Origin of coal

Published by Karsten Wickern on

As hard coal mining in Germany had long since ceased to be profitable, it was discontinued in 2018. Nonetheless, there are still hard coal-fired power plants in Germany. The German industry requires around 44 million tonnes of hard coal every year. 
Most of this amount comes from Russia and Colombia. The mining conditions there ensure that production in these countries is still profitable and that emission-intensive transport is being accepted.
1)https://www.bgr.bund.de/DE/Themen/Energie/Downloads/energiestudie_2019.pdf;jsessionid=6425C89235BF7AE87C068FB1E8382B07.1_cid292?__blob=publicationFile&v=3 (p. 100)

Coal ship in the harbour of Datteln 4

Datteln 4 alone requires 9,000 tonnes of coal per day in full-load operation.2)https://rp-online.de/wirtschaft/erstes-kohleschiff-fuer-kraftwerk-datteln_aid-21108743 With normal canal ship sizes, this corresponds to approximately two to six ships per day. This hard coal imported from far away is often referred to as blood coal. Numerous labour and human rights are disregarded for the extraction in Russia and Colombia, so that electricity and coal are products and producers of extreme abuse.

The problem with hard coal from Russia

76% of the coal imported from Russia comes from the Kuzbass region in southern Siberia. There are a total of 120 mines and open-cast mines on an area almost as large as Bavaria.3)https://ecdru.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/russian-coal.pdf (p. 21) The total area of open-cast mines and overburden was already larger than the area of Hamburg in 2015, at 763 km².4)https://geo.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/mnf/geowissenschaften/Institutsseiten/Seite_Schriftenreihen/Greifswalder_Geographische_Arbeiten/GGA_54.pdf (p. 303) This Russian coal is very high quality and popular because of its low sulphur content (less than 1%).5)https://www1.wdr.de/nachrichten/landespolitik/russische-kohle-fuer-datteln-iv-100.html It is transported 4,000 km6)https://urgewald.org/sites/default/files/Briefing_Fortum_0.pdf (p. 8) by rail to ports on the Baltic Sea, by ship to Germany and then onward by rail or barge. Uniper also purchases coal from Russia.

The price for the cheap export coal and electricity in Germany is the health and environment of the people in Kuzbass.

Environmental damage in the region

Especially coal dust, which is whirled up and spread by the wind to the surrounding villages, is the cause of damage to people and the environment. It is released during blasting, extraction, transport of coal or even from old soil heaps where coal is still stored.
As a result, air, soil and drinking water are heavily polluted. In forests around the mining area, high concentrations of sulphur and heavy metals were found during investigations. Increased concentrations of lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic were also found in foodstuffs.7)https://www.zeit.de/2013/17/kohlebergbau-bitter-coal-bericht

The finest coal dust particles suspended in the air are particularly noticeable in winter when they mix with snow. At the beginning of 2019, images of black snow masses went through the media. According to reports, the filter system of a coal-fired power plant is said to have failed, but even with intact filter systems, greyish-black snow falls in the Kuzbass in winter.8)https://de.nachrichten.yahoo.com/schwarzer-schnee-sucht-sibirische-bergbauregion-heim-143850276.html?guccounter=1

“It’s harder to find white snow than black snow during the winter”

Vladimir Slivyak, Ecodefense 9)https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/15/toxic-black-snow-covers-siberian-coalmining-region

Earthquakes

The extent of human intervention in nature through mining was also demonstrated on 19 June 2013 when an earthquake measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale was measured near Belovo in Kuzbass. As of 2017, it was the strongest anthropogenic earthquake ever recorded. 5,000 houses were damaged, 350 houses were even uninhabitable. The damage amounted to 1.7 billion roubles (at that time almost 40 million euros). The cause of the earthquake is said to be the immense water withdrawal and the frequent blasting caused by coal mining.10)https://geo.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/mnf/geowissenschaften/Institutsseiten/Seite_Schriftenreihen/Greifswalder_Geographische_Arbeiten/GGA_54.pdf (p. 125)

