Residents are Beaten by the Mining Lobby
When 'legal highs' appeared on the market, the Prime Minister closed all the shops in a week. When Russia announced an embargo on Polish apples, life of the farmers was simplified. But when it comes to the polluted air in Krakow nothing happens... Interview with Professor Janusz Majcherek, philosopher and publicist.
Dominika Wantuch: If you were a councilor of the regional council...
Janusz Majcherek: I would be very frustrated and helpless, which would result from the decision of the Regional Administrative Court. It shows that the power of the regional council is very limited and poor. But as a citizen, I am even more frustrated. One of the most important issues for Krakow – the issue of clean air - has been buried by the legal tricks.
- When the Polish market was flooded with 'legal highs', the Prime Minister decided to close the shops with legal stimulants almost within a week. The regulations did not matter then, and the Prime Minister overlooked the legal processes. It was even explicitly said that he did not act in accordance with the regulations. So why is nothing being done concerning our air?
- The problem is that the situation with the 'legal highs' was black and white, and very well-publicized in the media. 'Legal highs' are harmful: people die because of them. There is a need to get rid of them. And in the case of the air, the problem is more complicated. As a result the policy of the state and the central government on this matter is ambiguous.
- No action by the Ministries of the Environment and the Economy, a lack of regulations which limit the low-stack emission, a lack of quality standards for carbon, and no changes in environmental regulations indicate that clean air is a strictly local issue, valid only for us, the people of Krakow.
- On the one hand we have the issue of environmental protection, as clean air issues are the responsibility of the Ministry of the Environment. On the other hand, there is the energy policy of the country. We do not know what will be the source of energy in the future. Statements by Prime Minister Donald Tusk suggest that coal will remain the most important fuel. The coal lobby is so strong that it is able to enforce an economy based on coal.
- So clean air is beaten by 'black gold'?
- Rather residents are beaten by the mining lobby.
- But residents did everything they could. They took to the streets, protested, and signed petitions to introduce the ban on burning solid fuels. Maybe now it is the time for action for the Małopolska parliamentarians? Several interpellations sent over four years have had a negligible effect. Maybe we should go to the Parliament and burn tires, so that Warsaw sees and breathes what Krakow breathes on a daily basis?
- I do not believe in the power and mobilization of the Małopolska deputies. They are too divided. And in addition to the fact that the Silesian mining lobby is united, it also has friendlier allies than Małopolska. Silesia is one of the most important places for the government to look for support. Besides, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which members of the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – ruling party in Poland) go into Parliament to prohibit coal. This is an action contrary to the government policy that is favorable to mining. It would mean exposing themselves, and no deputy would agree to this. It is also difficult to expect protests from the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), because their club was against the resolution. This is the party whose principal point, directed towards the poorest citizens, was that the coal should have been the cheapest material. So we have a stalemate. The Civic Platform would have to expose itself to its government, and the Law and Justice voting for the value of air would have to do that in spite of the poorest. Additionally we have to factor in the current context of the situation in Russia and Ukraine, which is an extra argument for the current backup strategy based on coal. It gives us some security.
- But in all this the victims are Krakovians breathing poisoned air.
- And the government knows this. Already in the eighties there was a postulate to restrict the emission of toxic dust. For this reason, the aluminum smelter in Skawina was closed. It was demanded by the inhabitants of Krakow, because they were poisoned. Today western guide books write about the problem with Krakow's air. The adverse effects of dust can be seen with the naked eye anyway, even on the monuments ...
- What, therefore, is lacking today, that we have not managed to end this "smelter in Skawina", metaphorically speaking?
- Then social activities were placed on a more fertile ground, they were treated as a response to the needs of the whole society. And they hit the right person on the right position, the decision was simply issued. Today we have more procedures, pressure groups, we must reckon with the social costs. Sometimes we come across a blind law, but you have to stick to it. This is the converse side of democracy and the rule of law.
- But the Krakow ban does not hit on democracy. Contrary to what the court says, no one wants to prohibit burning coal in the country.
- The explanation of the court is that the ban could cause other local councils to introduce it and threaten the energy security. It sounds odd. This is an explicit reference to the interests of a certain group. But it also shows that we live in a country where useful initiatives are blocked, and the state itself is too centralized. Why is the court is concerned whether other regions will want to make restrictions and what? Krakow wants them because the polluted air is a huge problem. But it is incapacitated, Krakow cannot create its own environmental and economic policy, although its problems and the problems of the whole region are different than the problems of Silesia, Mazury, and Podkarpackie.
- London could impose a ban. We are paralyzed by the centralized policy incapacitating local governments.
- Exactly so. But this is not the end of the problems. Because in London, when the ban was introduced, it was obvious that the costs were borne by the owners of the houses and it would impact rents prices, for example. We, twenty-five years after the transition, still have the problem of unwanted tenants and of social housing. Economic issues and ownership do not help solve the problem of smog.
- Nobody said it would be easy. But when Russia imposed an embargo on Polish apples, the reaction of the authorities was immediate. When it turned out that the "eat apples" initiative did not have any immediate results, the Minister of Agriculture proposed a temporary suspension of excise duty on cider. As it turned out, the cider cannot be advertised, Minister Janusz Piechociński prepared a draft with the changes When it comes to the air it is impossible, because there is no consensus. The air has become part of the political struggle...
- Yes, but this is not surprising. Our local issues are a reflection of the largest global disputes that occur regarding the climate and environment. Let's take the controversy about global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, which is perhaps the most ideological. Between the United States, Europe and China there is a powerful game-play, which involves politicians, influential lobbyists from a variety economic groups, and environmentalists.
- You present a pessimistic scenario. Our problem does not seem to have an end.
- We have arguments, so now we need to look for allies for support.
- But where? We will not find them in the government.
- Let's leave Warsaw and come to terms with the fact that the Polish parliament will not want to support radical change. We should turn to Brussels. The European Union is not interested in the mining lobby from Silesia. The EU has a policy of limiting low-stack emissions, regulations, and directives. I think that Brussels will understand and notice the absurdity of our situation. It is in the European Parliament where we must look for an ally in actions against the Polish authorities, who are too heavily influenced by local political interest, and therefore push air quality issues on the back burner.
Janusz Majcherek – political scientist, philosopher, professor at the Pedagogical University in Krakow
(Translated by Magdalena Kozłowska)
* This is the translated version of the interview and it hasn't been authorised.