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Aftershocks Hit Germany's Coal Mining Industry

The German government plans to begin phasing out coal mining in 2009. Yet one of Germany's eight remaining mines closed early after being blamed for causing earthquakes.

Miners protest in Dusseldorf

Another German coal mine has closed

The closure of a coal mine in the western German region of Saarland didn't come as a surprise. Residents knew that the German government planned to phase out the subsidies which have propped up the industry for decades.

Yet the abrupt closure Saturday, Feb. 23, still came as a shock. Or maybe more of a rattle.

A small earthquake caused by the mining shook the region on Saturday afternoon. It's unclear what caused the seismic shock, which originated in a coal mining operation more than 1 kilometer (half a mile) underground near the French border. The earth quake was small, registering a "light" 4.0 on the Richter magnitude scale.

Mining era nearing an end

German coal mine operation

Mine closures are common in Germany

In recent years the German government has subsidized coal mining to the tune of more than 160 billion euros ($237 billion). Importing coal from abroad makes more sense than propping up domestic mining, the government has said.

The shuttering of the Saarland mine is the latest in a series of closures. Last year, the German government announced it would gradually phase out coal mining, which has a 200-year tradition in Germany.

Germany's eight remaining coal mines employ approximately 33,000 people. The phase-out is planned to start in 2009 and will be finished by 2018, with miners receiving government compensation.

Residents all shook up

Saarland's Interior Minister Klaus Meiser surveys the damage to a church

The quake shook stones loose

The tremor was the strongest on record in the area, rattling pictures on walls, knocking over chimneys and causing electrical outages. A church in the border town of Saarwellingen near the mine was closed to the public as a precautionary measure after the tremor shook stones loose.

After the quake, about 1,000 protestors gathered in Saarwellingen to demand an end to the mining work which caused dozens of small tremors in recent months. About 150,000 people live in the area.

They got backing from the region's top official, Premier Peter Mueller. He promised that mining would not be allowed to resume if there was evidence that it could cause further earthquakes.

Mueller is scheduled to meet with mining officials Monday to discuss the future of mining in the area. Investigators are also expected to spend the next few days searching for the cause of the tremors.

Closed for now

Sign at the entrance to a coal mine

Coal mining has a long tradition in Germany

The hilly, forested region is home to a coal mining operation run by RAG Deutsche Steinkohle. RAG stopped mining at the site until further notice, provisionally laying off 3,600 employees.

The mine near Saarwellingen is RAG's only in Saarland. Essen-based RAG is a group of companies which has chemical, energy and real estate holdings.

RAG apologized for the recent tremors in Saarland and promised to set up a claim system for those whose property was damaged in the quake.

It remains unclear if the mine will reopen.

It's the company's responsibility to demonstrate whether it can "unequivocally eliminate danger to life and limb," Mueller said.

"If it can't do that, from my point of view restarting the mining is not possible," Mueller was quoted as saying in the Monday edition of the Bild newspaper.

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