Case study: Brown coal mining in the Usti region

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Large safety threats

The region's richness in energy reserves was exploited under the communist regime that absolutely did not care about either the long or short term consequences of its political decisions. The result of this strategy was not only devastation of the local nature and society but also potential large safety threats.

The need to carry out appropriate monitoring of the Ore Mountains was already obvious under the communist regime – Jan Marek then used a special shaft under Jezeří castle and provided insight into the geological information from confidential documents of Regional National Committee officials and decision-makers that were responsible for land use. The mathematical models he developed clearly also demonstrated the safety risks to the outcrops of coal seams under the southern slopes of the Ore Mountains. They proved that that if indeed mining the coal seam outcrops loosened the southern slopes of the Ore Mountains, as had already occurred at the ČS Armády (ČSA) mine west of Jezeří castle, owing to the nature of the bow and transformed crystalline layers of wrinkles and spatial orientation fractures and fissures in the solid, massive landslides at the mine slopes would be a real threat. This had security implications for the workforce of the mine and threatened the collapse not only of the diverted water system around the pit, but also the transport and technical infrastructure and mine operation as such. According to the mathematical models, surface blocks would have to be anchored deep into the slopes, surface water would be captured and redirected by artificial troughs around the pit with a devastating effect on the beech forests on the southern slopes.

Evaluation of the safety and stability of the pillar slopes of the Ore Mountains in the upper section of Černice-Horní Jiřetín at 300 m above sea level (done by Marie Lafarová in the 1980s) showed that the protective pillar would have about 120 million tons of coal removed, unduly narrowing the coalface to the east. This was not acceptable and an alternative proposal was made to mine the seam outcrop, which would mean mining to a height of 400 meters above sea level! The model showed that even mining to 300 meters above sea level would not save the beech forests on the slopes due to the need to capture surface water. In order to divert the Šramnický and Albrechtický streams, mining would have to stop at 270 m above sea level which, however, addressed only the protection of the slope, rather than the wider question of saving the residential areas and landscape. [1]

Ecological limits to mining

File:Hranice dobyvaciho prostoru severoceskych hnedouhelnych lomu CSA (1991).jpg
The border of the mining area of the North Bohemia brown coal Czechoslovak Army Mine (1991)

One of the first steps of the new government after November 1989 concerning the environment was to define priorities which, among other things, resulted in a definition of “affected areas”, for which “environmental improvement programmes” were successively adopted. The one for the North Bohemian Basin was passed in 1990.

In November 1991, the Government passed Resolution no. 444/1991, defining “territorial ecological limits to lignite mining” including “binding delineation for mining and spoil bank restriction”. Among others, the limits saved the settlements of Spořice, Droužkovice, Březno, Černovice, Chomutov, Jirkov, Černice and Horní Jiřetín, which were to fall prey to approaching extraction. By ruling out the establishment of the Bylany mine, they additionally saved the settlements of Havraň, Koporeč, Lišnice, Nemilkov, Polerady and Saběnice, situated over the Bylany seam, unexploited so far.

The ecological limits to mining set by the government resolution protect the nature and landscape of the mountainside, its base and the landscape enclave below it, including the settlements of Černice and Horní Jiřetín. It has been confirmed that the designated territorial ecological limits to opencast mining are based on objective knowledge of the reality in the area (which is, in addition, being enhanced with new experience with the instability of the hillsides and the adjacent mountain base) and have to be respected without exception and as definitive. What is more – as demonstrated by several landslides in recent years (including one comprising 3 million cubic metres), with cracks and drops interfering with the buffer zone in the Chateau Jezeří arboretum – it is desirable to stop earth removal for the ČSA mine even before it reaches the delineated limit. The alternative that respects the limits rules out any direct or indirect adverse interference with the most valuable portion of the Ore Mountains side and threatening of the territory below it. It enables the preservation of the existing network of watercourses in the territory along with the adjacent ecological stabilisation elements, and shifts the pit that will remain after the ČSA mine to an acceptable distance from the mountainside. The area affected by opencast mining comprises the entire natural surface area between the Ore Mountains side and former Obránců míru mine, including the margins of Albrechtice spoil bank.[1]

