An environmental group has failed in its legal bid to stop the controversial expansion of Germany's biggest lignite mine. Activists say the operation threatens the Hambach forest, home to a number of endangered species.
Cries of protest erupted in the Cologne Administrative Court on Friday after the judge ruled that development plans for the Hambach open-pit mine did not breach environmental legislation and could go ahead as planned.
Conservation organization BUND, which filed the lawsuit, vowed to appeal the decision.
"We will continue to pursue all legal and political avenues to stop this irresponsible open-pit mine and to save what remains of the Hambach forest," BUND's managing director in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Dirk Jansen, said.
The group argued that NRW authorities should never have approved mine operator BWE's plans for the 2020-2030 period, saying the upcoming expansion would mean felling trees in the ancient Hambach forest.
The 85-square kilometer (52-square mile) Hambach mine is one of the largest open-pit operations in the world.
Each year, the mine produces around 40 million tons of lignite — a brown, low-grade coal considered to be one of the most polluting fossil fuels. It's also been the site of numerous protests calling for the German government to end its use of coal.
The land encompassing the Hambach forest is legally owned by the RWE group, so theoretically the company can do what it likes with it. But BUND had argued the area should be protected, because the forest provides a habitat to many endangered animal and plant species.
Nevertheless, it now seems the forest will have to give way to lignite, and this, despite a political push in Germany to move toward phasing coal out.
A complete coal exit?
Ahead of the verdict, presiding judge Holger Mauerer said he regretted that RWE, NRW and BUND could not reach a settlement.
On Tuesday, the first day of the trial, the court had proposed two compromises in a bid to preserve the forest: shift the mining area to skirt the woodlands, or spare the forest for as long as possible until an expected government plan to phase out coal altogether is announced. The judge told the court that the end of coal in Germany was inevitable and just a matter of time. "We just don't know exactly when it will happen," he said.
While BUND said it was willing to accept one of the compromise options, NRW and RWE declined, arguing it simply wasn't possible to leave the Hambach forest out of the expansion plan.
Jansen of BUND said their stance showed a refusal to face reality. "The current mining area will provide enough space for years to come without the need to attack the Hambach forest," he said.
Energy company RWE has been gradually clearing parts of the Hambach forest since 2015. The forest once made up one of the largest nature reserves in the state of NRW, but now some 90 percent of trees there have been cut down.
BUND has warned that the company would seek to continue its mine expansion beyond the 2020-2030 period.
Such a step would involve NRW carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to assess how harmful the development would be to local nature. There was no such review for the 2020-2030 expansion, however. That's because the concept of an EIA has only existed since 1990, while authorities set out the entire plan for the Hambach mine's development in 1977. And so, according to NRW and RWE, their planning is covered by the 1970s legislation, making an environmental assessment unnecessary.
“Coal becomes the dirty alternative”
140 endangered species
BUND argued in court that the Hambach Forest meets all the criteria to be considered a European nature reserve, and therefore should be protected.
The forest is home to around 140 endangered species, including the nearly extinct Bechstein bat.
"Nobody should be concerned about the bats dying," lawyers for RWE told the court, adding that the animals would be relocated to other forest areas.
Jansen of BUND, meanwhile, urged RWE to avoid cutting down trees and "causing further irresponsible damage to nature."
He said his group had already submitted an interim order with the Higher Administrative Court in Münster to immediately halt logging in area.
BWE press spokesman Guido Steffen told DW the forest clearing would begin in a timely manner. "We have the right, and without clearing the (mine's) operation would be at risk."