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Poland’s ‘airpocalypse’ rivals New Delhi smog

You don’t need to use an alarm clock on Miners’ Day in the Polish city of Katowice – the 21-piece colliery band does the job on its early-morning march around the town. 

It is a frigid, finger-numbing tradition and they have been doing it this way for decades.

However, band members know it could be the last time they participate in a Miners’ Day parade. The managers of the state-owned Wieczorek say around 1,500 employees will be laid off next year.

I stopped the band leader, Andrzej Pisarzowski, for a chat and he looked cold and anxious.

Miners’ Day celebrations in the Polish city of Katowice
Miners’ Day celebrations in the Polish city of Katowice

“The mine is closing down – probably in March – and when that happens our band may be finished too,” he tells me.

“The mine pays for us and without them we’re going to have to stop.”

Miners and their families filed into Katowice’s cavernous church for a service of thanksgiving but it felt more like a funeral at times. They have been mining coal at Wieczorek for more than 200 years, but the owners say supplies are now exhausted.

Environmentalists are certainly keen to stop production. This region is one of the most polluted in Europe – in fact, a recent study showed that 33 of the 50 dirtiest cities in the European Union were in Poland.

Dealing with smog is part of everyday life across Poland
Dealing with smog is part of everyday life across Poland

The EU’s environmental agency estimated that bad air caused 45,000 premature deaths in the country in 2016.

Outside the church, local residents seemed to accept they were facing a perfect storm.

“Of course, I think everyone is worried,” said pit manager Arek Lubaski.

“It’s hard times now – for mining, especially for mining. The industry has managed to survive over the years but the market is bad. Mining won’t last long.”

Arek Lubaski is worried for Poland's mining industry
Arek Lubaski is worried for Poland’s mining industry

Miner’s daughter Zenata Fonfara said she was still hoping someone would come up with a solution.

She mused: “If we could modernise coal, if we could make it better for the environment, then maybe we could make it work?”

Last winter, the country experienced a so-called “airpocalypse”, as coal-burning homes and power-stations produced levels of pollution more commonly associated with New Delhi or Beijing.

But that did not seem to unduly trouble the country’s right-wing Law and Justice government. It backs the coal industry and refuses to invest in renewable energy.

Last year the health minister labelled air pollution “a theoretical problem.”

Residents burn coal and garbage to heat their homes
Residents burn coal and garbage to heat their homes

As Polish mines shut, state owned energy-traders have been importing coal from Russia – and they took their first shipment from the US last month.

The job of trying to reduce air pollution has fallen to local authorities – like the Katowice city council. It offers a scheme where residents can swap old coal furnaces for gas-burning units – but locals have to pay the costs up front and wait for the council to reimburse them.

Poland faces a serious air quality crisis. That much was made clear to us when we visited a spot near a maternity hospital on Katowice’s outskirts.

Residents burnt coal and garbage to heat their homes and a thick, gloopy smoke filled the air.

Members of our team, along with local activist Renata Nitrebska, experienced headaches and struggled to breathe.

But more worryingly, most people we spoke to did not realise there was any smog in the air.

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