A piece of German industrial history comes to an end today. After 150 years of hard coal mining, the last colliery ceases operations. A visit to the last miners of Bottrop.
There it is, the black gold. It sparkles, it glitters. On the seventh level of Prosper-Haniel mine in Bottrop, at a depth of 1229 meters, it is warm, stuffy and dusty. Here she stood, the "SL 750. A huge roller that can cut as much coal out of the seam in two minutes as can fit on two large trucks. At the beginning of September, they fired up this monster once again. The noise is deafening. The last chunks of German hard coal fall onto the conveyor belt and are transported away towards the shaft. Then the long farewell began, more and more machines were dismantled.
In the meantime, the "SL 750" is "above ground" again. They used the pit cage to bring the individual parts of the 80-ton monster back to the surface. The thing should go to the mining museum in Bochum. Expensive, impressive technology, suddenly it’s ripe for the museum. Just like the coal mining industry in the Ruhr area as a whole.
They have been mining coal in Bottrop since 1863. Prosper-Haniel, the last coal mine in the Ruhr region, closes this Friday. Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier comes to say goodbye to the miners. Church bells rang out across the Ruhr on Thursday evening. A last salute to the miners from underground. According to the Ruhr bishopric, a statue of St. Barbara was to be brought up to the surface from a depth of 1,200 meters especially for the service. The day before, FC Schalke 04 celebrated its farewell to mining – with a memorial hour before the Bundesliga match against Bayer Leverkusen. Countless fans came to the stadium in miners’ uniforms, complete with miner’s lamps. The game was lost.
These are times full of melancholy in the mining area. One last time the miners are in focus, their stories and their tradition. All this is linked to the question of what remains of all this. What will become of the region that was shaped by coal and miners for so many decades?? And is the cautious phasing out of mining suitable as an example for the planned phase-out of brown coal?
Review, 17. September 2018 at Prosper-Haniel: Blue miners’ shirts with white stripes, underwear, neckerchiefs, protective suits, knee pads are ready and waiting in the pithead of shaft 10. Later, the miners are given a helmet, miner’s lamp and CO2 filter. Once more it shall go down. This time, Michael Vassiliadis, head of the mining union IG BCE, is also on board. "All the prosperity we have today was built on coal," he says.
The grate of the pit cage falls into the lock with a crash. On the way down you have to swallow. The basket moves downhill at twelve meters per second. The pressure in the ears is rising. It is a trip into another world. He continues his journey on the "diesel cat," a train suspended from the ceiling with narrow seating cabins, for miles through dark corridors, for almost half an hour. It’s a journey into the earth – and now also into the past.
One ceremony, then it’s time to go home
Miner Wolfgang Dolfen hands over a silver hip flask. Not schnapps, but snuff is in it. "Clear the nose!", he says. He worked in the coal mine for 38 years, half of that time at the bottom. The dust that settles on the mucous membranes, the hard work, the unique solidarity of the miners, the snuff – now it’s all history. For the museum.
Mining is as much a part of the Ruhr region as pigeon fanciers, drinking halls, the BVB or Schalke 04 – and it is an important part of the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Without him, the German economic miracle of the fifties and sixties would not have been possible. Around ten billion tons of hard coal have been extracted from the Rhine and Ruhr over the past 200 years. "Your mine gold has brought us up again," sings Herbert Gronemeyer in his Pott anthem "Bochum".
Prosper-Haniel, Auguste Victoria, Hugo or Zollverein – the names of the mines stand for the past boom in the coalfield, but also for coal compromises, demonstrating miners, billions in subsidies – and the necessity of an unprecedented structural change.
"No one falls into the mine void"
"Nobody falls into the mining free zone," the politicians had promised the miners in the Ruhr region. In plain language: There should be no compulsory redundancies. And that’s how it happened. However, 300 of the last 1395 miners at Prosper-Haniel still have to be accommodated. "We’ll get there," is the motto in Bottrop. In fact, it was a reasonably gentle procedure – for such a brute change. The commission, which is to present its recommendations for a farewell to lignite at the beginning of 2019, has similar ideas in mind. Painful it remains nevertheless.
