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My Coal Childhood: Lessons From Germany’s Mine Pit Lakes

By Anica Niepraschk - CounterPunch, August 4, 2017

I grew up one kilometre from the edge of a brown coal mine and surrounded by many others. I remember staring in awe and fear at this massive hole, scared of getting too close after hearing stories of people buried alive because they walked along the unstable mine walls.

My family lives in the Lausitz region of Germany, once home to 30 brown coal mines. Situated between Berlin and Dresden, the region has been shaped by this industry for over 100 years. It was the German Democratic Republic’s energy powerhouse – its Latrobe Valley – with coal mining the largest source of jobs.

That changed with Germany’s reunification, when the economy restructured to a market approach and most of the mines were closed. The only major industry was gone, leaving the countryside punctured with massive holes, and the community with big questions about how to make the region liveable again.

The Latrobe Valley in Victoria is starting to face similar changes. Hazelwood power station and mine shut down a few months ago and the world is moving away from fossil fuels. People are asking the same questions we did in Germany 15 years ago: how do we transition to a more diverse and sustainable economy, while continuing to provide jobs for local workers? What do we do with the dangerous pits left behind?

The same solutions are put forward too. Engie, the owner of Hazelwood, is proposing to fill all or part of the mine pit to become a lake and recreation area. The inspiration comes from the Lausitz, but some of the key challenges of this solution seem not to be given enough attention.

In my early teens, as I watched these massive mines around our house fill with water, I got excited about the prospect of living in an area renamed ‘Neuseenland’, meaning the land of new lakes. But while I was able to enjoy summer days swimming in some of these flooded mines, the process of filling them with water has been very slow. Many have already been filling up for 10 or 20 years, and are still a long way from being safe.

This is in a region of Germany with plenty of water. The huge pits could be filled with combinations of diverted waterways, groundwater access, rainfall and large amounts of reprocessed mining water, transferred from other nearby operating mines.

These water sources are not available to the same extent in the Latrobe Valley. To give a sense of scale, it would take more water than is in all of Sydney Harbour just to fill one of the brown coal mines. Where will all this come from? What are the downstream impacts of taking this much water? Would a lake be safe for the public to use? The Hazelwood inquiry into mine rehabilitation identified these looming challenges, and the Victorian government has created a rehabilitation commissioner and an advisory committee to start finding answers, but right now we just don’t know.

Then there’s the environmental contamination. In the Lausitz, mining had already polluted the waterways with high amounts of iron hydroxides, calcium and sulphates. Flooding the mine pits spread this pollution even further, degrading local ecosystems. Increasingly salty waterways now threaten drinking water supplies to Berlin and surrounds and make water management more expensive. Mining companies are the biggest users of water but don’t even have to pay for it.

For local communities, other major consequences include rising groundwater flooding basements, cracking building structures and shifting the ground.

Landslides are a real worry. In the Lausitz in 2009, a 350-metre wide strip of land – including buildings, a road and a viewing platform – slid into the adjacent pit lake, burying three people. In 2010, in an area where the former mine surrounding was regarded as very stable and settled, 27 hectares of forests sank into the earth. This will come as no surprise to people of the Latrobe Valley, where the Princes Highway was closed for eight months in 2011 due to landslides related to the adjacent Hazelwood mine.

There have been many more such incidents in the Lausitz, and the risk prevents whole areas from being accessed which were used for farmland, wind farms, industry or forests. Yet when the Lausitz is promoted as the poster child of mine rehabilitation through flooding, many of these challenges aren’t mentioned.

Community consultations on the future of the Hazelwood mine will begin in September. So far, the community has expressed many ideas other than filling the mine pit with water but these remain ignored. Engie is unwilling to release the full list of rehabilitation concepts they considered before settling on the pit lake solution. This makes it difficult for the community to understand the recommendation and weigh it up against alternatives.

Before more planning proceeds on the assumption that a pit lake is the only option, the lessons learned from the experience in the Lausitz should be aired and discussed in the Latrobe Valley. It’s important to avoid the potential negative consequences of flooding mine pits as best as possible from the beginning, and to make sure the mine owners pay for the precious water they are taking, like everybody else does.

Most of all, the community needs to have a bigger say in what happens to retired mine pits. Like me, the children of Morwell, Moe and Traralgon in Victoria will grow up surrounded by massive, dangerous holes in the ground. Their families have the most at stake in what happens, so they should have the loudest voice in shaping the region’s future, not the corporate mine owners who shaped its past.

