Austrian authorities have given the green light for a hydro- power plant on one of the country’s last free-flowing rivers. It’s part of Vienna’s plans to ramp up renewables. But the move has sparked angry protests.
Austria's Black Sulm, or Schwarze Sulm as it's known in the country, is a small fast-flowing river originating in the mountains in southern Styria. It gets its name from its dark pools of deep water where trout are often seen swimming.
Now, the pristine beauty of one of the country's last free-flowing rivers is under threat. In September, the Styrian state government gave the go-ahead for a hydroelectric power station to be built on the river. The decision came as a surprise to many. Though plans to generate electricity from the Black Sulm have been around for a decade, the plant would have never gotten off the ground because of its location in a protected zone.
But Werner Fischer, head of the local department of environment in Styria, said this time approval was given because the water quality of the Sulm had deteriorated.
Fischer said his department had thoroughly reviewed the project and concluded that the condition of the river had shifted from "very good" to "good."
Emotions running high
Not many people buy that argument. The surprise approval of the power station in September unleashed protests including one in front of the environment ministry in Vienna.
Local environmental organizations and the Greens called on the Environment Minister, Nikolas Berlakovich of the People's Party, to use his federal powers and overrule the provincial government. The minister later filed a complaint against Styria's decision with the Administrative Appeals Court.
The go-ahead for the power plant has also triggered strong passions among the local residents. "Why? That's what we ask ourselves. Why this?," said Karl Mathauer, raising his voice above the roar of the rushing waters. Mathauer has lived in the Sulm valley all his life. "Normal logic doesn't help in being able to comprehend how a permit was issued," he said.
Just upstream from the small town of Schwanberg, a sign tells visitors they are entering an EU "nature protection area." A kilometer or so beyond the sign, there's a make-shift campsite where protesters have, for the past five months, staged an occupation.
Andreas Mathauer, a local teacher who opposes the damming of the river, said that a pipeline from the river to the power station would reduce water flow by 66 percent over a 12-kilometer stretch.
"The plans are that the pipeline will be built near here and therefore the people in the camp would like to stay here to observe what happens," he told DW.
Mathauer said many people are suspicious about how the approval process was handled.
"The political situation is that these private investors have got a lot of good connections," he said.
Owner remains defiant
The private investor in this case is from Schwanberg, a small picturesque town nestled in the hills of Styria, which are dotted with vineyards. The locals here are proud of their landscape, their folk music and their tracht or traditional clothing.
Peter Masser, a local land-owner and businessman - and the man pushing for the power station - is well known around here. He says he is not surprised by the resistance to his plans for the river.
"A power station always creates discussion, but it's not as if the opposition is so enormous that it will sway the government," he told DW. He said once the actual effect on the environment is explained, "the real conservationists are soon convinced that the impact will be minimal."
But opposition to the power station goes well beyond the protesters on the banks of the Sulm. Green Party politicians have raised questions in the Austrian parliament, and the environment ministry in Vienna says it "regrets" Styria's decision not to wait for an official response.
At the same time, environmental groups have filed a charge of "abuse of office" with corruption prosecutors against the provincial governor and senior civil servants. At the European level, the environment commissioner is investigating to see if there's been a breach of rules.
But Peter Masser is convinced that the approval will be upheld.
"When the authorities come to the conclusion that the river environment can sustain it, why should Brussels have anything against it?," he said.
Clean energy at a cost
The go-ahead for the hydroelectric plant on the Sulm is part of Austria's ambitious plans to increase renewable energy production. It aims to be energy self-sufficient by 2050. According to government figures, nearly 70 percent of its electricity already comes from hydropower. That figure has been achieved by damming many of its small fast-flowing Alpine streams as well as the mighty Danube.
It's estimated that only four percent of the combined length of Austria's rivers have not been dammed for hydroelectric power or channeled for navigation.
But Ulrich Eichelmann, from the group Riverwatch, says the drive for clean energy has come at a heavy price for the environment.
"If we fail to protect this river, it's like a domino thing and all the rest of the intact river stretches will fall," he said, adding that the Sulm will be a test case for other rivers in the EU. "So they just open up these protected sites, build hydroelectric plants in there and say, well, that's it."
Who blinks first?
Investor Peter Masser is convinced his power station project will move forward despite the protesters' occupation of the river bank.
"This is a country with the rule of law and there are ways of getting people to see reason; thank God we live in a state where there are appropriate ways of dealing with them," he said.
Yet Ulrich Eichelmann remains equally certain that the power plant will not see the light of day. He said that if all bureaucratic and legal processes failed to prevent the building of the power station, there were many people prepared to stop it "physically."
"It's not that we'd use force, but we'd block it. We will be there and block it because we have to protect [one of the last free-flowing rivers]," Eichelmann said. "If we don't, then we lose everything."