The fresh-air enthusiasts are enjoying their glass of wine with their back turned to Das Seehotel, which used to be a dormitory for single engineers during the glory of the brown coal era. Lignite, considered the lowest rank of coal, turned out to be a Fluch (curse) and Segen (blessing) for Lusatia. The lignite rush began in the 19th century when the rising textile and glass industry needed energy, preferably a cheap one. Also, heavy industry of the former East Germany was dependent on coal.
After the reunification of Germany in 1990, many mines and power stations were closed since they weren’t efficient. However, the country remains the largest lignite producer in the world, followed by China, Russia and the USA. No wonder, as about twelve billion tons of lignite lie hidden under the surface.
Although lignite energy production is cheap, it comes with a high price for the environment. Over the last two centuries, Lusatia has turned from a green land of forests and meadows into a grey desert lined by brown rivers—deforested, dusty and marked by apocalyptic views of cooling lignite towers.
The wish to turn the clock back and reshape the wounded landscape emerged for the first time in the 1960s. At that time, German landscape architect Otto Rint suggested that the old mine pits be flooded to form lakes. Those artificial lagoons could then be connected by navigable canals. That solution was supposed to create a ‘blue paradise’ for locals and tourists alike.
In 1994 Germany’s federal government made it official: the Central German Mining Administration Company (LMBV) was established to coordinate the process for rehabilitating the post-coal area, such as flooding old pits and increasing the touristic value of the region. Uwe Steinbuher, LMBV’s spokesperson, proudly speaks about the company’s achievements: “The gigantic scale of rehabilitation efforts, with their great number and variety of individual tasks, justify calling this undertaking the largest environmental project in German history.”
The project is definitely one of the most expensive.
By 2018 this ambitious makeover is still not finished despite eight billion euros already invested, mostly in Lusatia, Dietrich von Tengg-Kobligk, an expert for Climate and Energy from the Green Party in Brandenburg, points out. What was supposed to become the Venice of Eastern Europe is a bottomless well into which more billions can be pumped, he said.
Nevertheless, there is no alternative. As Konrad Lehmann states,”otherwise you will have a dessert all around”. Lehman works as a tourist guide on Besucherbegwerk F60- a gigantic mine excavator, no longer in use and now put on display near the small village of Lichterfeld. Lehmann adds that if “this area is to be revived, it will first take many years to restore what was destroyed. You need time to let the ground stabilise first before creating anything”. Steinhuber confirms that creating geotechnically secure landscapes will take another twenty years.
not a single tonne of coal should be mined without a fixed plan on how to compensate for the impact on the landscape
Landscape recultivation not only takes time but also needs regular capital injections. The problem is that nobody seems to feel responsible for compensating for anything, as Heide Schinowsky, spokesperson for energy politics for Green Party Brandenburg, and von Tengg-Kobligk claim. It is remarkable since Germany’s Federal Mining Act clearly states that not a single tonne of coal [should be] mined without a prior fixed plan on how to compensate for the impact caused by mining in the existing landscape. The same is confirmed in the promotion material of Vattenfall – the Swedish energy company responsible for lignite mining until 2016.
The current energy provider, Czech-owned LEAG, does not have enough money to cover all the costs, claims Schinowsky. The company did not reply to an enquiry to clarify their position, and the question remains: Who is going to pay for the recultivation? Von Tenng-Kobligk reveals that taxpayers have footed the bill so far and continue to fund the project. LMBV, which is responsible for ”re-utilisation” as set forth in the Federal Mining Law, depends exclusively on federal and state funds. Thus, it looks like taxpayers still cover the expenses themselves. At the end of 2017, the bill had run up to 10.6 billion euros, and Steinbuher estimates that “a total of approximately 16 billion euros will be required for rehabilitation and reclamation of the lignite-mining areas”.
However, even though German taxpayers are sponsors of their post-coal paradise, the area is not particularly touristy yet. “The beaches are muddy. There is also a risk of collapsing land mass. This is because some layers of soil became slippery due to the water raising. Water recultivation at such a scale was unprecedented, so some mistakes were unavoidable”, von Tengg-Kobligk explains. Thus, bath lovers will need to wait a bit longer for a safe ‘blue paradise’. The main rehabilitation by LMBV will last until 2028, and until 2050 in some areas, states Steinhuber.
Ironically, swimming resorts are emerging while water quality in the area remains under threat as a result of mining. According to von Tengg-Kogblik, local rivers are subject to specific pollution by iron hydroxide, which can affect the water quality of Berlin, some 150 km downstream. It also makes the rivers look rusty brown.
