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This historic German town is falling apart in 'slow-motion catastrophe'

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Cracks have appeared in the town hall in Staufen. Photo: DPA
13:44 CEST+02:00
A German town’s decision to invest in geothermal energy backfired badly after underground drilling went wrong and hundreds of buildings began to fall apart.

Staufen, a town of 8,100 inhabitants on the edge of the Black Forest, envisioned a blissful new green energy future when work on the project began in 2007. But when the drills hit groundwater, the pretty Baden Württenburg hamlet instead found itself in a battle for survival. 

More than 270 buildings have suffered fractures since the drills penetrated a layer of earth and struck groundwater in a yard right behind the town hall. 

“We’ve been in crisis mode for ten years,” Mayor Michael Benitz told news agency DPA. “It’s a slow-motion catastrophe."

A red banner that hangs from the damaged town hall proclaims: “Staufen must not fall apart”. 

But in some cases it almost already has. 

“In combination with groundwater this layer of earth turns into cement, expanding the layers and forcing the earth upwards,” the mayor explained. 

”In some places, Staufen has risen 62 centimetres and moved more than 45 centimetres sideways. This is causing some buildings to pull apart and crack.” 

Two houses have already had to be torn down and the town fears that more may need to be demolished to avoid collapse.

“Fractures have become our daily companions” said Csaba-Peter Gaspar, an executive consultant whose own apartment in the town’s historic core has suffered major damage. 

A mediation body established to deal with the crisis, and the financial fallout for inhabitants, has so far received more than 400 claims. 

Fortunately the town has had the benefit of a show of solidarity from state and municipal authorities which have pitched in with financial assistance, enabling the imminent repair of damaged buildings.  

Staufen also reached an out-of-court settlement with the drilling firm to the tune of €1.175 million ($1.4 million).

And the town is not alone in suffering this kind of damage. Geologists from the regional authorities in nearby Freiburg said similar scenes had unfolded in the towns of Böblingen and Rudersberg after geothermal drilling went wrong. 

It’s Staufen however that has really become a byword for failed geothermal drilling. 

Before September 2007, geothermal energy was an industry in the ascendancy. But the sheen has since worn off and the mood around the technology changed to one of uncertainty, according to the Berlin-based German Geothermal Association.

The association insists however that, when executed properly after a full risk analysis, geothermal energy remains a sensible and environmentally friendly option. 

In Staufen meanwhile pumps are in operation around the clock to dredge groundwater and minimize damage. This has reduced the buildup of cement, with the ground now rising at an average level of just 1.8 millimetres per month, compared to several centimetres in the initial phases. 

But nobody can say for sure how long the pumps will need to be deployed. 

“I’m working on the assumption that we’ll be grappling with this problem for several more years, probably even decades,” said the mayor.

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