Last update: 4 November, 2014.
The lower Lausitz (Lusatia), a German region located some 70 miles south-east of Berlin, is mostly as flat as it emerged from the last ice age. Beside gigantic open-cast mines and their legacy, it is agriculture and forestry that dominate the land. Settlements range from small hamlets to medium-sized industrial towns. Between 80 and 120 meters underground, there are vast deposits of coal (lignite), enough to make the region one of the world's premier reserves. In order to extract the wealth, one must begin by removing obstacles on the surface: trees, roads, the odd medieval village.
The villages demand the most time, usually two to three decades, much of which is spent on planning and legal wrangling. After the last round of appeals is over, the villages are subjected to what is aptly called Devastierung (devastation). The current count of villages in the region to which this procedure has been applied is above 130. On rare occasions, a building is deemed worthy of being trucked away to a safer place. Most villages vanish without a trace. A few are commemorated with markers in the landscape, such as a boulder bearing an inscription or a memorial made from scrapped mining machinery. (The boulders are turned up in large numbers during mining; they come from Scandinavia and were transported here by glaciers.)
There have been many attempts over the years to forestall the destruction. The most recent one was an ambitious referendum in early 2009 against any future mining permits. It failed at the polls. It is unclear whether this failure is due primarily to the coal industry's lobbying efforts, the electorate's apathy, or the preponderance of good arguments in favor of national energy independence and affordability at the cost of local mayhem and further damage to the climate. Whatever the explanation, the result is that more villages are slated for destruction over the next two decades. It is small comfort to know that there is now an archive to preserve their memory.
The resettlement of the population is handled in a "socially agreeable" (sozialverträgliche) manner. This involves significant financial compensation as well as citizen input concerning the new communal living arrangements. Some people are satisfied with the process, others are not. The fact that the most recent resettlement - Haidemühl - attracted almost no outside attention or media coverage suggests that the average satisfaction is greater now than it used to be.
The second preliminary task, beside clearing the land, is the lowering of the ground water table so as to safeguard the future mine against flooding. It also takes years and is done in parallel with the work on the surface. The water is extracted through a large number of wells drilled around the mine's perimeter and connected to a system of pipes.
Technical aside: Half of the photographs here were taken with a view camera. In order to frame and focus the dim upside-down image on the camera's matte screen, one has to stick one's head under a dark cloth, which makes for some detachment from the world. As I was fumbling under the cloth preparing one of the exposures, I got badly startled by a sudden hiss and spatter very close by. I looked for the cause, couldn't find one, and returned under my cloth. Seconds later, it happened again. I began to suspect the pumping system, and indeed the noise turned out to be part of its operating routine.
(I should perhaps apologize at this point for the technical flaws in some images, such as poor color, flare, orange stripes, or dust spots. These are the effects of scanning film negatives in their sleeves for a quick look. As I get around to making proper scans and edits, I will post them. This is work in progress.)
One wonders, naturally, where all the water goes after it has been pumped from the ground. It must end up, for the most part, in the streams, ponds, and rivers that make up the surface water system. In some places I saw it funneled there without much ado, together with whatever is dissolved or suspended in it. The reddish stuff floating under the birches in one of the photographs consists, in all likelyhood, of iron precipitates in a noxious brew of acid runoff -- products in the decomposition chain of pyrite, a mineral that occurs here in abundance. The visual evidence suggests that aquatic life in small streams is a little overwhelmed. Officially, the water is cleaned (to the tune of 250,000 cubic meters per day coming from just one mining site) before half of it is released and the other half used as coolant in nearby power plants.