Preserving and developing the enclave in the mountainside forefield in the immediate vicinity of Chateau Jezeří will save the settlements of Horní Jiřetín and Černice and the irreplaceable natural and landscape pool and potential for renewing the devastated landscape of the Most section of the Basin. What is more important, its connection with Jezeří Castle may make it (as it was historically) an important cultural and tourist centre of the Basin, and a place from which the countryside rehabilitated after the mining may one day be managed. Černice and Horní Jiřetín are priceless not only for their inhabitants, but also for the future settlement in the entire Basin: they maintain its continuity. Respecting the territorial mining limits will also preserve the existing access route to Chateau Jezeří and, even more importantly, to the municipalities of Hora Svaté Kateřiny and Nová Ves v Horách and the mountain summit area.

The year 2005 was determined as the horizon for the current state energy policy in 1991. Admittedly, due to pressures from the Ministry of Environment, the regional and municipal authorities and the public, the State Energy Policy (SEP), passed in 2004, did not contain a provision that the limits ought to be lifted. On the other hand, it did not confirm their continued – not to mention permanent – validity. Quite the opposite is true: it called for a rational review, albeit while respecting environmental concerns. A draft updating the SEP was expected to be presented to the Government for discussion by the end of 2011: it will influence the further development in the Ústí nad Labem Region. The position of the updated SEP on the territorial ecological limits (TEL) cannot be predicted. The Programme Announcement of the Government does not rely on breaking the limits, but it does say that should the mining company and owners of the properties reach agreement, an administrative process may start that may (or may not) lead to commencing extraction in the area.

The State Energy Policy (2004) assumes that in 15 years’ time it would be clearer whether the new political and economic conditions and the new mining and environmental management legislation have compelled the mining and power companies to undertake faster, more extensive and better land reclamation, returning a larger portion of the countryside for cultural uses, or whether the mining technologies and protection of areas from its consequences have improved so much that the public might have a different perception of, and “tolerance” for mining that moves closer to inhabited settlements because of a method different than opencast mining;

Nevertheless, when the last valid version of the State Energy Policy was discussed and its environmental impacts assessed, it turned out that not one of its assumptions had been met, in spite of some advances. Nor had the Mining Act changed in the direction desired.[1]

Campaign focused on local people

It is evident that the major players in the mining and power industries continue to rely on breaching the mining limits in their designs, and associate their business and political plans with that. Since approximately 2005, the mining companies in the affected areas have led a campaign aimed at convincing the populations of Horní Jiřetín and Černice about the advantages of their potential willingness to leave their homes. The offers they have been receiving from the miners are much more generous than before because obviously the ridiculous amounts based on official assessments and substitute flats in a prefab housing estate in a faraway town can no longer be seriously offered nowadays.

The value of the coal reserves beyond the mining limits allows them to make much more attractive offers. Private companies do not have to respect property pricing regulations as state or semi-state enterprise once did. Therefore, they come up with offers of higher property purchase prices, offer to build new family houses on substitute land not affected by the mining, even entire new villages, to preserve the entire civic community. They will offer to build technical infrastructures and civil amenities, perhaps even a church. They will try negotiating: not through municipal councils, but in person with the property owners, on a “divide and conquer” principle. They will take advantage of the old age of some of the people who are no longer able to maintain and repair their cottages, get firewood for the winter, have the septic tank emptied, and care for their property. They will talk alluringly of rental flats with remote central heating, hot and cold running water, sewers, telephone and shared cable TV connections, being just what they need in old age. And some will certainly succumb.[1]

Mining territory

Libkovice
Libkovice 1998
Libkovice today

The mining activity is approaching the territorial ecological mining limits the fastest where the Čs. armády mine comes up to the southern slopes of the Ore Mountains near Jezeří Castle and the settlements of Černice and Horní Jiřetín (to reach them after 2020). At the same time, some of the giant machines and spreaders doing the overburden removal and the extraction are nearing the end of their service life. Logically, their owners (or potential buyers) need to know whether these devices will allow them to complete the extraction only up to the set mining limits or whether they will be permitted to breach them in at least some places. Based on that, they will decide whether to spend funds only on extending the service life of the existing mining machinery or invest in new equipment with the prospect of a return. Seen from their perspective, their pressure to challenge and lift the territorial ecological limits is understandable.

