of relatives in the local cemetery, here even the dead will be moved for coal. Mr Michalak tells me he is refusing to sell, he is deeply attached to this land. I put to him a point that Arkadiosz Michalski made to me, that KWB would return the land after mining. He counters this by saying, that after mining the soil structure cannot be recovered, that it disrupts wells which the farmers depend on and causes massive water loss in the surrounding areas.

Back in Konin, Marek closes the hatch to the wind generator, locks the door and we turn to walk back to his house, his 9 daughter Agata runs through the field ahead of us. “Agata will be 9 years old by the time I get my first income from building these” He says.

As Agata disappears round the corner at the end of the field I listen to the distant grind of the mine machinery and the rattle of the conveyers moving more earth and coal back and fourth across Konin. High above our heads, the wind generators with their blades locked, are conspicuously silent.

Copyright Nick Cobbing

Copyright Nick Cobbing

Copyright Nick Cobbing

Copyright Nick Cobbing