WHAT COAL LEFT BEHIND
Men gather on top of a neighborhood hill overlooking the city of Walbrzych, Poland. Two blocks from the main Police Station, they talk a while, letting themselves warm up before illegally mining the black gold beneath them. The youngest is sent off to buy beers as the wife of another looks out for police. The rest begin their work. With indifference they pull on gloves, blackened by the countless hours of rooting through the earth. They shoulder their tools and jump into a pit, with rudimentary tunnels stretching out like spider webs under their feet. The fall air is crisp around them. The coal they mine will be used to heat homes and to stave off the coming cold.
Coal mining is both illegal — and a means of survival — for some private citizens in the city of Wałbrzych, Poland.
It didn’t used to be this way. Coal mining in Wałbrzych dates back to the 14th century. During the height of Poland’s hard coal industry in 1979, a record 201 million tons were mined in the Lower Silesia Basin region that runs along Poland’s border with the Czech Republic. But after Poland transitioned from a planned economy to a market economy in the early 1990s, the nation’s coal industry experienced a swift upheaval.
By the early 2000s, a practice that had defined the region for decades in Wałbrzych was effectively shut down. And though coal production was still viable in the landscape surrounding the city, an industry in the region came to a halt, citing inefficiencies and dangerous work conditions.
“In Poland, there is no work,” a miner says, “So we do this.” Constantly on the lookout for police, his group and others mine, bag, and sell coal for their living.
Amongst them is a man in his late sixties, who has been mining for five years without incident from the police, though he risks a fine and possible jail time every time he goes out.
For him and for his
younger counterparts, it is a tentative existence.