The Libouš mine near Chomutov will approach the territorial ecological limits some time later (2035). The situation at the Bílina large-scale mine, operating near Mariánské Radčice, Louka a Lom, is somewhat special. It has been resolved by the passing of a Government Resolution in 2010 in connection with the construction of the new Ledvice power plant (660 MW): it adjusted the territorial ecological mining limits by land swapping (the miners gave up some land and acquired some other), which permitted a more rational mining advance and extended the mine operation until 2035-2040. The Vršany mine near Most will remain in operation for the longest period among the North Bohemian Basin mines: the extraction is scheduled to continue until 2060.[1]

Potential disapperance of territories

The advance of the ČSA mine beyond the set limits in the northwest is destructive not only for Černice and Horní Jiřetín, but also for access to Jezeří Castle, and access from the interior to the villages on top of the Ore Mountains such as Hora Sv. Kateřiny, Nová Ves v Horách, and Brandov. Another significant negative aspect of such designs is that, some 40 years from now, they would cause an increasingly worse living environment in the western part of Litvínov (Janov, Hamr), to which the mining would come as close as 500 metres. That would further aggravate the situation: the Janov housing estate is already known for conflicts between right-wing radicals and local ethnic Romany communities. Major adverse impacts would affect the important biocentre and its attached biocorridors in the beech forests on the southern hillsides of the Ore Mountains between Jezeří and Litvínov-Janov. Continued mining would have destructive effects on the hydraulic conditions in the area between the remnants of the arboretum below Jezeří via the remnants of Dolní Jiřetín to the remnants of Komořany because the area would be devoid of waters flowing down from the Ore Mountains, feeding the Jiřetín brook and the groundwater horizons around it. These waters would have to be captured on the mountainsides above the mining limit and rerouted along the perimeter just like the Loupnický brook waters, probably all the way to the Bílý brook valley in the east. These are substantial interventions in the settlement, nature and landscape that cannot be offset in any way, and should not be permitted under any circumstances.

The territorial ecological mining limits have thus become the first milestone on the (currently) abandoned path towards sustainable development. It is turning out, however, that saving the areas beyond them is not enough. The recent landslide at the Čs. armády mine below Jezeří Castle and its arboretum, as well as earlier ones below Hněvín, in Čepirohy, below Jezerka and elsewhere have shown that the miners are incapable of guaranteeing their promises on the safety of spoil banks and slopes, which are still active decades later. That is why the eastward progress of at least the ČSA mine has to be stopped, and the mountain base has to be loaded with extra weight by making an internal spoil bank instead of continuing the mining, even at the cost of writing off the reserves beyond the edge of the current opencast mine. That does not rule out its more considerate depletion in future using stowage underground extraction, gasification, or another method more considerate to the landscape and the settlements.[1]

Other threats of the open pit mines

The 3 million cubic meter landslide which now threatens the stability of the soil under the Jezeří arboretum, the less recent landslides below Jizerka and other locations in the foothills of the Ore Mountains which have occurred in the last 16 years has convinced the mining industry that they were wrong when they assured the state municipalities, administrative authorities and the public that everything was under control. The encroaching piles of overburden at the ČS Armády (ČSA) mine and ensuing landslide disrupted the protected zone of Jezeří Castle. Its continuation eastwards and mining of the coal seam deep below means not only that regional environmental limits for mining have been breached, but also that there are immediate threats to the stability of the protective pillars of the arboretum and the castle lake, Černice, Horní Jiřetín and Janov. A passive defence of established mining limits is not enough. It is now essential to immediately cease devastating surface mining methods, to ensure the stability of the arboretum slopes and lakes, and to review the possibilities and ways of using the stocks obtained so far.[1]

Prospects for the future

Jan-Karel

The power industry and making decisions about it have become a political issue; all advanced countries regard power generation as a strategic area of priority interest, and they interfere with the industry and try to control it. The energy infrastructure of Ústí nad Labem Region has to be interpreted as part of the Czech Republic’s energy system and the entire European community (EU). Securing the Czech Republic’s energy future is unthinkable without European integration, co-operation with the national governments of EU states and other energy-prominent countries of the world, and with power utility companies.

