Tremor spells end of 300-year-old German coal pit

Tremor spells end of 300-year-old German coal pit

29th February 2008, Comments 0 comments

The residents of the 14,000-strong community knew the cause without asking: pit coal mining at nearby Ensdorf.

The town of Saarwellingen in the German state of Saarland is used to tremors but this one was an exception.

The quake, measuring 4 on the Richter Scale, struck at mid-afternoon on Saturday, bringing down large chunks of the gable adorning the local church and rattling the porcelain in everyone's homes.

The residents of the 14,000-strong community that poured out onto the street, many of them in tears of fear and anger, knew the cause without asking: pit coal mining at Ensdorf nearby.

Saarland Premier Peter Mueller experienced those emotions at first hand when he visited the town on Sunday. Some 6,000 were on hand with placards calling for an immediate halt to all pit mining in the region along the French border.

"Stop mining forever," the demonstrators shouted, some shaking their fists at the premier.

"Now it's a matter of life and death," said Peter Lehnart, who represents the interests of those who have suffered losses through the tremors.

On its way out

The kind of deep coal mining carried on in Ensdorf and seven other remaining German pits is on its way out, although open-cast mining of low-quality lignite remains big business in eastern Germany.

Instead of the short, sharp end to anthracite mining, as was agreed across the border in France, the RAG company was established in 1968 to scale down slowly the sector using state subsidies.

The hard, high-quality coal played a central role in establishing the Ruhr as Germany's industrial heartland in the 19th century and was key to postwar reconstruction. In 1956, there were 600,000 miners hauling 150 million tons of "black gold" to the surface from 130 pits every year.

Dying out hard

Long traditions die hard, and to this day, the miner's good-luck greeting of "Glueck auf!" can be heard across the region, even though there are now just 30,000 miners producing 22,000 tons a year.

Ensdorf, where operations date back to the early 18th century and where the coal seams measure up to three meters in depth, is the last mine operating in Saarland.

There have been 35 tremors this year alone around the mine but this one was a monster.

It struck some 1,500 meters underground and caused oscillation velocities reaching 93 millimeters per second, a magnitude never before measured in the region and twice the highest recorded so far this year.

Damage, ranging from falling chimneys to wide cracks in walls, came in for days afterwards, with 450 cases being reported within 24 hours.

"We were taken completely by surprise," said RAG Chairman Bernd Toenjes. "We are deeply sorry about this."

RAG called its 3,600 miners in the Ensdorf pit off the job immediately, and there seemed little prospect they would be returning to work soon, if at all.

"We have to assume that the halt to mining will be permanent," Mueller said Monday.

RAG had to be able to demonstrate that this kind of event would never happen again, he said.


Toenjes said RAG had undertaken measures to prevent tremors and would do more.

"But we cannot say at this stage whether we can prove without doubt that there is no danger," he warned.

"We feel abandoned," a 54-year-old miner who declined to be named told a meeting of the IG BCE union.

The union has warned that up to 10,000 jobs are at risk, 5,000 of them directly linked to mining operations and the remainder in supplier industries and companies dependent on the mining.

RAG is tasked with winding down subsidized German pit mining by 2018. German anthracite is reckoned to be priced at twice what the equivalent imports from South Africa or Australia would cost.

Four mines were to have been closed by 2012, leaving four in operation. The Ensdorf mine, officially known as Bergwerk Saar, was to have been one of these, as its operating costs are among the lowest.

But the tremor was likely to end hopes of keeping a 300-year coalmining tradition alive on the River Saar. "My impression is that the miners are facing a stiff headwind," Toenjes said.

DPA with Expatica 2008

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