Peter Mellgard is the senior editor at Noema Magazine.
KEYENBERG, Germany — Norbert Winzen remembers the winter they laid the cobblestones in the courtyard of his family’s farmhouse here in this small village. He was 12 years old, maybe 13. He and his brothers and sister scrubbed each and every one of the hundreds of heavy stones so their father could lay them in tidy rows. It was the kind of drudgery he despised as a kid but that he looks back on fondly as an adult, especially now that his family’s courtyard is going to be ripped up, the farmhouse torn down and his family unwillingly uprooted.
The Winzen farm and every house and field in Keyenberg sit atop a rich vein of lignite, a soft brown coal widely used to generate electricity in Germany and around the world. Germany is the world’s second-largest producer of lignite, and Keyenberg, in the province of North Rhine-Westphalia, is in the heart of western Germany’s coal country. The Garzweiler open-pit mine is just across the road from the Winzen farmhouse. You can see it from the courtyard.
The Garzweiler mine is creeping closer every day — RWE, the German mining and power company, is expanding it and plans to keep it in operation until 2045. But burning coal for power — especially lignite, the dirtiest form of coal — is toxic for people and the environment. It’s the main reason Germany is going to fail to meet its 2020 renewable energy goals. Germany is by far the worst emitter of greenhouse gases in Europe, and coal is the main source of those emissions.
In June, the German government formed a commission to pinpoint a date for quitting coal. The commission is expected to announce a “coal exit” date by February. Some members on the commission are pushing for that date to be sooner, around 2035, but industry and labor representatives are resistant. For the Winzens and other families who remain in Keyenberg, as well as several nearby villages also slated to be demolished to make way for the expanding Garzweiler mine, that decision will mean the difference between keeping their homes or being forced to relocate.
RWE has already demolished several villages neighboring Keyenberg and relocated their residents to make way for Garzweiler’s expansion: Otzenrath in 2006, Holz and Spenrath in 2008, Pesch in 2014 and Borschemich last year. Lutzerath and Immerath are mostly rubble now. Five others, including Keyenberg, will go next. RWE is in the process of buying up everything in these villages, and if all goes according to plan, sometime in the next few years, RWE will send in the bulldozers. All the farms, houses, shops, restaurants and churches will be razed to the ground. All told, 12 villages will be destroyed and 5,800 will be people forced to relocate.
The approved mining area for Garzweiler is about 44 square miles, almost exactly twice as big as Manhattan. It is a vast open pit, nearly 700 feet deep in places. Monstrous machines churn through the earth and deposit chunks of coal onto conveyor belts that run for miles and miles to the other side of the mine. The machinery emits a high-pitched whine, a haunting sound whipped out of the depths of the pit by the wind.
Thirty-five million tons of lignite come out of Garzweiler every year. Lignite is the largest single source of power in Germany, accounting for nearly a quarter of the country’s energy mix in the first half of 2018, and RWE’s power plants in North Rhine-Westphalia alone produce about 12 percent of the entire country’s electricity needs.
But those plants are also among the most toxic in Europe. Three of RWE’s four lignite plants in North Rhine-Westphalia are among the 10 worst-polluting power plants in Europe, according to a recent analysis by Europe Beyond Coal. Burning lignite releases noxious gasses and pollutants that contribute to global warming, smog, acid rain and numerous health problems, including cancer, asthma, lung disease, heart attacks and impaired cognitive development. According to Europe Beyond Coal’s report, in 2016 alone, RWE’s facilities in North Rhine-Westphalia caused more than 1,200 premature deaths, nearly 420 new cases of chronic bronchitis, almost 850 hospital admissions due to respiratory or cardiovascular symptoms and $3.5 billion in health costs. RWE, the report concludes, is Europe’s most toxic coal company.
What’s more, Germany’s lignite addiction is disastrous for its climate goals. The country pledged to reduce its emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, but only managed just shy of 28 percent by the end of 2017. “It’s painful for me to have to tell you,” Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said at an international climate meeting in Berlin in June, “that we will miss the targets we’ve set for ourselves for 2020.”