Similar to Datteln, the distances between housing estates and open-cast mines in Kuzbass are also very small, sometimes falling below 100 metres. This means that residents are not only burdened by the ecological emissions, but also by the noise.11)https://www.deutschlandfunknova.de/beitrag/sibirien-menschen-leiden-unter-kohleabbau

Diseases

The permanent presence of coal dust is not without consequences for the people either. Although there are no official figures, residents say that the filtering organs – lungs, kidneys, skin – are severely affected. Particularly common diseases are tumours and infections, including polio and tuberculosis.12)https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/15/toxic-black-snow-covers-siberian-coalmining-region Unnatural causes of death, such as alcohol poisoning or suicides, are also much more common in the Kuzbass than in the rest of Russia.13)https://geo.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/mnf/geowissenschaften/Institutsseiten/Seite_Schriftenreihen/Greifswalder_Geographische_Arbeiten/GGA_54.pdf (p. 127) Although these figures cannot be strictly linked to environmental pollution, they do reflect the social and economic situation of many people in the Kuzbass.

Children, in particular, are at risk of adverse effects from being exposed to toxic substances, such as heavy metals. The high levels of air and water pollution may cause permanent damage to their health and development. The rate for mental disorders is 1.8 times and the rate for mental disabilities 2.4 times higher than the national average. Children also have a much higher risk of contracting infectious diseases or parasites. While this is the case on average for 988 out of 100,000 children, it occurs in the Kuzbass at around 2,400-3,200 out of 100,000 children.14)https://ecdru.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/russian-coal.pdf
Even newborns in Kuzbass come to the world with liver and kidney damage15)https://www.deutschlandfunknova.de/beitrag/sibirien-menschen-leiden-unter-kohleabbau and are more likely to be affected by malformations of the cardiovascular system (1,6 times), as well as the female genitalia (3,3 times higher than the russian average).16)https://ecdru.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/russian-coal.pdf

Life expectancy, as a very unspecific measure of socioeconomic status, counts 61,64 years for the men of Kuzbass, three to four years below the national average of 65,3 years.17)https://geo.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/mnf/geowissenschaften/Institutsseiten/Seite_Schriftenreihen/Greifswalder_Geographische_Arbeiten/GGA_54.pdf (p. 73)

Political repression

With all the consequences of coal mining for the people and environment, it stands to reason that there is resistance against it. As the region both suffers from and, at the same time, is dependent on coal and proud of it, resistance is made to be particularly difficult.

Alexandra Korolewa Foto: EcoDefense

The Russian NGO Ecodefense is active and successful in this respect. It is committed to a healthy and clean environment. Since it receives funds from abroad, it is put under pressure by the Russian state. The co-founder and director of Ecodefense, Alexandra Koroleva, fled to Germany in 2019 and was the first Russian climate activist to apply for political asylum.18)https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/ecodefense-101.html
Since there are only few public official statistics on the Kuzbass and it is sometimes very difficult for German NGOs to work in Russia, it is thanks to the efforts of Ecodefense that information from the Kuzbass could be collected and disseminated.

Colombia
Foto: Tanenhaus – Wikipedia

Colombia has the largest coal deposit in Latin America, at around 7.4 billion tonnes.19)https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohlewirtschaft_Kolumbiens Almost all coal is being exported, mainly to Europe.20)https://decoalonize-europe.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Still-Burning.pdf (p. 49) Unlike Russia, Colombia not only experiences an enormous burden on the environment and health. Protesting civilians are also strongly intimidated by militias. Even murders have been committed, as recently confirmed by courts.
The coal comes from the Prodecco and Drummond mines in the Cesar region, as well as from the Cerrejón mine in the La Guajira region, the largest opencast coal mine in Latin America.21)https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Cerrej%C3%B3n

