A broad alliance of environmental organisations is writing an open letter to the environment ministers of the states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt to demand concrete measures to end coal subsidies that are harmful to the environment and the climate.
Coal companies are evading their legal obligation to be financially liable for the environmental damage they cause.
LEAG and MIBRAG are responsible for the extraction of 470 million cubic metres of groundwater per year, and the resulting sulphate and iron discharges are poisoning surface waters - the costs of which have so far been largely borne by the public purse.
The climate crisis requires an exit from coal as quickly as possible and thus an early closure of the opencast lignite mines. However, this does not mean that the coal companies should be paid with public funds to fulfil their legal obligations to restore the opencast mines.
The ongoing energy crisis has brought exorbitant profit margins to the companies operating coal-fired power plants, and the federal government is holding out the prospect of additional sources of revenue by reactivating lignite-fired power plants. Under the Coal Phase-out Act, they are to receive a further €4.35 billion in public funds as "compensation" (of which LEAG accounted for €1.75 billion), should the European Commission classify them as compatible with EU state aid law in a procedure currently underway.
"Nevertheless, there is a danger that taxpayers will have to bear the burden for the environmental clean-up of Lusatia if LEAG's payments are not secured accordingly by the authorities," says Mascha Klein, environmental lawyer at ClientEarth. "This would be in complete contradiction to the polluter pays principle, which is anchored in the EU treaties but also in German mining law. The state governments of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg must take immediate action to implement the polluter pays principle and hold the lignite industry accountable to avoid additional costs for taxpayers," Klein demands.
Despite massive water overuse and pollution, and in drastic contrast to the provisions of the EU Water Framework Directive, water abstraction in connection with lignite mining is largely exempt from charges in Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg.
Similarly, the competent authorities in these states have failed to demand sufficient financial guarantees from LEAG for the recultivation of the opencast mines after coal mining has ended. The environmental organisations therefore demand the following measures from the environment ministers of the federal states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt:
Open letter: Polluter pays liability for environmental damage in Central and Eastern Germany
Lusatia, which has already lost billions of cubic metres of water to lignite mining in recent decades, is heading for a water shortage due to the effects of climate change and the inaction of the authorities. There is a risk of the region's drinking water supply being threatened by sulphate inputs from the opencast mines. In addition, coal firing remains the main anthropogenic source of mercury releases in Germany, making it almost impossible to meet the target of targeted mercury removal to protect water bodies by 2027.
In Brandenburg, LEAG is allowed to pump groundwater beyond the permit limits, continues to operate without an approved mine rehabilitation plan and even wants to extract water from the Spree to cool its Jänschwalde power plant.
The states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg have repeatedly failed to demand additional financial security from LEAG, even though this is certainly a requirement of approval for the operation of an opencast mine under 55 para. 1 sentence 1 no. 7 BBergG. The precautionary agreements that Saxony and Brandenburg concluded with LEAG in 2018 and 2019 are very vague and opaque.
The agreements are dependent on financial surpluses for the company until 2042. But these are highly questionable in view of the future economic situation of lignite. Moreover, there is a lack of independent research into the likely clean-up costs. Therefore, there is no guarantee that these agreements will cover the actual recultivation costs in the future.
In the case of LEAG's Welzow-Süd opencast mine, BUND Brandenburg, with the support of ClientEarth, is therefore taking legal action against the operating plan in order to enforce an amendment with regard to the costs of recultivation and thus protect the region from long-term environmental damage. The environmental organisations are demanding that the state government take action in the interest of the general public and demand additional securities for recultivation as well as full transparency about the agreement with LEAG.