Update: Germany shutters last black coal mine

Germany will close its last black coal mine on Friday, a milestone marking the end of a 200-year-old industry that once fuelled the country's economic growth but lost the battle against cheaper foreign competitors.

Update: Germany shutters last black coal mine
A last colletion of black coal on December 4th. Photo: DPA

Germany closed its last black coal mine on Friday, paying an emotional tribute to a 200-year-old industry that once fuelled the country's economic growth but lost the battle against cheaper foreign competitors.

After the remaining 1,500 workers of the Prosper-Haniel mine in Bottrop clocked off from their final shift, a group of seven workers exited the mine's elevator carrying the symbolic last chunk of “black gold”.

Veteran pitman Jürgen Jakubeit, wearing faded overalls and a black-sooted hard hat, then handed the block of coal to German President Frank-WalterSteinmeier, who accepted it with the traditional miners' greeting of “Glück auf” of “Good luck”.

“A difficult day isn't it?” said Steinmeier. “A very difficult day,” replied Jakubeit.

In a ceremony carried live on television and attended by 500 people, including European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, Steinmeier said the closure of the 150-year-old deep-shaft colliery marked “the end of an era” in western Germany's industrial Ruhr heartland.

“This is more than a piece of coal, this is history,” Steimeier told the crowd, several of whom wiped away tears.

“This is a day of mourning for you but I assure you this day has moved many people across Germany.”

A mining choir then sang the miners' anthem “Steigerlied” while across the region local churches marked the occasion with special services.

Although the closure comes amid a growing environmental outcry against coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, it wasn't pollution concerns but cheaper imports from abroad that sounded the mine's death knell.

'Thanks, buddy'

With its own vernacular, songs, football clubs and masses dedicated to the miners' patron saint Barbara, mining is woven deeply into the fabric of daily life in the Ruhr region.

Bundesliga clubs in the area, who owe their origins to local mining communities, are marking Prosper-Haniel's closure with tributes to their shared heritage.

SEE ALSO: 'Coal, beer, football': German clubs honour last mine

Schalke on Wednesday invited 2,000 miners to their game against Leverkusen.

And on Saturday, Borussia Dortmund players will wear the message “Danke, Kumpel” on their chests, which means both “thanks, buddy” and “thanks, miner”.

In a reminder of the dangers of the job, a 29-year-old man died in another recently shuttered mine in the same state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where dismantling work is ongoing.

And 13 miners were killed in a methane explosion in a coal mine in the
Czech Republic on Thursday.

No coal exit yet

Dating back to the 19th century, the mines, plants and steel mills that once dotted the Ruhr basin were long the beating heart of Germany's industrial prowess, powering its “economic miracle” after World War II.

At its peak, the mining industry employed 600,000 people.

But Germany's dominance in the black-coal market started to wane in the 1960s as foreign rivals made it cheaper to import the raw material.

Today most of the black coal, also known as hard coal, used in Germany's coal-fired power plants comes from Russia, the United States, Australia and Colombia.

The domestic industry has been kept on life support through massive subsidies, costing the German taxpayer over 40 billion between 1989 and 2017.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government decided in 2007 to phase out the aid and shutter the last black coal mines by 2018 — giving the workers of Prosper-Haniel 11 years' notice.

The long preparation has been credited with avoiding large-scale upheaval or angry protests, with many opting for early retirement schemes.

Some of the pitmen will continue working at the Prosper-Haniel site for now carrying out dismantling tasks.

The company in charge of the clean-up will also need people in the years ahead to pump out dirty mine water to avoid it from mixing with groundwater and possibly contaminating drinking water resources.

Germany's goodbye to black-coal mining is by no means an exit from coal altogether: the fossil fuel still accounts for almost 40 percent of its energy mix — partly because of Merkel's decision to ditch nuclear power.

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

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

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

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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.”