GB No. 9, autumn 1992


The editorial debate on the ecological issues of the coal mining and power generation industries was attended by professor Antoni Goszcz of Katowice, Head of the Waste Management Agency (AGOS), and the following journalists: Marek Antoni Wasilewski ("Słowo Powszechne"), Jan Krzemiński ("Biologia w Szkole"), Wojciech Roszewski (Service Office for Environmental Movements), Julian Łukasz and the editorial stuff of HAN, the ecological magazine.

M.A. Wasilewski [M.A.W.]: I think we should discuss the very sense of the existence of the coal mining industry in Poland in view of the economic situation of this country. Should we mine coal and burn it - and in what way? Another question we must answer concerns the price of the Polish coal and the price of coal on the international market. Even if the coal prodeced in Poland is more expensive then the one mined elsewhere, it still has to be mined because of the social implications. There rise a question: how to produce coal in a rational manner which will satisfy all requirements, including the scientific ones. Unfortunately, even if a rational program does come into being, it usually ends up in the same way as the one submitted to the Ministry of Health. The Ministry had commissioned a plan for protecting the health of the Polish people. The plan, on which the best researchers worker for more than a year, involved huge amounts of money. Finally the plan was submitted to the Minister. All he did was first to have a glance at the listing of costs the drawing of plan had involved and than, with a sigh, throw it into a waste paper bin.

A. Goszcz [A.G.] The current situation in the coal mining industry is as following. This branch of the industry has been growing for many years. Many new mines came into being, which, of course, led to the present stalemate. Each implementation of modern and less unhealthy technologies calls for larger sums of money. On the other hand there are great social problems, because the shutdown of mines leaves thousands of the miners' families destitute. What is more, there is the pollution problem and, consequently, pollution-enhanced pathological changes, of which the majority are irreversible. For this reason we have launched the Agency. The prime aim of the Agency, of which I am head, is to bring help to the people living in our region. The Agency has been operating in Katowice since May, but the scale of our activity has undoubtedly crossed the boundaries of our Voivodeship. Coming back to the mining issue: our country does needs a certain amount of coal. However, our efforts should be focused on the prudent use of electric energy, since the relation between economizing on energy and the preservation of environment is obvious. The environmental policy of our state should pursue this particular aim.

J. Krzeminski [J.K.]: Gentlemen, the ecological magazine HAN presents not only examples of the devastation of environment, but also, or even above all, tries to urge people to change the status quo. We do not put blame on anybody or bicker, unless we can expect a result in the form of a concrete action. It is widely known that the ecological awareness in Poland is in its "babyhood" and that generally speaking the current situation is gloomy, to say the least.

[A.G.]: The situation in the coal mining industry, is going to change for the better. The government has already approved the shutdown of those of the notorious mines which pose the greatest danger. The most unpleasant period is then probably over. Also, there have already been passed acts opening the way for concessions and investment allowances. There is enough reason for optimism. On the other hand, there is the problem of capital: foreign investors are very conspicuous, yet the effects are scarce. As to the coal mines, they can hardly pay the wages, let alone making ecological investments.

[M.A.W.]: What you have said is undoubtedly true. On the other hand, the insolvency of coal mines results from wrong management: mines are not able to enforce the payment of liabilities.

[A.G.]: There is not a single enterprise in Poland which has no liabilities in respect to some other enterprise: mines own money to power plants, power plants to mines, mines to steelworks, steelworks to mines, and so on.

[M.A.W.]: Let us assume I am a mine and you are a power plant. You owe me money, for instance, for a month and the interest you owe me goes up.

[A.G.]: But I do not pay because I have no money. If only there were some legal means for enforcing the payment, for instance a liquidator who closes down and sells enterprises. This would undoubtedly help. However, as for now, there are no such liquidators.

[M.A.W.]: There can be heard many voices calling for the closing down of unprofitable enterprises.

[A.G.]: But everybody shies away from taking decisions. It is worth remembering that the coal mining industry is subsidized all over the world. With the exception of the United States, Canada and Australia mines bring losses. This is the reason why the suggestions to create a profitable and self-financing coal mining sector are impracticable. If you sum up the ecological loses and electricity bills, we will always be in the red. In Australia, which enjoys excellent geological conditions, mines are located on the coast, so the coal finds its way directly onto ships. Profitability of coal mines in Poland would mean a price of several minion zloty for a single ton of coal. This in turn would entail large-scale changes in the economy and in the price balance. Profitability of coal mines is a fallacy.

J. Lipka [J.L.]: So coal mining has to be subsidized by other branches of industry. What about creating a coal processing industry?

W. Roszewski [W.R.]: This is a typical dilemma of the poor: we cannot have our own processing industry (as it is in the case of, for instance, copper) and have to export it. Building the coal-processing industry would require large investments. At present there is no money for that.

[A.G.]: Such projects are extremely expensive. In the past, as managing director of one of the mines, I supervised a coal- processing line which, after much effort on our part, was to produce coal oil. When the line did eventually became operational it turned out that the oil we produced was four times as expensive as the one imported from Iraq. No wonder then that the line was soon closed down. However, such processing plants do exist in, for instance, South Africa, where self-sufficiency was forced by the international embargo.

[M.A.W.]: Despite being a rather poor country, India managed to introduce methane-heating farm systems. Can we launch something of this kind in Poland?

[A.G.]: In Poland methane is practically not use at all. It can be produced not only from biomass, but also from coal. The volume of methane released from its sources is estimated at 2 milliard cubic meters, out of which only about 200 million cubic meters are utilized. The rest is released into the atmosphere, which enhances the greenhouse effect.

