In Gdansk, year-long waits for medical care, empty playgrounds and windows dirtied by smog have caused this Polish coastal city’s residents to deem it “Chernobyl”. But Europe's most coal-dependent country does not plan to stop importing it anytime soon.
GDANSK — The trucks are usually unloaded at night, without any tarps covering their contents. “We keep our doors and windows closed, but our entire family continues to have upper respiratory problems,” said a resident of Gdansk’s port neighborhood.
They live amid clouds of coal.
Cars on the road are dirty, and black sludge covers the renovated facades of buildings. Those who live here have given up trying to rid their windowsills of it. It’s of no use: the coal dust gets everywhere.
But it isn’t just cleanliness which is causing deep concern among the city’s residents. “We are most afraid for our health. Plenty of people have complained of issues which began with the arrival of the dust. These primarily include problems with their sinuses, upper respiratory tracts, and headaches,” said Paulina Konarska, a member of the Nowy Port District Council. “People are coughing up black phlegm," she added. "Our clinic cannot keep up with admitting patients, and wait times for the pulmonologist are now over half a year,” she said.
The situation shows no signs of improvement in the near future, and uncertainties among residents have caused them to take it upon themselves to look for answers.
Iwona Lubaszka, who lives in the center of the Nowy Port neighborhood, says her daughter personally reached out to the Provincial Inspectorate for Environmental Protection, who told her that “the situation will not improve until it rains.” According to Lubaszka, the PIEP launched an investigation into one of the post-area companies in May, although complaints of coal pollution came much earlier.
Her neighbor, Małgorzata Motog, remembers April 23 as the worst day of smog. “This was the first warm, sunny and dry day of the year,” she said. “People went outside to ride their bikes, or to tend to their gardens.” And, recalls Motog: “a huge cloud of dust was floating above everyone.”
From traffic jams to dust
Since the beginning of this year alone, a record 6.5 million tons of imported coal have reached the Gdansk Port, a 190% increase from the same period last year. Visiting the port last October, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki praised the quality of the raw material, and emphasized that its import was necessary in order to maintain the “energy security of the state."
“We felt completely alone, so we took matters into our own hands.”
Problems with coastal coal came into the public discourse at the beginning of this year, when lines of trucks waiting to carry it from nearby ports clogged one of the city’s main arteries. The majority of these vehicles were uncovered, which left a dirty residue on city streets, and in one of its major tunnels. At its worst, the problem reached such a point that there were risks of the crossing being closed to traffic altogether. The settling dust was threatening the operation of road security systems.
The unveiling of new buffer parking spaces was able to solve the traffic issue, and the port itself is financing the cleaning of roads leading to it, a process which will last until July 15. But the problems with moving coal did not stop there. Even when its transport along the roads has been accounted for, coal dust rising from the heaps still paralyzes daily life in severely affected Gdansk neighborhoods, including Nowy Port, Letnica, Przeróbka and Stogi. The problem is currently estimated to be affecting tens of thousands of residents.
“We felt completely alone, so we took matters into our own hands,” said Anna Motyl-Kosińska, who has become the unofficial leader of the grassroots protests taking place in the area. According to her, the first serious problems with the dust started last fall. “Since then, we have intervened several times with the authorities of the port, the city, the province, and have called upon politicians to take action,” she said. In spite of their efforts, she admits “there has been no measurable effect so far,” adding that she and the other neighborhood residents “are still living in clouds of carbon."
Her parents have lived on Górecki street, in the Nowy Port neighborhood, for several years now. Henryk, her father, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
May 19, 202: The Jiri (George) lignite mine of the Sokolovska uhelna company near Sokolov, Czech Republic.
Why so many imports?
This past winter, record-high coal prices led the government to offer Polish families a subsidy of 3,000 złoty (630 euros) to each coal-powered household, allowing them to cope with price increases. In June of last year, the energy crisis also led the Polish government to drop its quality standards for coal burning at home, worsening the situation for a country which already has Europe’s most polluted air.
