German activists lose bid to halt Hambach mine expansion

An environmental group has failed in its legal bid to stop the controversial expansion of Germany's biggest lignite mine. Activists say the operation threatens the Hambach forest, home to a number of endangered species.

Cries of protest erupted in the Cologne Administrative Court on Friday after the judge ruled that development plans for the Hambach open-pit mine did not breach environmental legislation and could go ahead as planned.

Nature and Environment | 08.09.2017

Conservation organization BUND, which filed the lawsuit, vowed to appeal the decision.

"We will continue to pursue all legal and political avenues to stop this irresponsible open-pit mine and to save what remains of the Hambach forest," BUND's managing director in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Dirk Jansen, said.

Read more - Is Germany losing its role model status on climate? 

Nature and Environment | 20.11.2017
Deutschland Protest Aktionsbündnis Ende Gelände im Tagebau Hambach

Protesters take over the Hambach mine ahead of COP23 climate negotiations in the nearby city of Bonn

The group argued that NRW authorities should never have approved mine operator BWE's plans for the 2020-2030 period, saying the upcoming expansion would mean felling trees in the ancient Hambach forest.

Massive mine

The 85-square kilometer (52-square mile) Hambach mine is one of the largest open-pit operations in the world.

Each year, the mine produces around 40 million tons of lignite — a brown, low-grade coal considered to be one of the most polluting fossil fuels. It's also been the site of numerous protests calling for the German government to end its use of coal.

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The dirtiest fossil fuel

Huge excavators extract brown coal - also called lignite - from the earth. This is the first step in getting energy from lignite, among the fossil fuels that emits the most carbon dioxide when burned. This fossil fuel still amounts to almost about a quarter of the German energy mix.

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Labyrinth with a crucial role

The raw material is then transported to the nearby power stations. Kilometers of conveyors across the mine enable the transformation of raw lignite into coal ready for burning. From some spots, the mine seems to be a labyrinth of giant structures.

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Staying put

Garzweiler is home to some of the largest machinery in the world. This conveyor, out of operation, gives a sense of the scale. When these machines need to be repaired, the maintenance service comes to them. Would you dare driving it to a shop?

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Stark contrast

The energy company RWE also runs several wind parks, one of them visible from the mine itself. Although the company is preparing to adapt to renewable energies, for now its main goal is to extract the remaining lignite from the soil.

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Fifty shades of brown

Brown tones dominate the landscape at the Garzweiler mine. The machines above this varied palette are fixed to a rail that enables them to stably move back and forward. At the lowest level, conveyors cross from one end to the other.

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Future recreation area

The view from any point in the open-cast Garzweiler mine is desolate. However, RWE says once the mine is depleted, it will be filled with water to one day become a recreation area. But for that, coal mining first has to be phased out completely.

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Protecting the forest

Meanwhile, activists have been living for more than two years in what remains of the Hambach Forest. They oppose RWE's plans to extend the Hambach mine - close to Garzweiler - which would see the remnants of the ancient forest go.

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Raising awareness

Jus is one of the activists who has made the forest their home. They welcome interested visitors, providing them with information about their efforts. Support is constantly growing, Jus said.

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Sustainable lifestyle

Living in the forest is not only a way to stop the mining activity, it is also the perfect way to demonstrate a more sustainable lifestyle, activists believe. They say they build with sustainable materials, in harmony with nature and respecting wildlife.

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Future prospects

Climate and energy experts believe the 2017 elections and the formation of a new government will be the turning points in reaching a final phase-out of coal mining. And if the Hambach mine invades the forest, activists fear the next generations will face a desolate panorama.

Read more - Germany risks reputation with climate goals failure

The land encompassing the Hambach forest is legally owned by the RWE group, so theoretically the company can do what it likes with it. But BUND had argued the area should be protected, because the forest provides a habitat to many endangered animal and plant species.

Nevertheless, it now seems the forest will have to give way to lignite, and this, despite a political push in Germany to move toward phasing coal out.

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Tagebau Garzweiler

The Hambach mine's expansion involves cutting down an ancient forest in the area

A complete coal exit?