Bread and Roses

By anonymous - Hambach Forest Defenders, April 8, 2017

As soon as barricades are destroyed in the Hambacher Forest they have been rebuild often even right behind bulldozers and before cops left the forest. This friday was no exeption but for the fact that this time also bread and roses have been put up in the place of destroyed barricades protecting the forest. This is connected not just with not continuing the resistance on an empty stomach but also with "Stones Are Our Breads and Barricades Our Dinner Tables." action that happened during this cutting season. It was also inspired by 1912 Breads and Roses Textile Strike and Riots in Lawrence Massachusetts which were organized by women and united over 30 different ethnic groups and also used workplace sabotage. The striking mothers with their children were brutally attacked by police at a train station as the kids were being sent to live with supporters when due to the prolonged strike the families could no longer feed them themselves. This resulted in international solidarity and finally with congressional hearings, positive workplace pay increase settlements, changing of work conditions and eventual shortening of the work week itself.

100 years later is it possible for RWE's irreversible destabilization of the Planet's climate and pumping its atmosphere full of toxins responsible for killing over 7 million people a year, as conservative estimates by World Health Organization indicate, result in equally positive response on the part of today's politicians?

The latest police action of clearing the barricades opens up the Millenarian Hambacher Forest to destruction by RWE and its release of megatons of carbon and a long list of toxins that lay below its floor and its roots. To be pumped into the atmosphere in the name of profit and greed regardless of the consequences showing that this time as well there will be no response that has anything to do with social and ecological justice on the part of legistlators, politicians and cops all deeply co-opted by the special interests of the coal industry without more radical actions such as those at the Hambacher Forest.

What’s Become of the German Greens?

By Joachim Jachnow - New Left Review #81, May-June 2013

Moving Beyond Protests and Counter Protests; the transition to a renewable economy requires the climate movement and unions to work in solidarity together

By Catherine Nadel - 350.org, August 15, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

In the lead up to the Ende Gelände action, that will see a mine shut down in the Rhineland this weekend, there have been rumours of a counter protest organised by the union for RWE employees. This possibility is disappointing for a number of reasons. The climate movement’s mission is not only to respond to the climate crisis by dismantling our reliance on fossil fuels, but to a build a movement that is capable of achieving this in a way that is just and fair. Central to this strategy are workers. It is understandable that the actions of climate activists, such as Ende Gelände can seem threatening to those who rely on the fossil fuel industries for their jobs and livelihoods. It is our hope that the communities that currently depend on these jobs, understand that there is no greater threat to them than the threat of climate change. This is a threat that will fundamentally change the way we live. If we do not work together to confront this challenge and transition to a cleaner, fairer future, we risk not only jobs and livelihoods, but everything.

Research into the fossil fuel industry reveals that the interests of unions and the climate movement are fundamentally aligned. The two groups share many common values; financial stability, job security and strong communities are among the clearest of them. We also share a common challenge, responding to an industry that values profit margins over the safety and security of both their employers and the climate.

RWE is not only the single biggest emitter of CO2 in Europe, it is also one of the continent’s most negligent companies. According to research commissioned by Greenpeace in 2012, RWE’s coal power stations cause over 900 deaths a year in Germany. RWE’s failure to adapt its business model at a time when the rest of Germany is transitioning to a low-carbon economy has caused its share price to drop by 70% since 2007. Predictably, these losses have not fallen on the executives of the company, but on the workers. In 2014 alone RWE slashed over 5000 jobs.

RWE’s business model is founded on disregard for both social and environmental consequences. When Ende Gelände activists walk into the mine tomorrow, their aim will be to disrupt this destructive model. They do this in the knowledge that when the action disrupts RWE’s business tomorrow, it will also be disrupting an ordinary workday for many people. This can justifiably be perceived as inconvenient and inconsiderate to the employees of the mine. This is regrettable, however climate change is disruptive and inconsiderate. It poses a threat to every one of us, a threat that we must respond to together.

It is for this reason that when Ende Gelände calls on RWE to change its ways, it also calls on the German government to invest in a transition to an economy based on renewable energy and sustainable long-term jobs. To us, this means investing time and money in the re-skilling and employment of workers, to rapidly deploy decentralised renewable energy solutions, that support whole communities rather than profits for a few and climate disruption for the rest. We want to extend an invitation to the workers and communities of the Rhineland, to join us in this fight.

The fight for a clean future involves transition for all of us. This includes transition for the workers of fossil fuel industries; this transition must not only be just and fair, it must be lead by workers. This is why the idea of a worker counter protest is so deeply saddening. As a climate movement we know we can do better to put the rights of working people at the centre of our work, but we know that to change everything, it will take everyone. Climate change is not just a siloable environmental issue, it is a people issue; and it is a threat to communities everywhere. That is why it is so important that we move beyond protests and counter protests and work together to build a fossil free future that is centred on fairness and justice for all.