End of an era as Germany’s last black-coal mine closes

BERLIN • Germany will close its last black-coal mine today, turning the page on two centuries of mining history in the Ruhr region that helped fuel the country’s post-war “economic miracle”.

Although the end of the Prosper-Haniel colliery near the western town of Bottrop comes as polluting coal is increasingly under scrutiny, it was cheaper hard coal from abroad, not environmental concerns, that sounded the mine’s death knell.

For the remaining 1,500 workers, the final shift promises to be an emotional one, culminating in a ceremony to be attended by Germany President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.

After greeting each other one more time with the traditional miners’ call of “Glueck Auf!”, shorthand for good luck in opening a new vein, the workers will bring up a symbolic last chunk of black coal before the 150-year-old deep-shaft mine is sealed up.

“There’s a heavy sadness now that it’s all going to be over soon,” 47-year-old miner Thomas Echtermeyer told the Bild newspaper, wearing a dusty white overall and yellow hard hat.

Retired pitman Reinhold Adam, 72, who recently visited the mine for a final, nostalgic descent into its belly, told Bild it was “the camaraderie that’s so special underground”.

With its own vernacular, songs, football clubs and church services dedicated to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners, generations-old mining traditions are deeply woven into the fabric of daily life in the region.

As the area’s last active mine bows out, many are mourning not just the end of a once-mighty industry, but of a way of life.

The domestic industry, and the tens of thousands of jobs relying on it, have for years been kept on life support through government subsidies.

In 2017 alone, the German government spent more than €1 billion (RM4.79 billion) propping up hard-coal mining.

“(Bringing up) a tonne of German hard coal costs €250, but only sells for €80 on the market,” said Christof Beike, a spokesman for the RAG Foundation, tasked with managing the Prosper-Haniel site after its closure and helping miners navigate the changes.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government decided in 2007 to phase out subsidies and close the last black-coal mine by 2018 — giving the workers of Prosper-Haniel 11 years’ notice.

The slow farewell has been credited with preventing large-scale upheaval and angry protests, dodging the unrest seen in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s when colliery closures provoked mass strikes.

But Germany’s farewell to black-coal mining is by no means an exit from coal altogether in a country where the fossil fuel still accounts for almost 40% 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 dirtier than black coal.

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

In Germany, a government-appointed commission will in February announce a roadmap for exiting coal as part of efforts to make the country carbon-neutral by 2050. — AFP