Ahead of the verdict, presiding judge Holger Mauerer said he regretted that RWE, NRW and BUND could not reach a settlement.

On Tuesday, the first day of the trial, the court had proposed two compromises in a bid to preserve the forest: shift the mining area to skirt the woodlands, or spare the forest for as long as possible until an expected government plan to phase out coal altogether is announced. The judge told the court that the end of coal in Germany was inevitable and just a matter of time. "We just don't know exactly when it will happen," he said.

Read more - How far is Germany from a complete coal exit?

While BUND said it was willing to accept one of the compromise options, NRW and RWE declined, arguing it simply wasn't possible to leave the Hambach forest out of the expansion plan.

Jansen of BUND said their stance showed a refusal to face reality. "The current mining area will provide enough space for years to come without the need to attack the Hambach forest," he said.

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Exit coal - now!

One day before COP23, thousands of anti-coal mining activists gathered to urge a complete phase out of coal for use in power stations. The protesters, dressed with in protective white suits, walked for about 10 kilometers — from a nearby village to the Hambach coal mine.

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Block the destruction

Hambach is the largest CO2 emitter in Europe. Its expansion has already partially cleared out a 1,000-year-old forest and left several ghost villages behind — with more to come. Activists believe the climate talks going on in Bonn, only 50 kilometers away, are a complete nonsense while the mine keeps running.

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Fighting in peace

Despite a heavy police presence, the mood for Sunday's protest was very peaceful. The protagonists waved colourful banners and wore painted faces. Some brought guitars and played music - at least during the first part of the day.

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Attention: danger to life

As protesters approached the mine, police officers moved in and began blocking the march. With loud speakers, they warned the demostrators that they were trepassing on private property and they posed a risk to security.

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Run, run, run

As the drew closer to the mine, the long line of demonstrators suddenly burst into life, with many people running and shouting, forgetting the many kilometers they had already walked.

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A one-day success

Activists said that blocking this type of coal infrastructure was the best way to make their voices heard for an immediate transition away from coal. And yes, at least for a while, the giant digger stopped operating. The hundreds of activists who made it to the coal mine hailed the stoppage as a great success.

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No more coal for climate

Anti-coal activists say no other place in Europe represents the dependence on coal for electricity as well as the Hambach mine. Among the many signs carried by protesters, one of the often repeated ones was: Exit coal, protect the climate.

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Far from an end

Towards the end of Sunday's march, two more groups who had gotten separated from the main demonstration, joined up with their comrades. Here you can see the police have lined up to prevent their advance.

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Time for action

The activists were successful in shutting down parts of the Hambach mine for just a day. But whether politicians will take any long-term measures regarding coal mining during the COP23 climate conference remains to be seen.

Decades-old decisions

Energy company RWE has been gradually clearing parts of the Hambach forest since 2015. The forest once made up one of the largest nature reserves in the state of NRW, but now some 90 percent of trees there have been cut down.

Read more - Germany clings to coal at climate summit

BUND has warned that the company would seek to continue its mine expansion beyond the 2020-2030 period.

Such a step would involve NRW carrying out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to assess how harmful the development would be to local nature. There was no such review for the 2020-2030 expansion, however. That's because the concept of an EIA has only existed since 1990, while authorities set out the entire plan for the Hambach mine's development in 1977. And so, according to NRW and RWE, their planning is covered by the 1970s legislation, making an environmental assessment unnecessary. 

140 endangered species

BUND argued in court that the Hambach Forest meets all the criteria to be considered a European nature reserve, and therefore should be protected.

The forest is home to around 140 endangered species, including the nearly extinct Bechstein bat.

"Nobody should be concerned about the bats dying," lawyers for RWE told the court, adding that the animals would be relocated to other forest areas.

Jansen of BUND, meanwhile, urged RWE to avoid cutting down trees and "causing further irresponsible damage to nature."

He said his group had already submitted an interim order with the Higher Administrative Court in Münster to immediately halt logging in area.

BWE press spokesman Guido Steffen told DW the forest clearing would begin in a timely manner. "We have the right, and without clearing the (mine's) operation would be at risk."