Court decision

In December 2019, residents of the Provincial Reserve filed a complaint against the mine operator and various authorities in front of the Colombian Constitutional Court. They sued for the right to life and health, a clean environment and physical integrity - and won the case. The main points of contention were the emissions from the open-cast mine and the resulting effects on health and the environment. Although the mining company - and also the responsible authorities - claimed that the dust development was under control according to the highest national and international standards, studies of the national university came to a different conclusion. Similar to Russia, the fine particles of coal dust in Colombia lead to numerous skin and respiratory diseases: silicosis, asthma, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis and bronchial carcinomas, to name a few. There is also a high risk of neurological and immunological changes, especially for children. Even in the blood of the residents high concentrations of toxic substances such as sulphur, chromium and bromine have been measured.

Water

Opencast mines are generally very water-intensive. While this also causes problems in Russia, the situation in Colombia is much more precarious due to a local water shortage: people and open-cast mines have to compete for water. The open-cast mine Cerrejón gobbles up 17 million litres of water a day, whereas the inhabitants* only have 0.7 litres of water available to them.23)https://www.misereor.de/fileadmin/publikationen/factsheet-steinkohleimporte-deutscher-energiekonzerne.pdf (p. 2) As the rivers are sometimes heavily polluted, people are dependent on water treatment plants, which do not always work.24)https://www.askonline.ch/themen/wirtschaft-menschenrechte/schweizer-unternehmen/massive-umweltbelastung-gesundheitsprobleme-und-eine-ungewisse-zukunft-praegen-viele-gemeinschaften-im-einflussbereich-der-kohlenmine-el-cerrejon

Displacement & Murders

For all those whose activities threaten the source of profit through coal, life in the coal regions is dangerous. Especially trade unionists and workers who demand better working conditions are affected. In the region of Cesar, people have been walking over dead bodies for the hard coal. In order to protect the open-cast mines, the mining companies financed paramilitary associations, which displaced a total of almost 59,000 people from their land and murdered 2,600 people between 1996 and 2006, according to the Dutch NGO Pax 2014. Massacres and "disappearances" were also part of the paramilitaries' repertoire.

These figures would seem unbelievably brutal if they were not based on statements made under oath by former paramilitaries in American courts. The companies operating the Drummond and Prodeco open-cast mines had been in contact with the paramilitaries for years and maintained the troops with tens of thousands of dollars.25)https://www.paxforpeace.nl/media/files/pax-dark-side-of-coal-final-version-web.pdf

Although the threat of paramilitaries to trade unionists and critics of coal mining is less today, death threats and harassment are still common.26)https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/new-death-threats-against-fuerza-de-mujeres-wayuu

Better Coal

Uniper, RWE, Fortum and Vattenfall, among others, have joined forces in the Better Coal initiative27)https://bettercoal.org/membership/ with the ambition to continuously improve sustainable coal supply chains. 28)https://bettercoal.org/who-we-are/

However, not only the graphically elaborate website strengthens doubt about Better Coal as a "greenwashing initiative". For example, producers participate in the reviews on a voluntary basis and a negative assessment does not entail any consequences.
 

Further Reading

We obviously cannot do justice to the seriousness of the environmental and social impact of coal production in a short overview text such as this one. The devastating consequences for the indigenous population in Colombia, for example, have not yet been mentioned here.
We would therefore urge everyone interested in this cause to read the following reports. They provide very detailed information about the situation and conditions in Russia and Colombia.