“The situation we are now facing is a big challenge for us, and for the port’s operators,” the Port Authorities wrote. “There has been a massive intake of raw materials in Poland. Our storage yards, mainly in the outer port, are full of coal. But every week, this amount is getting smaller. Our contractors have assured us that it is being exported successfully.” The Authorities cited the example of the Siark-Port company, which they claim “plans to move the rest of the coal by the end of next week."
By the end of April, the Port Authorities had selected a new president, legal adviser Lukasz Malinowski, whose career in state-owned companies began not long after ruling party PiS took power.
In spite of changes in leadership, their message remained consistent. “We must continue to import coal to fulfill the energy needs of our commercial industries, to power our households, and to ensure our energy security,” the Authorities said in a statement. They mentioned that they currently service between six and seven boats with coal per week (a figure which rises to a few dozen units in the winter season). “We need to think ahead and begin planning shipping operations for the next heating season, to ensure that our homes can stay warm in the winter," the statement said.
“Five to 20% of the coal imported to Poland is coarse, which is suitable for fuel. The rest is thermal coal for our power plants,” wrote Rafal Zahorski, plenipotentiary of the Marshal of the West Pomeranian Voivodeship for maritime economy. “The coal being shipped in is not what is being sold to residents,” he continued.
Protesters and city residents were not satisfied with the officials’ statements. “The coal mined in Poland is some of the highest quality in the world,” said a protester from Nowy Port. "But as the international security situation continues, we are importing material from all over the world, because someone had an interest in benefitting from it."
Coal dumps in Gdansk: “Port Authorities have only pretended to act so far”
Local playgrounds, full of children not long ago, are now deserted. What has the port done to address the situation?
“We are doing everything in our power to minimize the negative effects,” the Port Authorities responded.
New measures include:
- Port operators must allow their carries to wash their vehicles on their premises, before they drive out onto public roads
- Operators should increase the frequency of checks of departing trucks, and ensure that their contents are covered with protective tarps
- The coal should also be coated with polymer and water, which will significantly reduce the dust it produces.
The authorities claim that operators “have declared their preparedness to implement these goals,” underlining the example of the company PG Eksploatacja, which, according to them, “has permanently implemented a solution of spraying coal heaps with a mixture of water and cellulose agents, which significantly reduces dusting in the Górniczy Basin."
Not all residents are satisfied with the extent to which these improvement measures have been implemented. “Port owners have only pretended to take steps to improve the situation,” said Magdalena Czarnecka, who lives in the affected area. "This was the case just last week, when local officials held a press conference on the polluting dust," she said. Czarnecka claims that in that instance, the municipality “put on a show” for the media, cleaning the streets and trucks, and spraying heaps of raw material with water.
But, as she sees it, these small improvements did not last long. “When the media hype quieted down, everything returned to the dirty reality,” she said. "Unfortunately, the city only reacted seriously in April, when our Mayor wrote to Prime Minister Morawiecki, and organized a meeting of the authorities in early May.” For Czarnecka, these meetings have been futile, and she has seen “no noticeable improvement in the situation."
Iwona Wozniewska lives right next door to one of the coal heaps.
“My family has lived here since 1958,” she said. “My father is 73 years old; he spent almost his entire life here, and I’ve lived here since birth."
“In years past, it was wood that was stored here, which didn’t make our lives difficult," she said. In 2020, however, companies began storing coal in the yard, which she said, was of a “normal” variety. The “drama” for Iwona and her family began a year later, when a second heap of coal appeared, this time even closer to their home. “The trucks usually reload at night, and drive completely uncovered," she said. "We always keep our doors and windows closed, but our entire family has still suffered problems of the upper respiratory system."
“There is a lot to fight for," said Wozniewska, who has a two-week-old infant at home.
The list of complaints from residents, both against the port that stores coal, and the companies that transport it, is growing long. Gdansk locals have been documenting these “sins” with photos and videos. The most zealous of these activists is Henryk Motyl, whose neighbors jokingly refer to as “the guardian of the neighborhood."