Numerous recent emergency situations abroad and in the Czech Republic have demonstrated instability and crises. Based on the nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, the German government halted the operation of older nuclear power plants and decided to stop using nuclear power for electricity generation in the foreseeable future. The critical situation of gas supplies in the winter of 2009 resulted in immediate measures being taken to secure the essential minimum gas supplies to the affected EU countries. A spontaneous (uncontrolled) development of renewable energy sources (chiefly photovoltaic power plants) has forced the adoption of legislative regulation measures to prevent a risk of disintegration of the Czech Republic’s electrical energy networks. The central authorities of the Czech Republic (Ministries of the Environment and of Industry and Trade) have tried to resolve the critical issue of distributing the available lignite mined in Ústí nad Labem Region (the Vršany mine, in operation until around 2055) primarily to heating plants – sources providing heat supplies for central heating systems. The existence of the still extensive lignite reserve in the Ústí nad Labem Region places the region among the most important in this respect. The current situation and increasing complications may even aggravate the pressure on expanding lignite mining in Ústí nad Labem Region, not only by power industry companies but also government authorities at the national or supranational level, which is related to the issue of territorial ecological limits (TEL) to lignite mining defined by the Government of the Czech Republic in 1991. The conflict between the national (or supranational) level requirements on the area and its own needs and capacities, between coal mining and power generation interests and environmental concerns may thus continue to escalate.

For the purpose of this commentary, the issue of open plans and aims concerning expansion of lignite mining in the North Bohemian Basin can be factually narrowed down to the ČSA mine: the question has not been asked or is not an issue for the other mines in operation. The mining and power industries are working towards breaking the limits, and it is not clear where their claims will eventually lead. In this context, it is useful to recall the old mining plan for advancing the extraction in the ČSA mine as it was formulated at the turn of the 1980s while the ecological limits were being formulated at the same time.

Without a compromise, the mining plan aimed at depleting the entire coal reserve up to the seam apex by advancing the ČSA open cast mine up to the side of the Ore Mountains. At the apex, the coal seam is in a precipitous position immediately parallel to the mountainside, where the Ore Mountains fault line runs. The stability of the mountainside would be compromised in case the extraction went up to the seam apex. Like on Jánský vrch in front of Jezeří previously, the stability should be secured by modifying the hillside above the apex, intervening with the crystalline complex high up the mountainside after removing the forest, the groundcover, and the scree. This would entail irreversible damage to the most valuable section of the landscape and nature of the Ore Mountains side, a selected beech gene pool and a defined higher-order territorial system of ecological stability. In addition to the direct destruction of the vegetation, the vegetation wall would be opened and groundwater would sink above the upper edge of the bared mountainside; the hydraulic character of the area can therefore be expected to shift towards drier habitat types and the onset of degraded vegetation.

It is no secret that considerable intact lignite reserves (about 500 million tonnes) are deposited below the Litvínov chemical plant complex. Already in the 1980s, as part of examining the so-called “big mining version for the NBB”, authorities considered the option of discontinuing investment in the complex and building another somewhere else before this one reaches the end of its service life: build it somewhere outside the coal seam so that the lignite reserves below it could be depleted. The plan was abandoned, but the mining sword of Damocles has been hanging over it in the form of the substantial lignite reserve. The miners have not denied it; quite to the contrary, they argue that their obstinate struggle to break the protective limits at Jezeří, Černice and Horní Jiřetín is also in order to win the opportunity to continue mining in the chemical complex area.

