Living In Limbo

Opolno-Zdrój is a village in Poland that sits less than a kilometer from the edge of the Turow Coal Mine. Recent approval to expand the mine has left roughly 600 inhabitants wondering if where they live will seek to exist. 

Life moves monotonously as a villager in Opolno-Zdrój in Poland. Tending to yards, visiting with neighbors or taking leisurely strolls seems like a restful, steady way to live daily life. But underneath the simplicity is a suspenseful, almost indefinite feeling of uncertainty. This feeling is all too familiar for Bartek Kozłowski. As a young boy, Bartek’s father had expected, even hoped that the Turow Coal Mine would come knock on their door one day and take their house. “I had my suitcase always packed and ready to go,” he said. Now, at 46, Bartek and his 14-year-old son live in the same house. They are still waiting. 

The Turow Coal Mine began extracting lignite in order to produce energy in 1904. The Polish government acquired the mine in 1947. Over the years, the mine has paid large sums of money to residents of Opolno-Zrdój, either incentivizing or forcing them out in order to acquire more space for expansion. And while most relocated to nearby cities throughout Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany, those who remain have been left in limbo, wondering if or when the mine will take their home, the school, or the park next.

Opolno-Zdrój was once a prosperous and peaceful place. Up until the 1960s, the village was lively with tourism that brought visitors to experience the unique mud bathes that were part of village culture. There once were restaurants, hotels, two cinemas, a concert hall, a post office and a swimming pool. Today, historical buildings, most of which date back 100 years, sporadically fill the streets today, along with the primary school, a facility for the mentally ill, and one single shop. 

In 1962, Polska Grupa Energetyczna, (PGE) created the coal-fired power plant next to the mine. As economic development of mining in the Lower Silesia region grew, the spirit in Opolno-Zdrój slowly fell apart.

Edeltrauda Błażejewicz, 79, has lived in Opolno-Zdrój since she was five-years-old. Her house is situated on the corner, next to Robert and his wife, who keep bees and coy fish in the pond in their backyard. This part of the village is currently not included in plans for expansion. 

But that doesn’t mitigate concerns or lessen the painful memories of the past. Edeltrauda says that no one knew that the pit would grow to the size that it has. And in the process, it demolished homes of families and friends who she now has broken or nonexistent relationships with. 

“I went back to see what they took. Twice on my bike, and once on foot. After that, never again,” she said.

Empty roads that once set the stage for cars to travel in a haste are outlined with lively rows of linden and cherry trees. What villagers consider “old Opolno” resembles that of a ghost town. There is nothing but vacant, overgrown grass that now belongs to the mine. The only sign of life is the sound of Kos birds chirping amid the stillness and silence that once was residential life in the village.

Though she continues to live day by day and focuses on spending time with her son, Edeltrauda described how emotional it was to feel like no one cares about what happens to Opolno-Zdrój.

“It’s like we have been left to the side. Everyone is waiting for the village to die,” she said.

Poland is one of four countries who have not signed on board with European Union’s pact to become carbon neutral by 2050. As of now, PGE has plans to keep Turow operating until 2044.

Since its inception, seven former villages have been wiped out as the mine has enlarged. In a statistic from Greenpeace, the most recent approval for expansion of the mine would increase its total surface area by approximately 600 hectares. That is enough space for more than 26,000 average-sized homes, causing fear and uncertainty of if Opolno-Zdrój will be next to disappear.

Bartec Waniowski was born and raised in Opolno-Zdrój. His wife and two children moved back to the village just over a year ago to be closer to the family that still lives there.  

“It’s hard to recognize the village now,” he said as he pointed to a barren plot of land, diminished to mere sand. These are the ruins of former houses of friends who Bartec used to play with as a kid.

Surrounding communities in the greater Bogatynia municipality area oppose the closing of the mine, as people depend on Turow for employment and energy. However, according to organizations Eco-Union and Greenpeace, only about 6% of the population of the entire Zgorzelec County works for the mine. According PGE’s website, Turow generates four to five percent of energy for the region.

For Krzysztof Wozniak, who moved to Opolno-Zdrój last year, he feels that people who are afraid or against a post-industrial transition neglect to understand the inevitable. 

“I think the mine is going to close in two or three years,” he said. “And when it does, people aren’t going to be ready for the change. It’s always about the mine, but I don’t need a mine that just keeps taking from us for no reason.”

Aside from spacial concern is the cultural and environmental impact further extension of the open-pit area implies. As buildings and agricultural areas are liquidated, Opolno-Zdrój’s significant heritage is at risk of being unrecoverable.

Agnieszka Lisowska-Kierepka and Arkadiusz Ochmański from Greenpeace Poland conducted a study on the sustainable touristic potential in Opolno-Zdrój. As a recovered territory shaped by Polish culture and customs, Opolno-Zdrój’s heritage is a testimony to the way in which mountain areas were developed by Central and Western Europeans.

Opolno-Zdrój's former spa houses and half-timbered brick houses model original and authentic architecture from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. With a favorable climate suited for relaxation and relatively good soil devoid of pollution, the agricultural landscape is conducive to the development of a specific form of tourism related to the functioning of the countryside. Creating tourism that informs guests about historical buildings in the town and offering educational paths can build regional identity and local patriotism. 

Continued stagnation makes it challenging to know what is ahead for Opolno-Zdrój. It’s a place with historical and cultural value, frozen in time due to the ambivalent nature of the political context surrounding the debate over Turow. But a green transition is merely one aspect that will determine what the future of Opolno-Zdrój will be. 

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