End of an era as Germany’s last black coal mine closes

Germany will close its last black coal mine on Friday, turning the page on two centuries of mining history in the Ruhr region that helped fuel the country's post-war "economic miracle".

End of an era as Germany's last black coal mine closes
Miners leave at 1250 metre deep pit at the Prosper-Haniel colliery. Photo: DPA

Although the end of the Prosper-Haniel colliery near the western town of Bottrop comes as polluting coal is increasingly under scrutiny, it was cheaper hard coal from abroad, not environmental concerns, that sounded the mine's death knell.

For the remaining 1,500 workers the final shift promises to be an emotional one, culminating in a ceremony to be attended by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

After greeting each other one more time with the traditional miners' call of “Glück Auf!”, shorthand for good luck in opening a new vein, the workers will bring up a symbolic last chunk of black coal before the 150-year-old deep-shaft mine is sealed up.

“There's a heavy sadness now that it's all going to be over soon,” 47-year-old miner Thomas Echtermeyer told Bild newspaper, wearing a dusty white overall and yellow hard hat.

Retired pitman Reinhold Adam, 72, who recently visited the mine for a final, nostalgic descent into its belly, told Bild it was “the camaraderie that's so special under ground”.

With its own vernacular, songs, football clubs and church services dedicated to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners, generations-old mining traditions are deeply woven into the fabric of daily life in the region.

As the area's last active mine bows out, many are mourning not just the end of a once-mighty industry but of a way of life.

Powering a nation

Dating back to the 19th century, the coal mines, plants and steel mills that once dotted the Ruhr Valley in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia were long the beating heart of Germany's industrial growth, powering its economic recovery after World War II.

“For 150 years, coal was the country's main energy resource and most important raw material,” said historian Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, author of a study on the Ruhr's mining history.

The mines also midwived Germany's oldest political party, the centre-left Social Democrats, who found a large support base for their social struggles among the blue-collar pit workers.

Western Germany's tight grip on the crucial coal and steel sectors inspired France to propose the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, a common market between six countries designed to regulate competition — and a precursor to the European Union.

But Germany's dominance in the hard- or black-coal market started to wane 
in the 1960s as foreign rivals made it cheaper to import the “black gold”.

Today most of the hard coal used in German coal-fired power plants hails from Russia, the United States, Australia and Columbia.

The domestic industry, and the tens of thousands of jobs relying on it, have for years been kept on life support through government subsidies.

In 2017 alone, the German government spent more than a billion euros 
propping up hard-coal mining.

Phasing out coal

“(Bringing up) a tonne of German hard coal costs 250, but only sells for 80 on the market,” said Christof Beike, a spokesman for the RAG Foundation, tasked with managing the Prosper-Haniel site after its closure and helping miners navigate the changes.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government decided in 2007 to phase out subsidies and close the last black-coal mine by 2018 – giving the workers of Prosper-Haniel 11 years' notice.

The slow farewell has been credited with preventing large-scale upheaval and angry protests, dodging the unrest seen in Margaret Thatcher's Britain in the 1980s when colliery closures provoked mass strikes.

But Germany's farewell to black-coal mining is by no means an exit from coal altogether in a country where the fossil fuel still accounts for almost 40 percent of its energy mix – partly because of Merkel's decision to ditch nuclear power.

SEE ALSO: Is Germany the green leader its hyped up to be?

To the dismay of environmentalists, Germany still has numerous open-pit mines that extract lignite or brown coal, which is softer, cheaper and dirtier than black coal.

But it is an industry under growing threat as countries around the world look for ways to phase out fossil fuels to combat climate change.

In Germany, a government-appointed commission will in February announce a 
roadmap for exiting coal as part of efforts to make the country carbon-neutral 
by 2050.

SEE ALSO: German activists prepare for eviction in anti-coal fight

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‘Psychological terror’: The German villages threatened by coal mine expansion

Germany is on course to abandon coal-fired power stations but ironically one mine is being allowed to expand - to the fury of local residents who describe the battle to save their homes as "psychological terror".

