German coal mine turns village into ghost town

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 12:45pm

The cemetery has been relocated, the houses abandoned, the shop windows boarded up and the main street is deserted.

The tiny western German ghost town of Immerath is making room for the hungry excavators of one of the country’s biggest coal mines.

In this rural area wedged between the Ruhr metropolitan area and the Dutch border, Immerath and nearby towns will soon be wiped off the map to allow energy giant RWE to enlarge its huge open-pit lignite mine of Garzweiler.

Producing coal is once again lucrative amid a sluggish market for CO2 certificates. Lignite extracted at Garzweiler directly feeds RWE plants, which are belching white smoke into the sky.

The site of Garzweiler I, in operation since 1983, has had its day. It is being filled in progressively with earth dug out of Garzweiler II, which will measure 48 square kilometres (19 square miles).

Between them, the old and the new pit are the size of central Paris.

Some 7,600 people are being moved in all. Of Immerath’s 900 inhabitants, about 100 are still waiting to leave. The rest have resettled into Immerath-Neu (New Immerath), which has sprung out of the ground in the same district of Erkelenz, or gone elsewhere.

Their dead have been relocated to a new cemetery here, and a new school and kindergarten have been built. However, there is no church to replace the old one which will be deconsecrated after a final service in October and razed to the ground like the rest of the town.

“It breaks my heart,” said Hans-Willi Peters, who lives in a nearby village and will have to decide shortly whether to move like his neighbours or start a new life elsewhere.

“My wife and I change our minds every day,” said the early retiree, who sits on a “citizens’ committee” responsible for assisting the trans-settlement.

RWE is financing the entire operation but does not want to reveal the cost.

One thing is certain: as the price of pollution rights has collapsed on the European market, and after Germany announced its phase-out of nuclear power, lignite extracted from Garzweiler has a bright future.

Coal accounts for 40 per cent of electricity production in the country, against 25 per cent on average in Europe as Germany undergoes an “energy transition”.

The licence granted to RWE allows the energy giant to extract 1.3 billion tons of lignite by 2045 on the site.

Even here, where the landscape is disfigured and noise and dust are part of daily life, “people realise that without coal, we would have a problem” in meeting Germany’s electricity needs, said Hans-Heiner Gotzen, first deputy mayor of Erkelenz.

Since early June, Germany’s Constitutional Court, the highest in the country, has considered the legality of the resettlement following a complaint from a resident of Immerath and an environmental organisation.

The plaintiffs argue that coal mining is not of paramount public interest and that there are therefore insufficient grounds to justify the public resettlement.

They say coal mining is not required to ensure the country’s energy supply, a conclusion the economic research institute DIW also arrived at in a recent report.

But the judges are unlikely to take a position on the thorny issue in their decision expected in the next few months.

“The court will insist on respect of private interests” but not revoke the licence granted to RWE, predicted Gotzen.

It must be acknowledged that the company “does things well, professionally and in a structured way”, with strong stakeholder involvement, said Juergen Schoebel, responsible for the movement of the villages on behalf of the municipality.

He said that some time ago he received a group of Chinese who came to see how the Germans managed the evacuation of villages, a phenomenon common in China on a much larger scale.

“Their eyes widened with amazement” at how RWE is taking care of the residents, said Schoebel.