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In Europe, Dirty Coal Makes a Comeback

A lignite revival threatens villages, and progress on global warming

From the baroque castle where Beethoven premièred his Eroica symphony two centuries ago, Vladimír Buřt gazes down on giant excavators that eat into the ground around the clock, loading brown coal onto conveyor belts that fill waiting railroad cars. “There used to be a lake where we’d go swimming every day,” says Buřt, the deputy mayor of Horní Jiřetín, a 750-year-old village in the Czech Republic that could be destroyed if the coal mine is allowed to expand. “The Communists started this devastation, and this government wants to finish it.”

Horní Jiřetín and other small villages along Europe’s mining belt may soon succumb to the continent’s quest for cheaper electricity. Alarmed that energy prices in Europe are about double what they are in the U.S., governments in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany are green-lighting the expansion of mines that produce lignite, a moist, brown coal used to fuel power plants. While lignite is plentiful and cheap, it packs less energy and releases more greenhouse gases than hard coal. The dirty coal’s resurgence runs counter to European Union efforts to limit emissions and promote cleaner energy.