The iron sludge, deposited on the beds of rivers destroys fish and plant species, warns von Tengg-Kogblik. It threatens valuable nature conservation areas and hence tourism in Lusatia. The invisible salination of the water due to sulphates can be tracked all the way to Berlin and beyond. Water activist Dorothea Härlin from the Berliner Wassertisch deplores the state of drinking water in the capital: “The tap water has to be obtained from bank filtration since the groundwater is already too contaminated. Berlin’s rivers and canals are far from conforming to the European Water Framework Directive and are threatened by the brown coal mining in the South East of Berlin.” The worst thing is that the impact of coal mining on water will be felt for the next 100 years, warns von Tengg-Kobligk.
Lusatia’s metamorphosis into Europe’s largest artificial lake area has its ups and downs, hidden costs and dark sides. But change is visible, and locals are hopeful. “One and a half years ago there was nothing here; people do hope that the region will become the second Mallorca or French Rivera – they really believe that this project can change the image of the coal mining area”, says Lehmann, full of hope.
Despite recultivation efforts, the landscape of Lusatia will never return to its former state. Neither will the life of the former mining employees who lost their jobs and need to reinvent themselves. Before 1990, 70,000 people, many of whom came from other parts of East Germany, were employed by the lignite industry. After the reunification, 40,000 people lost their jobs. Nowadays, only 6,000 still work for LEAG and have been left clinging to their jobs and incomes.
Many people here feel like losers, says Burkhard Behr, the head of the Centre for Dialogue and Change. They are victims of an economic and political process. Nobody has done anything about the situation of people here for the last 25 years. As a result, many have left the region due to the complete lack of opportunities.
A horizontal Eiffel Tower
But those who have stayed are looking for alternatives, and tourism is certainly one of them. The citizens of the small community of Lichterfeld saw touristic potential in an old mine bridge near their village. The gigantic 13,500-ton stale construction would have been blown up had it had not been for the inventive locals. They bought the excavator for one symbolic German Mark (0,50€). “It’s a big attraction. People wanted to keep it”, explains Lehmann. As a child, he once had to move with his parents from a house that was destined to be destroyed to make way for a similar machine that depleted lignite.
The surreal machine exposed near Lichterfeld is called the Lying Eiffel Tower of Lusatia, in reference to its horizontal positioning above the field. But there is also a tiny little lie in the setup: the bagger’s gargantuan bridge was built between 1989 and 1991 and was only used for a year and a half at a different location. Besucherbegwerk F60 attracts some 65,000 visitors a year and features the only such moving bridge in Europe. Visitors can experience it first hand by climbing their way 75 meters up to the top. At night, light and sound shows bring the machine to life, and parachuters even jump from it sometimes. Culture lovers attend concerts and film festivals under its somewhat menacing shade as well.
The story of Besucherbegwerk F60 seems like a happy ending. It is not only a huge attraction in the region but also a source of income for the local community. Agora, an independent think tank, points out that tourism already has as many employees as brown coal industry in the area. So an alternative does exist. But the solution is not that popular, since the salaries it pays are significantly lower than the ones in the brown coal industry.
LEAG pays the best salaries in the region, after the German Railways, says Kurt Hermann, a new recruit at LEAG who chose for his real name not to be disclosed. The whole discussion about the environment is complicated: people tend to choose dirty work to put bread on the table over clean air, he said. And yes, we are concerned by global warming. But at the end of the day, we all want to switch on the lights, take a hot shower and have a full fridge, Kurt states honestly, pointing a finger at the unsustainable lifestyles that require cheap and easily available energy.
Four coal power plants remain open and run on local lignite in Lusatia. Despite ongoing projects and LMBV’s efforts, the region is far from becoming a tourist paradise, and its nature is still being destroyed in the name of coal. The coal lobby holds a strong position despite some successes achieved by green movements, which have prevented the building of new power plants in Jänschwalde Nord, Welzow II and Nochten II. But while deeper structural changes are needed to convince young people to stay in the region and create a real alternative to brown coal, the government still hasn’t taken a firm stand that the polluting industry should be shut down. It still appears to be a lucrative business and a source of employment. The problem is that people are often not sure what the future will bring: “We get mixed signals from politicians”, Kurt admits. And if politicians don’t know what to do, who is there to decide how the changes will be carried out, he ponders.
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