> The recently released web series Stillburning: https://stillburning.net/
> The Dutch NGO Pax writes in great detail about paramilitary activities in Colombia: https://www.paxforpeace.nl/media/files/pax-dark-side-of-coal-final-version-web.pdf
> In 2015, the Russian NGO Ecodefense summarized the effects of coal mining under the title "The Cost of Coal": https://ecdru.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/russian-coal.pdf
> The Institute of Geography and Geology at the University of Greifswald has written in great detail on almost 400 pages about the Kuzbass as a peripheral region shaped by old industry and the development strategies for modernization. Comparisons with the Rhineland and Lusatia are also made: https://geo.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/mnf/geowissenschaften/Institutsseiten/Seite_Schriftenreihen/Greifswalder_Geographische_Arbeiten/GGA_54.pdf
> An 85-page book by Decoalonize from 2019 about hard coal mining and consumption in Germany: https://decoalonize-europe.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Still-Burning.pdf
 > Similarly the report "Bitter Coal" by Urgewald and FIAN, published in 2013: https://www.fian.de/fileadmin/user_upload/dokumente/bittercoal.pdf
> A short documentary on the contract killings of Drummond: https://de.labournet.tv/video/7012/die-kohlenlinie

Sources:   [ + ]

1.https://www.bgr.bund.de/DE/Themen/Energie/Downloads/energiestudie_2019.pdf;jsessionid=6425C89235BF7AE87C068FB1E8382B07.1_cid292?__blob=publicationFile&v=3 (p. 100)
2.https://rp-online.de/wirtschaft/erstes-kohleschiff-fuer-kraftwerk-datteln_aid-21108743
3.https://ecdru.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/russian-coal.pdf (p. 21)
4.https://geo.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/mnf/geowissenschaften/Institutsseiten/Seite_Schriftenreihen/Greifswalder_Geographische_Arbeiten/GGA_54.pdf (p. 303)
5.https://www1.wdr.de/nachrichten/landespolitik/russische-kohle-fuer-datteln-iv-100.html
6.https://urgewald.org/sites/default/files/Briefing_Fortum_0.pdf (p. 8)
7.https://www.zeit.de/2013/17/kohlebergbau-bitter-coal-bericht
8.https://de.nachrichten.yahoo.com/schwarzer-schnee-sucht-sibirische-bergbauregion-heim-143850276.html?guccounter=1
9, 12.https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/15/toxic-black-snow-covers-siberian-coalmining-region
10.https://geo.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/mnf/geowissenschaften/Institutsseiten/Seite_Schriftenreihen/Greifswalder_Geographische_Arbeiten/GGA_54.pdf (p. 125)
11, 15.https://www.deutschlandfunknova.de/beitrag/sibirien-menschen-leiden-unter-kohleabbau
13.https://geo.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/mnf/geowissenschaften/Institutsseiten/Seite_Schriftenreihen/Greifswalder_Geographische_Arbeiten/GGA_54.pdf (p. 127)
14, 16.https://ecdru.files.wordpress.com/2015/12/russian-coal.pdf
17.https://geo.uni-greifswald.de/storages/uni-greifswald/fakultaet/mnf/geowissenschaften/Institutsseiten/Seite_Schriftenreihen/Greifswalder_Geographische_Arbeiten/GGA_54.pdf (p. 73)
18.https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/ecodefense-101.html
19.https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohlewirtschaft_Kolumbiens
20.https://decoalonize-europe.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Still-Burning.pdf (p. 49)
21.https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Cerrej%C3%B3n
22.https://www.askonline.ch/themen/wirtschaft-menschenrechte/wegweisendes-urteil-des-verfassungsgerichtes-fuer-die-umwelt-und-gesundheit-in-provincial
23.https://www.misereor.de/fileadmin/publikationen/factsheet-steinkohleimporte-deutscher-energiekonzerne.pdf (p. 2)
24.https://www.askonline.ch/themen/wirtschaft-menschenrechte/schweizer-unternehmen/massive-umweltbelastung-gesundheitsprobleme-und-eine-ungewisse-zukunft-praegen-viele-gemeinschaften-im-einflussbereich-der-kohlenmine-el-cerrejon
25.https://www.paxforpeace.nl/media/files/pax-dark-side-of-coal-final-version-web.pdf
26.https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/case/new-death-threats-against-fuerza-de-mujeres-wayuu
27.https://bettercoal.org/membership/
28.https://bettercoal.org/who-we-are/
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