It would probably be impossible to do that from the east, from the Bílina mine via Lom, Mariánské Radčice and Louka u Litvínova, via Růžodol spoil bank and the already closed former underground mines Koh-i-noor II and Pluto II, while the mine front of the ČSA mine would come right up to the chemical plant from the west if it advanced all the way to Záluží. Of course, the prospective relocation of the chemical plant and releasing the coal reserve in this way would be much more profitable for the miners than having to access the seam via a new mine of limited territorial expanse. That path of progress would have truly catastrophic regional consequences: it would sever the twin cities of Most and Litvínov by digging up the isthmus that connects them. Litvínov (population 30 thousand) would end up amidst mining activities, without any good connection to the interior, with environmental, social and economic consequences. The city of Most (population 60 thousand) would again be besieged by mine operations. The ČSA mine would approach from the north, degrading the suburban landscape. Digging up the Kopisty spoil bank would harm the area around Lake Vrbenský, and the mining would have significant impacts on the recreational area in former Most-Ležáky mine, currently being developed by turning it into a 300-hectare lake.

The potential decision leading to breaking the TEL, expansion of mining and extensive development of the conventional power industry is a risk for the region in connection with the handling of the Czech Republic’s energy and economic problems.[1]

Efficiency and alternatives

The reclamation of land after mining is slow (especially in the central and western parts of the NBB); the extent of the devastated land remains gigantic; there is no perceptible effort towards faster development of new, more material and energy-efficient technologies and products, conserving energies in all areas of activity, and developing and expanding renewable energy sources. The energy potential of lignite is still being exploited at a maximum efficiency of 30-40% in the final consumption.

Nor has the pressure for selective deposition of valuable portions of the overburden, intermediate and underlying layers of the coal seam, containing reserves of gravel, ceramic clays, etc., proven to be effective. The promised plans to use these raw materials one day have never come true. Together with the mine operators, designers in 1990-91 developed projects for two large-scale brick factories that would utilize the high-quality brick and ceramic clays from the overburden layers. Deposits of many thousands of tonnes for the future production were made. The assumed direct and associated workforce was envisaged in the region of hundreds of people. Today the brickworks do not exist, and the clay deposits have long been reforested to make people forget. This is how the miners' promises have been fulfilled.

In a certain sense, the requirement to write off the reserves beyond the limits contained in the 1991 Government Resolution is perhaps somewhat questionable. Maybe parts of the reserves can be extracted underground using the stowage method, which would not cause so much land sinkage as current methods; maybe parts of the coal can be gasified and exploited as gas without disrupting the functional uses of the surface areas and the environment. Maybe yet another considerate method of using and mining the coal will be found. However, the current “opencast madness” has to be stopped within the set limits. It is in fact astonishing why researchers have not been dealing with that and offering socially acceptable solutions.[1]

Summary of the situation

Huge extent of single raw material (brown coal) oriented mining and consequences for quality of life from global/regional development perspective:

  • Huge problems with landscape degradation affecting human settlements also (some villages removed because of the brown coal deposits)
  • Regional conflict: struggle for mining limits

Lessons learned

Very instructional case study of global and regional perspective concerning natural resource utilization, and consequent conflict.

Resources

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 Říha,M., Stoklasa, J., Lafarová, M., Dejmal, I., Marek, J., Pakosta, P., Beránek, K. Environmental mining limits in North Bohemian Lignite Region. Společnost pro krajinu, Praha 2005. Translation: Petr Kurfürst. Updated for the ISPoS summer school in September, 2011

Mining limits (cz):

Basic documents (cz)

Important studies (cz)

From media (cz)

  • Dagmar Smolíková: Doly versus obce. Sedmá generace. 2004, č. 12.
  • Spoluziti.cz - Stránky Mostecké uhelné společnosti prosazující prolomení limitů těžby
  • Petr Pakosta, Vlastimil Waic: Měly by být těžební limity prolomeny? Literární noviny 02/2006
  • Mostecká uhelná společnost prohlásila, že v Horním Jiřetíně a Černicích těžit bude komentář na priroda.cz
Creative Commons Author: Martin Říha, Petr Pakosta, Andrew Barton, Jana Dlouhá. This article was published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License. How to cite the article: Martin Říha, Petr Pakosta, Andrew Barton, Jana Dlouhá. (15. 07. 2019). Case study: Brown coal mining in the Usti region. VCSEWiki. Retrieved 18:34 15. 07. 2019) from: <https://vcsewiki.czp.cuni.cz/w/index.php?title=Case_study:_Brown_coal_mining_in_the_Usti_region&oldid=4870>.



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