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Inside Germany's coal country

Elian Hadj-Hamdi
August 8, 2017

In August, thousands of activists will take part in anti-coal demonstrations in western Germany, as mines and plants continue to operate and expand. DW looks at the impact of coal mining on people and nature there.

Hambach open surface mine, Germany
Image: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

Giant steel structures rise out of the scarred gray and brown lunar-like landscape. These huge excavators work tirelessly to reach the precious resource underground: brown coal.

They have certainly made their mark. The Hambach open-pit mine at 85 square kilometers (33 square miles) would take up half of the US capital Washington D.C. and is considered one of the largest manmade holes in Europe.

The view towards the village of Elsdorf which is located in direct proximity behind the Hambach mine, Germany
The view towards the village Elsdorf which is located near the Hambach mineImage: Marcel Sygula / Elian Hadj-Hamdi

Hambach - located in the heavily industrialized German state of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW) - ensures a steady supply of a fossil fuel still very relevant to the country's energy system. Brown coal - also known as lignite - makes up around a quarter of Germany's power production.

Its persistence is controversial and a contradiction.

As Germany phases out nuclear energy in favor of solar, wind and other renewables, coal is touted by some as a necessary temporary backup for fluctuating green energy, even as the country prepares to host the COP23 climate conference, set to take place in November in the nearby city of Bonn.

Visitors enjoy the view over the Hambach mine, Germany
Visitors enjoy the view over the Hambach mine from lounge chairs at the 'Forum: Terra Nova'Image: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

Europe's economic powerhouse and supposed environmental leader has committed to a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020. But coal - particularly lignite - is dirty. Seven of Europe's 10 biggest polluters are German lignite plants, according to climate group Sandbag. There are serious doubts Germany will reach its targets.

While the plan is for eventual decommissioning of coal-fired plants, it's unclear they will be completely phased out. And in the meantime, energy giant RWE continues to expand the Hambach mine, swallowing whole villages in the process.

Villages killed by coal

Abandoned houses and empty streets shape today’s image of Manheim, Germany
Abandoned houses and empty streets shape today's image of Manheim, GermanyImage: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

RWE's predecessor Rheinbraun opened the Hambach mine in 1978. Since then, four villages that lay within the mine's boundaries have made way for the "public good" - as legally-backed eviction notices explained.

The mine still hasn't unfolded to its final size. Two more villages - Kerpen-Manheim and Morschenich, southeast of the current operations - are facing extinction. The resettlement of Manheim's residents began in 2012 after years of negotiation and is scheduled for completion in 2022.

The village at its peak had around 1,700 inhabitants. But the majority have left for Neu-Manheim (New Manheim) or elsewhere, leaving behind abandoned houses, shuttered windows and empty streets.

The company offers compensation for affected villagers based on the size, condition and value of their property. Still, some remaining residents are unhappy with the payoffs.

Not everything has a price tag, believes one resident who wished to remain anonymous. The father of two told DW that his house is listed as a protected structure and that he fears the resettlement will affect his 100-hectare farm. Some of his land is in an area earmarked in the mine expansion. "Finding a suitable alternative will likely prove difficult," he said. 

Temporary revival for a doomed village

Two men from Njaf, Iraq sit in front of their temporary home in Manheim
Asylum seekers Amin Amori and Saheb Alibeeg arrived in Germany from Iran and Iraq and were settled temporarily in Manheim Image: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

In late 2016, RWE started to knock down the first houses in Manheim. They will demolish 50 per year until the village is gone. In the meantime, the municipality is renting vacant properties, now owned by RWE, to house around 220 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Amin Amori (26) from Iran and Saheb Alibeeg (23) from Iraq arrived in Germany in late 2015, and were transferred to Manheim shortly thereafter. Locals gave them a warm welcome, they say, and the surrounding villages established a network to support the newcomers.

Both speak German and are preparing for an apprenticeship in a nearby trade school in Kerpen. Alibeeg wants to be an electrician. Like the other remaining villagers, they are looking at an uncertain future. Uncertainty about when the bulldozers will arrive, where they will end up - and in the migrants' case, whether they will be granted asylum.

An ancient forest wiped out

Cleared forest. In the background: the smoking chimneys of the Niederaußem power station tower up along the horizon
The result of RWE's latest clearing campaign in Hambach, GermanyImage: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

Humans can be resettled and compensated. But opponents of the mine say its expansion has meant the irretrievable loss of nature and much of the 12,000-year-old Hambach forest, which is home to hundreds of animal and plant species.

Each winter, RWE clears about 70 hectares of forest to access new layers of brown coal. Today, only 10 percent of 7,000 hectares of woodland is left. Environmental activists from all over Europe and Germany, like the 20-year-old Berliner who calls herself Peanut, have dedicated themselves to saving the rest.

One person stands with hood and nose-mouth-cover in the forest
'Peanut' is part of a group of environmental activists opposing the energy company RWE Image: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

Over the past few years, the activists have built a long-term camp, as well as about a dozen tree houses scattered throughout the forest. Located high up in the canopy, the tree houses can only be accessed via ropes and climbing gear. Activists occupy them during RWE's cutting season in the hope of halting logging.

It may seem romantic - but it's stressful, Peanut told DW. "During planned evictions, the activists have to hold out inside the structures for several hours if not days," she said.

Tree house by environmental activists which occupy parts of the Hambach forest, Germany
Environmental activists occupy parts of the Hambach forest, GermanyImage: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

No substitutes

At the northwestern end of the mine, RWE is using excess soil to form the Sophienhöhe, a plateau that is part of a plan to transform defunct parts of the mine into the region's largest recreational area.

Locals and visitors appreciate the newly cultivated landscape. Still, critics say it cannot substitute for the original forest.

"Many of the endangered species like the Bechstein's bat need old tree populations to nest in," said Michael Zobel, a 58-year-old environmentalist and nature guide. That's why he and others are advocating for the conservation of the existing forest, with its special combination of oaks, hornbeams and lily of the valley.

It's "the very last forest of this kind throughout all of Europe," added Zobel, who offers free monthly tours about mining's effects on the environment.

A man stands in a coal mine and talks to a group, Germany
Nature guide Michael Zobel discusses the efficiency of brown coal mining, GermanyImage: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

Tradition versus nature

Still, mining is deeply rooted in this part of NRW. The area - known as the Ruhrpott - is a vast jumble of industrial cities that began flourishing in the 19th century thanks to coal. It quickly became a major economic hub.

The lignite industry continues to employee nearly 9,000 people in NRW, and 20,000 Germany-wide. For many locals, working for RWE and its predecessor Rheinbraun is something of a family tradition, said Sabine Seeger-Hoff (49), as she overlooked the mine while walking her dog.

Woman overlooking Hambach mine, Germany
Sabine Seeger-Hoff overlooks the mine. On sunny days, she takes her dog for a walk on the recultivated SophienhöheImage: Elian Hadj-Hamdi

"I don't like every aspect of it, especially concerning the environment - but they do something about it with their recultivation, and in a wider sense the mine ensures a lot of jobs," she told DW. "I'm not against it … on the contrary; my brothers also work in the mine."

Like the forest, the villages and the asylum seekers, the mine workers face an uncertain future too. It's not a question of if, but rather when coal will be phased out in Germany. Whether sooner is better than later, depends on whom you ask.