With difficulty and with a deafening rattle, the last lower loader in the Prosper-Haniel mine torments its way through the thick mud. Five miners fill excavator shovel for excavator shovel from the pitch-black mass into transport tubs. Colleagues cart them from level six to the surface from a depth of 1,000 meters – day in and day out in three work shifts. They have to clear an approximately 300-meter-long tunnel, and they only make one meter per shift – arduous work in Germany’s last hard coal mine in Bottrop, which was closed at the end of 2018.
“It has to be clean by the end of the year,” says mine spokesman Michael Sagenschneider. “We are handing over the mine swept clean.” Foreman Sapancilar Cetin managed the work at a mining site as a face master for many years “before the coal” and won many tons of the “black gold”. That makes a miner proud. Now he and his team have to dredge mud in the drainage stretch for months. How little fun this is can be seen on the faces of the men.
When German hard coal mining came to an end in December 2018, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier even came. At the ceremony with the handover of the last coal and the Steigerlied, tears flowed abundantly. Now the Prosper cage is still in motion at the Haniel site – but it has become empty above and below ground. In the mine, which once had up to 4,500 miners, there are currently 250 RAG employees and roughly the same number of employees from external companies. They no longer have coal dust on their faces. They have to dismantle machines, prepare shafts for drainage, clean them up.
In just a few years, sole six should sink into the water when the pit water rises. It was just over eight years ago that a new excavation level was opened on Prosper almost 200 meters below, the last one in – with a big ceremony underground, miners’ choir and Saint Barbara at 1159 meters below ground. And that wouldn’t have been the end, says Sagenschneider. Theoretically, modern technology allows even greater extraction depths of up to 1500 meters.
That is a long way off today. For the last miners it is much more a question of how deep they have to keep the constantly rising pit water underground with huge pumps. Your plan is about 600 meters. In the Haltern Sands area, this is around 150 meters away from the higher groundwater layers – far enough away to avoid any mixing, says Sagenschneider. Environmentalists criticize the RAG plans to let the pit water rise. The approval process is ongoing. Very critical support is to be expected.
One thing is certain: you have to pump forever because you need to keep a safe distance from drinking water. In Prosper-Haniel, “Frank” and “Markus” are responsible for the dewatering of the remaining mine building. This is how the miners christened two of the huge pumps that carry the water away from the so-called pump sump. But pumping in the Ruhr area costs a lot of money – the RAG Foundation has estimated a good 200 million euros per year for the so-called perpetual obligations. For 2019 it will even be almost 300 million euros, the foundation announced in the summer. She has to generate it from her assets, which has not become easier in view of negative interest rates.
These are the problems for which the RAG now has to find solutions after the decision to cut coal. The exit itself is no longer an issue for Sagenschneider and the Bottrop pals. “It continues to make me sad and we would still have top quality coal here for many years,” he says. But the decision was made at the right time. The employees were able to prepare for job changes or early retirement in good time. “It’s not going to be so easy for our colleagues in lignite.” When it came to hard coal, opponents mostly argued with the government subsidies billions, and now the issue of climate protection, and thus the fundamental criticism of coal combustion, has grown enormously in volume.
Despite a long period of preparation for the end, the group is still in legal dispute with a small part of the employees. Around 33,000 employees were working in the group at the time of the closure decision in 2007. The coal exit should not harm anyone personally, nobody should fall into the mountain free. That was the formula that worked for most of the employees. Around 200 employees are complaining about continued employment or equivalent replacement jobs. They have been offered suitable jobs, says the RAG spokesman. The plaintiffs disagree. The proceedings are ongoing. A loud protest appearance by miners in work clothes and companions in the NRW state parliament already made headlines this summer.