Hard coal mining in north rhine-westphalia: shift in the shaft

It is likely to be a historic date. On 21. December in Bottrop, Germany, Prosper-Haniel, the last coal mine in the Ruhr area, will be closed. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to be present when miners bring the symbolic last mine wagon with coal to the surface. More than 150 years of industrial coal mining in Germany will come to an end.

The golden age of coal in the 1950s, when the Ruhr region supplied the energy and steel for the German economic miracle, is being remembered again and again in the Ruhr region these days. Almost half a million people worked in the Ruhr mining industry at that time.

"It can be said that our image of mining is primarily determined by the successful period of the 1950s. At that time, it was given the positive, sometimes heroic image that it still has today", says Heinrich Theodor Grutter. He is the director of the Ruhr Museum at the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, which has been declared a World Cultural Heritage Site. "The hunger for coal was immense, workers were in demand, miners earned top wages like today at VW or Daimler", Grutter describes the time when coal was still black gold. Today, the number of active miners has shrunk to a manageable group. Around 3,500 miners still work at Prosper-Haniel and the second mine in Ibbenburen in the Munsterland region, which will close at the end of the year.

Mining damage: Tens of thousands of old tunnels at risk of collapse

Mining damage Where the earth opens up

Andreas Stieglan is one of them. If you want to get to your place of work, you have to take a pit cage 1260 meters underground. Twelve meters per second the basket rushes down the shaft. From an underground train station, the diesel trolley, an overhead railroad, takes you kilometers into the mountain. The ride ends at a giant planer that mills coal out of rock. Stieglan has worked on the behemoth for years as a supervisory hewer.

The planer has been at a standstill since the summer. The amount of coal for which the mining industry still receives subsidies had been reached. This year, the miners at Prosper-Haniel have extracted around 1.8 million tons of coal, compared with more than 100 times that amount in the entire Ruhr region in the 1950s.

Stieglan’s face is smeared with coal dust. The 47-year-old has long since taken off his work jacket because of the heat. His knees are in orange plastic shells. He can not stand upright in the longwall, a lot of things have to be done kneeling – in noise, dust, temperatures approaching 30 degrees and extremely high humidity. "The shirt actually always sticks to the body", Stieglan describes the working conditions. "The constant draught is the most unpleasant thing." But he doesn’t want to complain too much. Complaining does not count in the taciturn male society underground.

Coal in the Ruhr: Mining will soon be history

End of coal mining in the Ruhr "Pippi inne Augen – underground with the last miners in Bottrop

The great colliery death

"Being a miner was what I wanted to do", tells Stieglan. Surprising, really, because he doesn’t come from one of the typical Ruhr families, where grandfather, father and son worked underground. He started his apprenticeship at the Monopol mine in Bergkamen in 1987. At that time, the collieries were already in full swing. However, the fact that coal production might one day come to an end was not a matter of concern to the almost 120 miners who were still working at the time.000 miners hardly anyone believed.

The decline had already begun in 1958, when millions of tons of coal and coke lay unsold on the slagheaps. Oil increasingly outstripped coal in heating houses and apartments. Later, much cheaper imported coal was added to the mix, which can be mined in Australia or Canada under much simpler conditions and at lower cost.

Under pressure from politicians and the miners’ union, the mine owners finally joined forces on 27 September. November 1968 to form Ruhrkohle AG. The merger of the 52 mines still producing at the time is considered the first important step in the orderly withdrawal of the German coal industry. A phase-out that ultimately lasted 50 years and cost billions in subsidies. And a fate that the lignite industry, whose future is currently the subject of bitter wrangling, still has to face in some cases.

When the Essen-based economic research institute RWI did the math in 2005, the bottom line was that 130 billion euros had already flowed into the mining industry. In the meantime, "we are probably approaching around 200 billion euros in subsidies that have flowed and are still flowing", says RWI energy economist Manuel Frondel. Without these subsidies, says Frondel, "the structural change in the Ruhr would have got underway much faster," says the RWI energy economist.

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Life in the Ruhr In Molly's Pinte

Stefan Berger, who heads the Institute for Social Movements at the Ruhr University, sees things quite differently. "Nowhere in the world has the structural transformation of heavy industrial conurbations succeeded comparatively as well as in the Ruhr region", Berger is convinced. In Great Britain and the USA, he says, change has been left to the markets. "This has led to the collapse of entire industries within a short period of time and, in the worst case, to ghost town phenomena, as we know them from Detroit, but also from the coal and steel regions in the north of England and in South Wales."

WDR Radio Choir

Shift in the Shaft This is how movingly the WDR radio choir bids farewell to the last coal miners

The Ruhr region in transition

But if you compare the Ruhr with other regions in the old federal states, the picture is different. Despite all the support programs, the founding of universities and colleges with now some 280.According to a study by the Institute of the German Economy, which is close to employers, the structural change in the mining region "has not been sufficiently successful in building up new, high-growth industries" shaped. Unemployment rates are correspondingly high.

Even if mining will soon be history for good, it will remain in the Ruhr region. Not only because of the many lovingly restored miners’ housing estates and the colliery buildings that have become museums and event halls. The miners have transformed the landscape. This is evidenced by the large slagheaps where what was taken out of the ground with the coal is stored. As green hills, they are now leisure destinations.

Large parts of the Ruhr region have sunk as a result of coal mining, in extreme cases up to 25 meters and more. To prevent water from collecting in the depressions and turning the coalfield into a lake district, the water flows have to be permanently regulated by hundreds of pumps. "Eternal burdens are the names of these and other tasks that will remain even when the last colliery is closed down.

And Hauer Stieglan? He still has to do with his colleagues what in miners’ language is called "robbing" is. What is still usable will be removed and brought to the surface. The next year will probably be spent cleaning up underground. Then Stieglan will finally be finished, because he will have reached the age at which miners are allowed to retire. Feels melancholy when he thinks of saying goodbye to coal? "Still coming", says Stieglan.

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