[J.L.]: Let us think what the ecological side of the mining process should look like. Should we make damage good only in special cases, or should we work out a comprehensive system whose aim would be to motivate people to take the ecological issue to their hearts.

[W.A.W.]: This is like asking: "Should we like the black-haired or the fair ladies?". Actually, the answer depends on the local situation. There are occasions when a damage resulting from mining activities can be remedied by turning the area into a recreation resort, for instance by the formation of an artificial lake. However, if such a reservoir is to be polluted by the ashes emitted by nearby mines, then such a solution is unreasonable. You never have a choice of the black-haired-or-a- fair-lady kind. In each case the solution adopted must be ecologically valid.

[A.G.]: We often witness a conflict of interests between various branches of our industry. For example the issue of waste. Its volume depends on how strict the process of removal of mineral substances from coal is. The regulations on the purity of coal can, of course, be changed, yet the power and heat plants in Poland cannot switch to the fully calorific coal because, as you can easily guess, this would mean reducing electricity bills. It is no use waiting for radical changes in the near future. In the meantime, coal of a low calorific value is responsible for large amounts of ashes. How can we break this vicious circle? Heaps of ash are growing. Each enterprise pursues its own policy in this respect, which will make any comprehensive changes a hard task, indeed.

[W.R.]: I have another question. To what extend do the mines participate in the costs of remedying the environmental damage. Are the costs they suffer high enough to make them aware that they devastate environment?

[A.G.]: In the mining sector there are three basic factors responsible for wreaking damage: waste, saline water and sulphur contained in coal. Fees due for releasing saline water into rivers are astronomically high. The biggest source of saline water, the Piast coal mine, ought to pay 550 milliard annually, which amounts to approximately one-fourth of its turnover. The mine is unable to pay the fees.

[J.K.]: Can you describe the methods of desalination?

[A.G.]: Saline water can, for example, be pumped through the osmotic membrane. What you get is pure water and highly condensed brine, which, however, poses another problem. In the United States brine is released into saline lakes or into the sea. Such solutions are impossible in Poland.

[W.R.]: Are there any better ones?

[A.G.]: Of course, there are, but they are expensive. American scientists have developed a system of pumping saline water back into where it came from, creating a kind of a close circuit. Or, saline water can be pumped 2 or 3 km underground. However, the easiest method is just avoiding the beds where saline water can be encountered. This solution was proposed for the Piast coal mine. E. Lipka

[E.L.]: Will the production of coal be significantly reduced in the Lublin region over the next decade?

[A.G.]: Yes, it will, because the production of coal in that region is particularly expensive. Also, one has to take into account the human aspect: what will be the future of the people currently employed in the mines?

J. Łukasz [J.Ł.]: I can sense a large dose of optimism in your words. You imply that the most profound problems of the coal mining industry are over and that big money will do the job. My question is which branch of Polish economy will provide the big money.

[A.G]:. I do not have a ready answer, but I think that it might be agriculture. Production of coal is the evil we all have to tolerate, for the sake of, for example, the electric light we can enjoy.

[J.Ł].: Who benefits from this evil?

[A.G].: You do.

[J.L.]: Do I? Let us assume that you are the legislative body, or in other words, you are both the lower and the higher chamber of the Polish parliament. If, using a razor or a broken bottle, I force you to introduce the freedom of providing oneself with any source of energy one wishes to use, electricity will still be available. There is agriculture you have mentioned and there are wealthy people ready to pay. The costs of producing energy on the basis of coal are incredibly high in comparison to the power produced out of natural gas or oil. The problem lies in the fact that the lobby you represent blocks these people's initiatives.

[A.G.] I do not represent such a lobby. Poland need much more electric energy than she can produce herself. Poland's needs equal 110 million tons of coal each year, given our economy's current rate of energy consumption.

[J.L.]: Continuing the metaphor of the parliament: all I want of you is to let me, on behalf of the group I represent, solve the problem myself. Do not tell me that there is some structure, public interest or a political reason against it. Rising money for the project is my problem. Let us assume I already have several milliard dollars to finance the shipment of liquified natural gas and building of a receiving plant. The gas will be sold in the domestic gas network and multiply the capital invested. Unfortunately, I cannot do that.

[A.G.]: Why?

[J.L.]: Because liberal economy is the guise for strengthening monopoly of a certain group of people holding government posts. What unites them is the wish to go on holding those posts as long as possible. They notoriously block all economic initiatives bound to change the status quo. They use their position for defrauding budget money.

[A.G.]: Since the liquidation of the Ministry of Mining, the Federation of Coal and the Miners' Guild, there have been only a few civil servants. They form a separate Department in the Ministry of Industry. Mines are then free to decide for themselves, which forces them to fight for survival and use any means available. Would you close a mine down if you were its director?

[J.Ł.]: I would not. Hangmen do not protest against capital punishment. All my initiatives are being repealed by soulless bureaucrats. They all are paid by the state.

[W.R.]: I will disagree with you. Your views are extremely liberal, or, should I say, even anarchic. It is not the bureaucrats that you rebel against, it is the Polish people who are your enemy, the Polish people who fear being left jobless. You fight the miner who wishes that the political power that he had once backed had never made a joke of him by tolerating people like you who claim that both miners and coal are redundant. One has also remember that even the most eminent authorities of the West admit that the natural resources of our planet will not suffice to serve the needs of all its inhabitants. People will have to understand that the consumption-based way of life for all is unattainable.

[J.Ł.]: I think that we have reached the objective of the debate, which is to highlight the major issues of the coal mining and energy production industries. I think we can close the debate at this point. Thank you for participation.

Edited by Ewa and Michal Lipko
"Han. Magazyn Ekologiczny"
transl. by Sigillum Ltd.

GB No. 9, autumn 1992 | Contents