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Echoing Beijing, Poles sound the alert on rampant smog (+video)

Poland's rich coal deposits provide energy security, but as choking haze spreads some say it's time to clear the air, literally.

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    Greenpeace activists install a large banner featuring images of Poland's then-Environment Minister Maciej Grabowski and the slogan 'Smog poisons us, why does the minister not react?' on the Environment Ministry building in Warsaw in April.
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A dark, heavy cloud hangs over the city, barring the sun from shining through and obstructing the historical architecture. Some residents, all too accustomed to the foul-smelling air, reach for their face masks.

A “red alert” day in polluted Beijing?

No, this is the 7th-century city of Kraków in southern Poland. Though better known for the Wawel Castle and ornate churches of its Old Town, Kraków has quickly become Exhibit A of Polish dependence on coal. And as it does, it the focal point of a burgeoning environmental movement that aims to counter successive governments that have cared more about the economy than the climate.

As leaders scramble to reach a deal to limit global warming at a landmark climate summit in Paris, Poland has said that it is committed to reaching a pact, but not if it disproportionately impacts its economy. Many read its position as a sign that the current right-wing government, like its predecessors, is clinging to coal. 

Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, said recently that 90 percent of European coal deposits are located in Poland and that it could be enough to power the country for the next 200 years. “Coal is absolutely our fundamental energy resource and energy foundation, therefore an element of our energy sovereignty,” he told an advisory group.

But environmentalists are pushing back. They want the government to acknowledge that Poland has some of the worst air quality in Europe and to put tougher safeguards in place – like the first-of-its-kind red alert underway in Beijing, where schools remain shuttered and factory production halted.

Clearing the air

The group Kraków Smog Alarm is trying to revolutionize the way residents think about clean air. They helped force through a tougher Environmental Protection Act signed by the president. Now they want to see a ban on the widespread practice of burning coal in households, which generates an estimated 88 percent of the country’s non-industrial air pollution. The activists say there are signs the government is finally paying attention.

“We are a good example that people, when they are united, can do anything. They can fight local governments, central parliament, and even the president,” says Ewa Lutomska, a founder of Kraków Smog Alarm.

If Kraków’s air pollution can be jarring amid its setting of soaring steeples, the problem gets even worse in the nearby city of Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, known ominously as the “valley of death.”

Here the problem goes beyond just burning coal. Small businesses, from carpenters to shoemakers, toss their production waste like rubber soles or glue-smeared fabrics into their stoves, adding to the smog.  

Until now, nobody has challenged those practices. There is no municipal policy or point person to hold polluters accountable, says Aleksandra Ślusarczyk, who just set up a Kalwaria Smog Alarm Association, modeled after the one in Kraków.

Activists are pressing city hall to lift the lid on air pollution and to apply for EU funds to help residents exchange stoves for new more environmentally-friendly ones. They pass out leaflets warning residents about the dangers of smog. A partner organization, the “Kalwaria Lungs,” last month held an eye-catching funeral procession for the fresh air. “It's true that many people still look at us like we are crazy. That's why we have to educate them,” says Ms. Ślusarczyk.

Creating the atmosphere

The central government acknowledges the problem. The website of the "TworzyMY atmosferę" ("we create the atmosphere") campaign, run by the Ministry of Environment, states bluntly “The quality of air in Poland is one of the worst in Europe.” Magdalena Skłodowska, spokesperson of the National Fund for Environmental Protection and Water Management in Warsaw, doesn’t mince words either. “The air pollution is a serious problem in Poland, some of the air pollution limits are exceeded almost in the whole country,” she says.

The government has programs aimed at improving air quality, but their effects are rather weak. Poland also lags behind other EU members in adopting renewable energy sources; 85 percent of electricity is generated from coal. 

In a 2014 assessment by the country's Supreme Audit Office, authorities faulted public institutions for not adequately protecting people or the natural environment from the negative effects of air pollution. 

And on Thursday, the European Commission said it was referring Poland to the Court of Justice over its failure to meet EU-wide emissions standards. It cited persistently high dust particles levels that "pose a major risk to public health."  

In Paris at the COP21 climate conference, Prime Minister Beata Szydło said Poland wanted a deal, but one “that protects Polish economic interests.” The Ministry of Environment headed by Jan Szyszko, a member of the ruling Law & Justice party, declined to be interviewed for this piece.

Pit mines and pollutants

Activists, in the meantime, are looking for new allies, including big business. One of the fiercest battles underway is in western Poland, where activists are fighting plans to open a new open-pit coal mine.

“We are not going anywhere, we won't leave this land, we will fight for it like our grandparents did in the uprising in 1918 [against Germany, demanding transfer of this land to Poland after World War I], and we'll win like them,” says activist Sylwia Maćkowiak, president of the "Nasz Dom" (Our Home) Association.

Janusz Mackowiak, a former lawmaker for Poland’s Agricultural party, says the new mine threatens some of Poland’s best farmland, which contributes 5.3 percent to regional GDP (compared to 4 percent for coal mines).

“Even communists didn't decide to build a coal mine here, because they knew that the social and environmental costs would be very high,” he says. “We should leave this coal to the future generations. Maybe in a few years somebody will find new ways to extract coal that wouldn't be so damaging for the environment.”

Crucial to activists' fight is the support of local employers like Heinz, one of the biggest in the region, and companies hoping to invest in renewable energy. Heinz uses Polish produce at its local factory, and says that it would have to import foreign produce if the coal mine moves ahead.

There are some signs that local governments are taking a more environmentally-friendly tact. In Kraków, regional authorities will consider a ban on burning coal in households early next year. The city also reduced local air pollution standards below the national ones, which means that citizens get free rides on public transport on polluted days.

Elsewhere, activists face an uphill battle.

“We have lot of work before us, because many people here still think that what we are saying is a nonsense. They are convinced that since they've burnt waste for decades and they are still alive, then all is okay,” says Ślusarczyk in Kalwaria. “We are at the beginning of our fight for fresh air in Kalwaria.”

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