March 5, 2008 / 12:07 AM / 10 years ago

Earthquake shakes up German coal mining

SAARWELLINGEN, Germany (Reuters) - German pensioner Erika Ihiebert has lived with minor earth tremors caused by coal mining for years. But when her chimney collapsed nearly two weeks ago, she had had enough.

<p>People demonstrate against the closure of a coal mine in Essen March 3, 2008. The RAG coal mine "Nordschacht" near Saarwellingen was shut down by authorities last week, after a heavy earthquake hit the region caused by the coal mining. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender</p>

“I thought I would die. It felt like the ceiling was going to come down on me,” said Ihiebert, 68. “You see earthquakes on TV. That’s bad enough, but at least, those are caused by nature. Ours are man-made. This must stop.”

Ihiebert and her neighbors in the southwestern state of Saarland were hit by a tremor measuring 4.0 on the Richter scale last month.

It caused meter-long cracks in buildings in the town of Saarwellingen, cut power and pushed heavy blocks off a church steeple -- shortly after a group of children had stood underneath.

RAG Deutsche Steinkohle, the firm that runs the mine near Saarwellingen, acknowledges that mining in the area is causing tremors.

They are caused when sandstone layers above mining holes break, creating waves that make the ground above vibrate.

RAG was quick to announce a halt to mining.

If the closure is permanent, as local politicians are demanding, it could spark a whole new lot of problems for the hilly region on the French border.

Together with the northern Ruhr area, Saarland is one of Germany’s historic mining regions. Mining started there in the Middle Ages and runs through generations in many local families.

Some 50,000 Saar miners worked in the sector during its heyday. But with imports now much cheaper than heavily subsidized domestic coal, their number has dwindled to the 3,600 workers who are now threatened by the closure of the last remaining mine in the area.

Trade unions fear as many as 10,000 jobs that are directly or indirectly linked to coal could be lost.

The arrival of thousands of unemployed, middle-aged miners on an already tight job market could also exacerbate tensions with so-called “anti-miners” who condemn the coal workers as “subsidy pigs.”

OUTCAST

Michael Fritz, 39, was working 1,700 meters underground when Ihiebert’s chimney caved in. He said he did not notice the tremor in the ground but felt the blame when he came back up to the surface.

“You’re an outcast as a miner in this area,” said Fritz, who has worked in the mines all his adult life.

Some shops were not serving miners out of principle and anti-mining campaigners had slashed his tires several times, he said.

Fritz’s colleague Uwe Motz said he knew as soon as last month’s tremor hit that mining was finished.

“I was off that day. I was in a supermarket,” he said, sitting in an empty office where hundreds of miners would pass on a normal day to pick up their lamps and gear.

“Everything was shaking, people were screaming. I ran out because I was afraid someone would recognize me as a miner. I was afraid they’d lynch me. I locked my car and drove off as fast as I could,” he said.

The average age of the miners is 45, and many say their age and health problems make them unattractive for new employers.

“I had twins only six weeks ago. I have to pay off a house. What will we do?” Fritz said softly, knotting his hands. “We’re four generations of miners in my family.”

But Peter Lehnert, a pony-tailed hairdresser who is one of the leaders of the anti-mining campaign, says he has little pity for people like Fritz, adding inhabitants deserved to live in peace again after more than 30 quakes this year alone.

“There’s no future in coal,” said Lehnert, who has organized rallies after the tremors. “We’ll have a tough first few years ... But I see the closure of the mine as a chance for the region ... for the environment, for renewable energies.”

DOOMED INDUSTRY

The state of Saarland, RAG and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin are debating how to help the miners.

Even before the tremor, the outlook for Germany’s coal mining industry looked bad. The government decided last year to phase out heavily subsidized mining of hard coal by 2018 as imports from the world market are much cheaper.

High German wages and benefits as well as strict safety and environment standards means it costs three times more to get coal out of German mines than in China or Australia.

Apart from the mine in Saarland, Germany has seven mines in use in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia. Around 35,000 workers are employed in the sector overall.

Utility experts say the permanent closure of the Saarland mine would put upward pressure on coal prices and pose a challenge to power plants in the Saarland region, which rely on its coal.

These power plants, which have a capacity of 2,000 MW, would have to look for new suppliers, and might have to develop new costly infrastructure to have the coal delivered from the Ruhr valley, utilities sources say.

RAG says it is still studying ways to continue extraction in a safe way.

“We will not conduct a form of mining that is a danger to life and limb,” RAG spokeswoman Annette Weinmann said.

But Michael Philippi, mayor of the tremor-hit town of Saarwellingen, said he would go to court to end the mining once and for all -- regardless of RAG’s safety assurances.

“They can’t tell me it will be 100 percent safe,” he said, sitting in the town hall, which overlooks dozens of homes with cracks along their facades. “It’s my duty to prevent that.”

Ihiebert agreed. “All I want is to be able to sleep again without being afraid of a new tremor,” she said.

Editing by Alison Williams

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