“That pile has been burning for over a month now, and no one is doing anything about it."
“We are intimidated for documenting this negligence," said Motyl. “I was followed through half of the district by one of these trucks after recording," he added, noting that this only stopped when he reached the local police station.
This has not been the only instance of harassment faced by the local activist. “Once, when I was filming truckers moving uncovered coal in dirty vehicles, one of the drivers threw an apple core at me," he said.
“Another problem is that some of the coal heaps are still burning," said Motyl, mentioning such occurrences taking place in the Siark-Port yards.
“That pile has been burning for over a month now, and no one is doing anything about it, even though there is a port guard headquarters right next door. We heard that they are waiting for it to ‘burn out,'" he said.
The Port Authorities are planning to plant trees and bushes in order to mitigate the effects of the coal dust. They have also been monitoring the air quality, and told Wyborcza that they have “seven measuring devices deployed to measure the level of pollution with PM 2.5 and PM 10 particles."
Even so, many residents are not convinced. “All of these port sensors have been installed in places that give them inaccurate readings due to the wind,” said Iwona Lubaszka, who mentioned that she checked their results online on April 23rd, the worst day of pollution she could recall. According to the Port Authority’s website, “the standards of pollution were not exceeded that day.” But the sensors of all other applications, including Airly, “indicated pollution levels of over 300%, exceeding air quality standards."
March 29, 2023: A farmer works on his field in front of PGE Power Station in Belchatow, Poland.
Port neighbors: we will fight until the end
In only a few days, frustrated inhabitants of Nowy Port collected over a thousand signatures in support of their protest. They also produced a list of demands, which they presented to the Port Authority before taking to the streets of their district on May 19.
“Our three most important demands are: the liquidation of heaps on our side of the Martwa Wisła river, the installation of sensors measuring air quality in places designated by residents, and the installation of automatic washers for trucks and records that these vehicles have been washed," says protestor Anna Motyl-Kosinska.
Responding to the protests, the Port Authority published a video about the actions they have taken on the coal front on their Facebook page.
On May 23, the two sides finally met face-to-face. Motyl-Kosinska called the meeting “calm and substantive," and added that "The port authorities reassured us of their efforts. We will see what comes of them." Another meeting is set to take place in the next few months.
But the protestors admit that it is a pity that representatives from the port authorities only began responding to them and taking concrete action when the matter became known to a wider public.
“It also hurts us very much that until now, when we have brought our problems to the attention of the media, we have been met with hate comments online,” said Iwona Lubaszka, who recalls some commenters writing that they should move out. “Nowy Port is a district where most of its residents have lived for generations. We have already survived the poisoning of the area by Siarkopol (whose improper storage at sewage treatment plants polluted the local waters) and Port Service, but it has never been as bad as now," she said. “We are not only fighting for our own interests, but for the quality of air that the entire city of Gdansk is inhaling," she added, emphasizing that the city has Poland’s highest rates of cancer incidence.
And what about the elections?
Paulina Konarska added that the levels of dust are also impacting tourism, and can significantly reduce the income that the city and the region gain from the industry.
“Tourist ships on the Martwa Wisla float amid the clouds from these heaps of coal, and people arriving on ferries and dining along the ports may find themselves eating a waffle dusted with coal sprinkles." She added that local establishments, such as the Letnica Stadium, “are becoming black with dust, rather than the amber the region is known for."
We can tell that elections are approaching.
Last week, these issues, brought up by the port’s neighbors, piqued politicians’ interests en masse. Representatives from Poland 2050, Konfederacja, PiS, and city councilors from the local association Everything for Gdansk all organized conferences on the issue.
“These politicians have only just taken interest in this issue after many months. Clearly, we can tell that elections are approaching," said Aleksandra Kondek, another resident of the largest affected district. “Our protest is grassroots, apolitical, and we won’t let any politician promote themselves by using it. We know the port will continue to operate, but it must respect our needs, and stop poisoning us."