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Poland is facing a coal shortage this winter

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The war in Ukraine altered Europe's energy landscape. The continent relied on Russia for much of its energy. But after banning Russian coal imports this year, Poland faces a shortage. Millions of Polish households use coal furnaces for heat, which leaves people searching for some of the dwindling supply. We have a report from Krakow, or, as locals call it, Krahkoff (ph). Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: In Poland, coal comes in all sizes. There's groshek, literally green peas, for the smallest chunks, ozha, or walnut, for lumps you can hold in your hand, and finally, kostka, or cobblestone.

MONIKA: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: These are the brick-sized portions of coal that Monika has managed to get her hands on. The 73-year-old slowly leads me by the hand through her small yard on the outskirts of Krakow and opens her shed to reveal kostka neatly piled as high as she stands. She turns around with a beaming smile at their stark, obsidian-colored beauty.

MONIKA: (Through interpreter) Look at these cubes. They shine like glass - so perfect. They burn so nicely.

SCHMITZ: Rays of sunlight filter into the shed, reflecting each kostka's many jagged angles. She caresses them as if they were her pets. For a second, one might forget that we're staring at a pile of coal. But these kostka means a lot to Monika. Coal is suddenly in short supply, and that's a problem for nearly half of all households in Poland, like Monika's, that heat their home with coal furnaces.

Monika was able to secure her stash from a nephew who works at a coal yard, and that's why she doesn't want to give her full name. She feels lucky to have the coal, even though she paid the equivalent of $2,000 for it, a third of her annual income. Monica is a widow. She has no children, and she had to borrow most of the money for this coal from her godson. It cost more than four times what she paid for coal last year. When I ask her what she'll do next year if the price of coal remains this high, Monika's smile fades and tears well up in her eyes. She hasn't thought that far ahead yet.

MONIKA: (Through interpreter) I don't know. I don't know. I just don't have that kind of money. Please don't ask me that question. I'm in despair about this.

SCHMITZ: Up to this year, coal from Russia made up around half of all coal burned by Polish households for heat. Sanctions have eliminated that supply. Poland's government is scrambling to replace it with coal from Colombia, South Africa and Australia. And it's also lifted a ban on burning lignite, a less efficient coal that, when burned, releases far more pollutants like sulfur and mercury into the air. And that's the other problem. Poland already has some of the worst air pollution in Europe.

PITOR SIERGIEJ: We know that in Poland each year, about 45,000 people dies from air pollution. That's a mid-sized city each year just disappearing from the map.

SCHMITZ: Pitor Siergiej, spokesman for Poland Smog Alert, an environmental group, says air pollution is so bad in Poland that schools are routinely shut down in the winter to protect children from the toxic air.

SIERGIEJ: In one of the school, there was a fire alarm going in the middle of the night, and of course, there was no fire because there was so much smoke in the air.

SCHMITZ: Siergiej says 80% of Poland's air pollution is caused by the country's nearly 4 million household furnaces, known locally as smokers, burning coal in homes that, for the most part, are not insulated properly. Siergiej says due to the astronomical price of coal, he's hearing more and more stories of Poles resorting to mining their own coal in abandoned coal mines or burning garbage to try and stay warm. He's seen it in his own neighborhood in Warsaw.

SIERGIEJ: I saw the tires disappearing during - tires on the curb, on the street, waiting to be collected, tires disappearing during the night. I saw old furniture disappear during the night just before truck, garbage truck, came to collect it.

SCHMITZ: He says if this is happening in the country's wealthiest city, it's certainly happening in Poland's poorer regions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRONIC BEEPING)

SCHMITZ: Hundreds of miles south of Warsaw, on the outskirts of Krakow, officers belonging to a police unit called Eco-Patrol released their most important crime-fighting tool...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE BUZZING)

SCHMITZ: ...A drone outfitted with a camera and air sampling sensors. Officer Zbigniew Serek stares into a video screen of what the drone's camera is seeing as it soars over the red-tiled rooftops of a nearby neighborhood filled with chimneys. Serek's thumbs slowly move levers to zoom in on a few of the chimneys.

ZBIGNIEW SEREK: (Speaking Polish).

SCHMITZ: The screen shows a thin metal pipe. That's a gas pipe, Serek says, moving on to the next chimney, a towering brick one. That one, he says, is a smoker chimney connected to a coal furnace, but it's not emitting anything. He moves the drone to the next block as it slowly flies over each chimney in the neighborhood.

SEREK: (Through interpreter) There's a thicket of roofs here, and if we see smoke coming out of one of their chimneys, we can mark exactly where it is on this video screen and send a patrol over to see what's going on.

SCHMITZ: Krakow, home to some of the worst air pollution in Poland, banned the burning of wood, coal and all other solid fuels three years ago to try and tackle this problem. Officers Serek and his team enforce the law with daily drone inspections.

SEREK: (Through interpreter) People burn all sorts of things - window frames, parts of furniture, discarded food. It's possible this year we'll see more illegal burnings because the price of fuel has gone up so quickly.

SCHMITZ: And that's what Poland Smog Alert's Pitor Siergiej is worried about, too. He says the Polish government's recent announcement of a price cap on imported coal may make coal cheaper going forward. But he says most people are worried about the quality of imported coal and whether it will create even more smog.

SIERGIEJ: There is a growing sense of mistrust, of insecurity, of panic, even. People are trying to collect anything which has a heating value. I mean, anything, meaning rubber tires, meaning old furniture, cardboard. Some people are collecting wood. So I don't see too much trust in government right now.

SCHMITZ: What's worse, he says, the equivalent of more than $100 billion from the European Union meant to boost alternative energy sources is being held up by EU leaders over the Polish government's threats to its own democratic system. And that's money that could help solve the cost of coal, both in terms of its rising price and for people's lungs.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Krakow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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