Germany's coal mines that keep swallowing up villages

Neighbours and activists are the only ones fighting to stop it, even though the new coalition government says it wants to stop lignite mining by 2030

4 min
The RWE Weisweiler coal-fired power plant near Inden, Germany, in February this year.

Lützerah (Germany)In the small town of Lützerah in Germany's Rhineland, brambles have eaten the sidewalks, the streets and the bus stop. Street lamps are not lit, doors and windows of houses are boarded up, and during the campaign for the German federal elections in September, not even election posters were visible. There were no longer any votes at stake: no one was registered on the electoral roll. All the neighbours have been forced to leave and sell their houses to the RWA, the coal mining company that, despite the coal blackout planned for the country for 2038 (and which the new federal government intends to bring forward to 2030), continues to grow and swallow up municipalities, fields and forests that have the misfortune to be on tons and tons of lignite.

The mine that is advancing towards the municipality of Lützerah measures around 48 km² in the open air and has already eaten a dozen villages. It is expected to eat five more. Together with other excavations in the area, such as Hambach - around 44 km² and planned to reach 85 km² - an estimated 30 have been swallowed up since World War II, displacing around 40,000 people. "Our parents and grandparents, if they saw the mine advancing towards their house, they took it for granted that they had to leave and did not complain, but this has been over for years", says farmer Eckhart Heukamp, the only resident of Lützerah who has not left the village despite the eviction order.

The demolition machines should have entered the village weeks ago, but they have been met by activists from all over Germany who have occupied the houses and the adjoining woods. Heukamp helps them with what he can and provides water and electricity for their camp. Many live in a lattice of wooden huts that have been built up in the trees for when the police come to evict them. "We can stay for a few days without having to go down to the ground, we have plenty of food and the houses are interconnected with bridges and ropes", says one of the camp spokespersons, who prefers to remain anonymous. Some of these activists have already fought against the deforestation of the remaining 10% of the Hambach forest and managed to save it.

The neighbourhood struggle has also achieved small victories. "We don't have many resources, but we do what we can. For example, where the mine is planned to grow, we buy small plots of land and then refuse to sell them and take them to court. This scares them and sometimes they change the route", explains Andreas Cichy, a member of the association Human Rights Over Mining Rights and one of the residents of Wanlo who prevented his village from disappearing.

"They sink everything, they leave nothing. Houses, cemeteries, centuries-old churches, etc. It's horrifying and it makes me very sad. I have been very involved in the struggle, so much so that it has even cost me my marriage; my husband can't understand why I don't leave and am willing to go through all this", adds Elisabeth Hoffmann-Heinen, another affected neighbour.

Sven Kaumanns, who is "very happy" to have moved to the new villages that are being built a few kilometres away from the old ones for his neighbours who have had to leave home, was not too worried. He has moved from living in Borschemich to Neu Borschemich. "It's true that we have a lot of memories there, but nobody was fixing anything anymore because they saw that the end was near and everything was left and abandoned", says Kaumanns, who only complains about the compensation from the RWA. "We were promised these houses, but most of us have had to take out mortgages to pay for a large part of it".

In the new village there is no shop, civic centre, bar or restaurant. It looks like a high-class, half-built housing estate: there are exposed pipes and cables, lots of scaffolding and vacant lots, unpaved streets and unpaved sidewalks, thin trees just planted, and more plumbers' and gardeners' vans than private cars. Of course, the election posters did arrive. "The streets have the same names as in the old town, as if to imitate it, but everything is completely different, very artificial and tawdry", says Hoffmann-Heinen.

Too much use of coal

Germany is the second largest lignite consumer in the European Union after Poland. It is the country that emits the most carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere of the EU-27, and more than a quarter of the electricity it generates comes from coal-fired power stations.

In fact, one of Angela Merkel's most criticised legacies, despite the fact that she condemned nuclear power, is that she has not sufficiently deployed green energy. "The situation we find ourselves in is the result of many years of misguided energy policies of the SPD and CDU. Now we have to expand renewables as fast as possible", responds Dirk Jansen, climate change expert at the German Federation for the Environment. This year there is also the energy crisis in Europe, which makes it difficult for Germany to reduce the use of coal and for the administration to consider no further expansion of mines and the disappearance of entire villages.

Germany is not scheduled to stop generating energy from lignite until 2038, but the new coalition government of the SPF, the Greens and the Liberals has agreed to bring it forward to 2030. When coal mining stops, it is planned to turn large opencast mines into lakes or fill them with earth left over from excavations and replant green areas and wind farms. To achieve this goal, Rhineland will receive an extra 15 billion euros from the state. "I think this is a very good solution for the environment and for the continuity of the jobs that will be lost with the end of the mines. And we would go from having giant black holes right next to our homes that besiege us to large natural areas", says Andreas Cichy.