Germany closes last of black coal mines that shaped country

BERLIN (AP) — Germany is closing its last black coal mines, ending an industry that laid the foundations for the country's industrial revolution and its post-war economic recovery.

On Friday, Miners planned to hand German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier a symbolic last lump of coal hauled up from 1,200 meters (3,940 feet) below ground at the Prosper-Haniel mine in the western city of Bottrop. Along with another mine, in the town of Ibbenbueren about 62 miles to the north, it will be formally shuttered at the end of the year.

"This marks the end of a significant era in Germany," government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said.

"Black coal enabled the industrialization of the region and with it prosperity in all of Germany," she added. "This should be honored because we all benefit, even indirectly, to this day."

Black coal mines once dominated the Ruhr region surrounding Bottrop, employing up to half a million people at their peak in the 1950s. But they have since been in steady decline, surviving only thanks to generous subsidies.

The region has received more than 40 billion euros ($46 billion) in federal funds since 1998 and is slated to get another 2.7 billion euros through 2022, in part to deal with mine maintenance and environmental cleanup efforts. The figures don't include money spent supporting economic redevelopment in the Ruhr region, which has seen a growth in universities, research facilities and IT start-ups in recent years.

The end of the deep-shaft mines is seen as a test for the planned closure of open-cast lignite, or brown coal, mines still operating in Germany.

The country generates almost two-fifths of its electricity from burning coal, a situation that scientists say can't continue if Germany wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in line with international efforts to curb climate change.

But some fear that other sources of energy — chiefly renewables — may not be sufficient, especially as Germany plans to shut down its nuclear plants by 2022.

A government-appointed panel is due to deliver a report in February laying out proposals for the gradual phasing out of lignite mines. The experts, including party officials, environmentalists and miners union representatives, will also propose ways in which tens of thousands of people whose jobs still depend on the coal industry can find new work in future.

One of the panel's members said the hundreds of billions in subsidies paid to prop up black coal in Germany were a cautionary tale.

"This time we cannot do it incrementally, in a piecemeal way," Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told The Associated Press.

With about 420 coal mining regions around the globe facing similar pressure to shut down in the coming years, Schellnhuber said Germany could become a pioneer in the transition away from fossil fuels.

At Friday's ceremony, miners were expected to pay their respects to colleagues who lost their lives underground. The dangers were highlighted Monday, when a 29-year-old worker was crushed to death by a metal door in the Ibbenbueren shaft. And overnight Friday, news emerged of the death of 13 miners in an explosion at a colliery in the Czech Republic.