Down the black hole of coal mining in Poland

Martin, 23, mines coal illegally with a group of men in Wałbrzych, Poland. The work is physical, and the men use 17th-century tools and methods. The only tools these men use are a pickax, shovel and a few small buckets. Each bag of coal sells for about 20 zlt, or about $6, and will be used to heat homes by people that prefer the cheaper coal.

In his series “What Coal Left Behind,” photojournalist Matthew Busch looked to Europe — Walbrzych, Poland, specifically — to explore the human impact of harvesting fossil fuels, and the people involved either directly or indirectly in the practice. “I’m interested in a place where a resource that was once used to build up an entire region and created a rich heritage is now mined and sold illegally. Regions of Poland are still productive, but I wanted to see how an area was affected after industry had left.”

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.

Words and photos by Matthew Busch

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