Excavation

Last update: 4 November, 2014.

Click on the first image and admire the lignite mine Welzow-Süd in full panoramic splendor. The whole operation churns slowly towards the left. The earth is removed in layers by different types of shovel, beginning with the rotary bucket excavator visible on the horizon on the left. The overburden is shuttled via conveyor belts around the perimeter of the mine to the right side. Once the distance from surface to coal seam has been reduced from around 90 to 60 meters, the conveyor bridge visible on the right takes over.

Two bucket-chain excavators connected to the left side of the bridge take the terrain down to the coal seam in one last enormous step. The bridge transports the overburden across the coal to the already depleted right side of the mine. (In mines with a different geology in other regions of the globe, this task is usually performed by trains or trucks.) The excavation of the coal is done by smaller shovels that operate underneath the main span of the bridge.

The bridge with all its attachments sweeps continually back and forth across the pit. After each sweep, its supporting railroad tracks are shifted a little towards the left. Just watching the shifting of the tracks is worth the visit. A special railroad engine drives with its front wheels on the old tracks, yanks them up against its belly, pushes them to the side, puts them down, and drives with its back wheels already on the newly positioned tracks. The engine's screeching along at an angle is like the opening and closing of a gigantic zipper.

Gauging large things is difficult, in nature as well as in images. We are able to see depth and size in the near vicinity, but beyond a distance of 100 meters or so, we are left to judging size indirectly, for example by comparing unfamiliar objects to adjacent objects of known size. A human figure works best as the reference object. I discovered the person in the panorama when I inspected high-resolution scans of the negatives on my computer screen. In an mural 30 feet wide and 8 feet tall, he would measure 1/2 inch. I had missed him in reality even though I had spent some time scanning the scene with binoculars. He stands precariously close to the top end of the bucket chain of one of the large excavators flanking the conveyor bridge.

The scale of the Welzow mine also becomes apparent from above.

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Aerial images at different magnification were taken at different times and show different stages of the mining process. You may need to zoom in in order to see the current state of affairs. Key figures are impressive as well: thickness of the coal seam: 10-16 m; overburden moved in 2008: 166 million cubic meters; coal extracted in 2008: 22 million metric tons. The lakes you see when you zoom out are almost all former mining sites. The Terrain mode emphasizes some of the earth movements involved.

An important feature that distinguishes the open cast mines in the Lausitz from mines in other parts of the world is that the coal seam here is quite thick and runs horizontally under fairly soft layers of deposits. This allows for the deployment of continuously operating large machinery that is more efficient than the discontinuously working draglines, stripping shovels, and truck fleets that are more common in the U.S. and elsewhere. The soft conditions make life easier not only for machines but also for plants that can cope with poor and often acidic soil. This is an important advantage the area enjoys as compared, for example, to the coal fields of Appalachia. There, the spoil tends to consist of crushed and compacted rock that is virtually impenetrable for substantial roots. Appalachain mine operators are legally held to set aside enough top soil to cover the spoil, but in the notoriously Byzantine ways of the mountains, this obligation can be sidestepped all too easily.

A second feature distinguishing the Lausitz is the fairly open attitude towards visitors on the part of the mine operator, the Swedish energy conglomerate and monopolist in much of eastern Germany, Vattenfall. There are, for example, overlooks with explanatory graphics, picnic tables, and a shelter at each active mine. The cynical interpretation is that Vattenfall has no choice in a country in which environmentalists have been in the government for three decades. There may be something to this. When I mentioned my astonishment about the openness to an engineer who was making his rounds inspecting wells, he sneered that in Germany you couldn't get away with running a closed shop. His tone reminded me of my father in the 1970's taking sides with his employer, a large chemical company, in response to my adolescent green reproaches.

The less cynical interpretation is that a culture of openness has advantages for everyone involved, some tangible, some less so. It contributes, among other things, to a better business climate by giving people the feeling that their interests and concerns are being respected, and it can boost workplace morale by encouraging employees to take pride in their work and show it off to outsiders. This is not to say that all is hunky-dory between Vattenfall and the region. How could it be when huge amounts of money, the energy supply for millions of people, a fragile local ecology, and the earth's climate are all at stake?

Welzow-Süd I Scale Figure Jaenschwalde Onlookers I Rotary Excavator I Rotary Excavator II Rotary Excavator III Rotary Excavator IV Rotary Excavator V Tracks Bucket Excavator from Behind Bucket Excavator and Conveyor Bridge Overburden I Overburden II Terrasses Coal Excavators Overburden III Overburden IV Crawler-Mounted Spreader Spreader Spreader Rotary Excavator V Men working