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As Subsidies Dry Up, German Miners Watch a Way of Life Ebb

Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet decided last month to stop subsidizing the country's hard-coal mining industry in 2018. For miners, it means a beloved tradition and a way of life is coming to an end.

Miners at a demonstration

Miners have demonstrated against ending the subsidies -- to no avail

On a recent Wednesday morning, Benno Henschen's alarm clock went off at 3:10 a.m. He drove 20 kilometers (12 miles) to a non-descript complex of buildings near the leafy small town of Voerde, changed into his work clothes, and promptly descended 820 meters (2,690 feet) under the earth.

It is the start of the early shift for Henschen, 49, who will spend the next seven hours overseeing the machines that extract the hard coal that turned this region in western Germany, near the Ruhr and Rhine rivers, into Germany's industrial heartland and powered its comeback from the ashes of World War II.

"I have always loved being a miner, and I still do," said Henschen, who was just 14 when he went down into his first mining pit. "But I'm worried about the future."

Henschen is a member of a profession whose days appear limited in Germany. While there were once over 100 pits at the hard-coal mining industry's peak in the 1950s, today there are only eight such mines left in Germany. The Ruhr region's centuries-old mining history means it is necessary to go further and further underground to reach unexhausted coal seams. Stringent safety measures and high-labor costs have also added to the cost of German hard coal. At around 180 euros ($248) per ton, it costs more than three times the global market price.

A picture of miners in a pit in 1880

A long history: miners in 1880

But for decades, German lawmakers have propped up the industry with large-scale subsidies. Right now, federal and regional governments pump 2.5 billion euros a year into hard-coal mining.

"The markets are international, our energy supplies are secure, and so there's no reason to use public money to subsidize hard-coal mining," said Oliver Wittke, Minister for Building and Transport for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the Ruhr region, and Henschen's mine, are located. "It is far too expensive."

But to Henschen, the bottom line should not be the only consideration.

"Expensive is not always the most costly," he said. To him, what Germany will be giving up when the mines close has a value that you can't put a euro-sign on.

Family tradition

Henschen is the third generation in his family to go into mining. His grandfather, who he never knew, was a pitman. His father was too, working in the late '50s during the industry's heyday, when the Ruhr area was a cauldron of smokestacks, steel factories and rumbling hard-coal conveyor belts which fed them.

Coal mine workers leave the elevator at the mine in Voerde

Coal mine workers leave the elevator at the mine in Voerde

Mining was in his blood, and really was all he ever knew, or saw. Miners lived mostly together in settlements often not far from the pits. After the gritty shifts spent together far underground, miners would often spend their free time together and raise their families next door to one another.

"The hard work underground welded us together, you could say," said Henschen. "We respect one another, have to depend on one another. It's not like in other jobs."

Miners, he said, are part of a tightly knit social fabric that is unraveling because of government decisions he thinks are wrong. But that fabric has already been badly frayed by layoffs. Today there are 34,000 miners, down from 607,000 in 1970.

Engine of integration

Ali Sen, 39, is in his 24th year as a miner, but is now spending time above ground in the public relations office of DSK, the company which manages Germany's remaining hard-coal mines, learning another side of the business, one that might have more of a future.

His father was a miner in Turkey before coming to Germany as a so-called "guest worker," bringing his family over when Sen was two. The strong sense of social cohesion among miners extended to relations between Turks and Germans, according to Sen. While the integration of Germany's large Turkish community into the large society is still seen as problematic, Sen said with miners, ethnicity was never an issue.

The sun behind a mining tower

The sun is setting on the German hard-coal mining industry

"I don't think these groups get along anywhere in German better than in the Ruhr region," he said. "We live side by side, play together in soccer clubs, it's exemplary."

Both he and Henschen said closing mines could further weaken the Ruhr area's economy -- the mine in Voerde, where they both work, is scheduled to close next year. Other businesses in the area, some of which depend on miners' patronage, will suffer.

"Where mines have been closed, you notice the neighborhoods that bore the brunt of it haven't bounced back even after 20 or 30 years," Sen said. "They might not quite be ghettos, but stores are closed and people don't have money to buy."

Structural change

The Ruhr region's economy has been hard hit by the progressive shuttering of its heavy industry since the 1960s and successive waves of large-scale layoffs. By the end of the 1990s, the once prosperous region had turned into a landscape of rusting industrial ruins, environmental degradation and dwindling hopes. Unemployment once reached 19 percent, although that number now stands at 14.5 percent.

An illuminated stairway at a former mining tower

A light show at the repurposed mining tower, Zollverein

The region is now embarking on an economic redevelopment program that sees it moving away from heavy industry like steel and coal and toward the logistics, chemicals and service sectors. The region will be one of Europe's cultural capitals for 2010, and some of its industrial skeletons, like unused mining shaft towers, deserted factories, and silo-like gasometers, have already been turned into cultural spaces for exhibitions or performances.

Much ado about little?

Some argue that miners' complaints are exaggerated. The agreement on ending the subsidies provides a "soft landing" for the workers and the federal and state governments will spend an estimated 21.6 billion euros over the next 11 years. Options for miners include retraining programs, job-search help, and start-up money for those wishing to become self-employed. Those who have 25 years underground can retire at 49.

"We are doing a lot for our miners," said Christof Beike, a spokesman for DSK.

But for those like Henschen, used to the security mining once brought, that is cold comfort. And even more then the end of an industry, it's the end of a tradition and a life that might have been hard on the body, but was good for the soul.

"Now families are losing their bearings and the solidarity of our communities is being pulled apart," he said. "I think that's a shame."

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