"Good luck," says Wolfgang Dolfen. He now sits in a small office at the colliery’s headquarters, decorated with pictures of mining trips, trophies and certificates. What a deserving miner accumulates over the years. It’s the week that’s supposed to end with the big ceremony this Friday. The last week.
"We are in retreat," Dolfen explains. By this he means the retreat underground. "It was a real battle of materials, a logistical challenge of a special kind. And things are moving forward: The mining area where they extracted the last piece of coal from the mine in November, which will be presented to the German President today, has already been sealed off. The Brocken is to be given a place of honor, in Steinmeier’s study in Bellevue Palace.
In the meantime, Prosper-Haniel’s large planer stands over in Gelsenkirchen, in front of Schalke 04’s stadium. In the meantime, they have also unscrewed the last telephone and the last measuring device on the seventh floor. As provided for in Section 22a of the Federal Mining Ordinance.
Shortly before the end – a disaster
The terrible news from Ibbenburen burst into the work this week. A 29-year-old miner had fallen under a weather door while retreating into the tunnels of the recently closed colliery on the edge of the Munsterland region of Germany. He succumbed to his severe injuries. It was the first fatally injured miner since 2012. Now, of all times, before Christmas. Just before the big coal farewell celebrations.
"A shock," says Dolfen, who is responsible for occupational safety underground here in Bottrop. His people, who now haul tons of machine parts to the top, now receive extra safety instruction. Everything should end in an orderly manner and, above all, without accidents. The work will probably take months. Then Shaft 10 is closed for eternity. The remaining employees of the once proud RAG Group will then only have the task of pumping out the water from below and limiting the mining damage on the surface as far as possible.
At Prosper-Haniel they used to have the most modern technology ever. A Turkish mine director secured the conveyor belts early on. "Put everything on a truck and bring it to me when you’re done here," he said, says Bergmann Dolfen. At this moment, it is clear to him that it is not easy to be one of the last coal miners in the area. In the future, others will bring the black gold to the top – far away from Bottrop, under much worse working conditions.
The supplies would last for centuries
They could continue mining here for another 300 years, they say in Bottrop. The reserves are huge: But German coal has not been competitive on the world market for a long time. For the miners it’s bitter.
Miner Dolfen still remembers how they demonstrated with the union, in 1997 in Bonn, when subsidies were to be cut further and more coal mine jobs eliminated. The whole town was full of miners. Once again, they prevailed and were given more time. But politically, the billions in subsidies could no longer be sustained in the long run.
Suddenly everyone was talking about climate protection, fewer and fewer were talking about coal. And if it is, it’s only about the immense costs – and the damage to the environment. According to estimates, state mining subsidies over the past decades now add up to around 200 billion euros. In 2007, the end of the subsidies was finally sealed by the end of 2018.
Where will new jobs come from?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier would have liked to turn it all back again. In any case, in 2009, as the SPD candidate for chancellor, he was still campaigning for a phase-out. When he gives his speech today in front of the Bottrop winding tower, he will evoke the miners’ culture in the Ruhr region, coal as the engine for the rise of an entire region. "Once a miner, always a miner," is the saying in the mining district. Once again they will sing the miners’ song. Once again, the question will be where new confidence and new jobs will come from. In any case, the Hartz IV rates in the Ruhr cities are well above the national average.
Miner Dolfen leaves with mixed feelings. He is secure, that’s for sure. He can take early retirement at the end of 2019 and retire later without deductions. But what about the younger people in the coalfield?? Structural change everywhere you look. Much is being tried with modern startups and innovation centers. But the big job miracle has not yet come about.
At home in Gelsenkirchen-Buer, where Dolfen lives with his wife, the miner’s uniform for the farewell ceremony with the German president in Bottrop is already ready, a black coat with gold buttons. "It’s like a funeral," he says. "It’s never pretty. But one goes there. It’s obvious."