'Psychological terror': The German villages threatened by coal mine expansion
Police look on as activists stage a sit-in protest against the destruction of the road L277 between Lützerath and Keyenberg near the Garzweiler coal mine in western Germany. AFP

Lost in the countryside of western Germany, the innocuously named L277 road has become a central battleground in a bitter fight over the country's plan to ditch coal. 

“It's psychological terror. The L277 was the last road which separated us from the mine. It was our red line, our border,” 29-year-old David Dresen, a resident of Rhineland village Kuckum, told AFP.

Dresen was one of dozens of residents who came out to protest this week, as work began to dismantle the L277.

The road is to be dug up to make way for the expansion of a neighbouring coal mine, with villages such as Kuckum next in line for demolition.

Germany is officially on course to abandon coal-fired power generation by 2038, with the government finalising its fiercely disputed “coal exit law” earlier this month. 

But ironically, the new law has also ringfenced the enormous Garzweiler mine in the Rhine basin from closure, allowing it to resume its expansion march — to the fury of local residents.  

A sign reading “Kuckum stays” is pictured in Kuckum, near the Garzweiler coal mine in western Germany. AFP

Kuckum and neighbouring villages such as Berverath and Keyenberg sit atop untapped sources of brown coal which mine operator and energy company RWE claims will be “needed from 2024”.

While other mines in the region are slated to close by 2030, the coal exit law allows Garzweiler to keep operating, continuing to supply nearby power plants even as they begin to close down in the coming years.

Under RWE's plans, the mine will thus edge closer and closer to villages such as Kuckum, eventually swallowing them up entirely.

“There will be no coal exit for us,” said Dresen.

Paris goals

A compromise hashed out between Germany's ruling centrist coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, the timetable for the so-called “coal exit” has long been criticised by environmentalists. 

Environmental NGOs have slammed the final text of the law — released in early July — as lacking ambition and urgency. 

This picture taken on July 22, 2020, near the Garzweiler coal mine shows a sign indicating the closure of the L277 road between Lützerath and Keyenberg.AFP


They argue that the 2038 deadline is too late if Germany is to fulfil its commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement. 

The Garzweiler mine is another flashpoint.

The site is regularly occupied by activists from the anti-coal movement, which has grown in significance since Germany's move away from nuclear power in 2011 increased dependence on the fossil fuel.

RWE said that it will be bearing the brunt of the impact of the coal exit and must shut down two-thirds of its power plant capacity in the Rhenish coalfield by 2030.

“The remaining power plants and refineries must continue to be supplied with coal that from 2030 can only be extracted from Garzweiler.

'Lost cause'

For residents like David Dresen, however, it is as much about saving their own homes as saving the planet. 

“I am nearly 30. I have lived all my life on a big farmhouse, where my family has been since the 18th century,” he says. 

Yet the farmhouse is currently set to be torn down with the rest of Kuckum in 2027.

In 2016, the village's residents were officially invited to sell their land to RWE and offered assistance to relocate elsewhere. 

This file photo taken on November 28, 2019 shows the Garzweiler opencast mine of German energy giant RWE in Juechen, western Germany. AFP

Other villages have already disappeared, while some now sit empty, awaiting their impending destruction. 

“It makes you really sad, leaving behind a world that is just being destroyed,” said Fritz Bremer, an elderly Keyenberg resident. 

The 86-year-old believes there is little hope of saving any of the villages.

“I think it's a lost cause. You saw it with the road. People protested, but they dug it up anyway,” he said. 

Yet protester Dresen still holds out hope that Kuckum could be spared such a fate.

“We hope that by 2027, we will have a new government at both federal and regional level, with the Green Party in the coalition,” he says. 

“But if we continue to have a government which doesn't care about climate goals, then it's probably curtains for our village.”