“To a large extent,” Kathrin Gutmann, a campaign director at Europe Beyond Coal, told The WorldPost, “that is because the coal power plants didn’t close down quickly enough.”
Figuring out when and how to close down those plants is the coal commission’s primary goal. Of equal importance is crafting a plan for a smooth transition away from coal in the country’s energy production regions. Antje Grothus, a climate policy coordinator at Climate Alliance Germany and a member of the commission, told me that the two tasks go hand in hand. “Jobs and climate protection must no longer be played off against each other. Social peace can only be guaranteed if the affected workers are offered future-proof jobs, if forced expropriation and resettlement ends, and if valuable old forests and fertile arable land are preserved.” But, she added: “The paradigm is shifting. The future belongs to low-carbon or carbon-free economies.”
And yet, Norbert Winzen wondered, why can’t one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced and politically stable countries in the world stop forcibly relocating people and razing forests in order to mine a dirty fuel that’s being phased out anyway? “I am losing this” — he looked around his dining room — “for a lignite mine. This should not happen in the middle of Germany, in the middle of Europe, in 2018. Thirty years ago, maybe you could say, ‘OK, electrical power is important for all people, so I have to leave.’ But now?”
The Winzen farmhouse has stood for 150 years. Norbert’s father, whose home in the village of Königshoven was itself leveled as Garzweiler expanded decades ago, arrived here in the 1960s. The mine, he thought, would never get all the way to Keyenberg. Norbert’s parents settled in to farm sugar beets, rye and potatoes and raise horses and sheep and children. The kids were baptized in the church in town, and they came home every evening at 5:00 to help bring the cows in from the fields.
Today, the farmhouse is busy with three generations of Winzens. Eleven people live here. Two horses graze out in the field, under chestnut trees that are almost as old as the house. “My family and me,” Norbert said, “we don’t know where we can live in two years or five years. Psychologically, it is very hard to bear. Other people my age, they know where they’ll live at the age of 55 or 60. But I don’t. I have to start again somewhere.”
For now, that somewhere appears to be about five miles away in the new village of Erkelenz-Nord, where many Keyenberg families are being relocating to. Much is under construction in the new town. The houses that have been built are neat and orderly, like something out of a catalogue touting life in suburbia. Norbert said RWE at first told his family they had the right to the same amount of land and the same size house in the new village; later on, they found out there wasn’t enough space, that they would have to make do with a place less than half the size. They will not be allowed to keep the horses there.
Olaf Winter, an RWE spokesman, told The WorldPost that everyone being relocated is “compensated fairly” and “RWE pays virtually all of their relocation costs.”
But Norbert is fighting to stay in Keyenberg. He has become one of the leaders of the resistance to RWE’s expanding mines. “I tell people from outside what’s happening here,” he said. “You know what happens in the middle of Germany? People are losing their houses. There’s a big company cutting trees — old trees, old forests. For 10,000 years, there was an old forest there. And now there is a mine. This is the reason why I’m still fighting. I think it’s not right to do these things. No one is allowed to take old houses, to take a forest, for a dying industry.”
The day after meeting Norbert, I drove about 35 miles south from Keyenberg to a wooded park. After a short stroll on a trail lined by blackberry bushes and carpeted with fallen beech and linden leaves, the path descended toward a lake. Two swans paddled slowly along the shore. Across the water was a white sand beach, and behind it, a campground.
Decades ago, this was an open-pit lignite mine. RWE had restored it to nature. The company is understandably proud of its restoration efforts of former mines, which can be quite stunning. “RWE has decades of experience in the re-cultivation of post-mining opencast landscapes,” Winter told me. “It opens up new opportunities and creates new habitats and retreats for animals and humans in the region.” Mines become vast lakes, slowly filled by diverting nearby rivers. Whole forests are planted, wind mills and solar panels erected, farms re-established. There is actually more forest now than before mining began, Winter said.
But the process takes decades — 40, 50 years, sometimes longer. RWE plans to mine where Keyenberg currently stands until 2045. Only then will the process of turning the mine into a lake begin. Norbert Winzen would have to live to be 130 to see the place fully transformed.