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Structural change in Lusatia: tourism instead of opencast mining


The Lusatian Lake District is to become the largest artificially created water landscape in Europe, created from flooded opencast mines. But there is still a struggle to phase out coal in the region.

In 1966 the Niemtsch opencast mine was empty. It was closed and flooded. Seven years later, on June 1, 1973, the first beach section of the newly created Senftenberg Lake was released for bathers. It was the starting signal for a new kind of tourism in the Lusatian mining region. In the decades that followed, more bathing spots were created around the lake. Campsites, holiday parks, hotels, guesthouses, bike paths have been laid out and boat moorings have been created. Ten years ago, the town of Senftenberg got its own port.

Bathing in the opencast mine

A development that is considered an example of successful open-cast mining rehabilitation and the beginning of more of this kind. By the end of the decade, no less than the largest artificially created water landscape in Europe is to be created between Görlitz in Saxony and the Cottbus area in Brandenburg, the Lusatian Lake District , mostly from flooded opencast mines. 20 of the waters are already approved for swimming.

The local tourism association counted almost 850,000 overnight stays last year, for the first time more than in the pre-Corona year 2019. The hospitality industry made a total turnover of 265 million euros. Tourism in Lusatia has developed into an important economic factor beyond mining and gives hope for the time afterwards. Around 25 million euros in subsidies are to be invested in tourism infrastructure over the next few years.

Lack of water due to heat and drought

Ingolf Arnold, who has been dealing with the consequences of mining and water management in Lusatia as a hydrologist for more than 40 years, sees the lake landscape and especially Lake Senftenberg as less of a blueprint for successful rehabilitation. These waters must be constantly monitored and it must be ensured that the embankments and beaches are safe and that water flows constantly.

The consequences of heat and drought in recent years are clearly noticeable. For example, Lake Senftenberg had to be closed in 2018 because the embankment on the island in it was unstable due to the low water level and landslides occurred.

The hydrologist Arnold has been dealing with the consequences of mining in Brandenburg for more than 40 years.

René Schuster from the Cottbus environmental group also warns that not only in Lusatia the water could soon run out. The engineer and nature conservationist has been fighting brown coal and the consequences of its mining for years. For him, many of the lakes are oversized – such as the Cottbusser Ostsee, which is currently being built, and which is set to become Germany’s largest artificial lake. It’s much too big and flat, says Schuster. With warming, a lot of water would evaporate, which would then be missing in the already dry region.

It would also be better for the lake problem if the coal phase-out were to take place earlier than planned, says Schuster. The open pits would then be smaller, since less coal would be mined and the consequences for nature and landscape would be less.

Steam rises from the cooling towers of the Jänschwalde lignite-fired power plant of Lausitz Energie Bergbau AG (LEAG). It is the third largest power station in Germany.

Eastern countries against earlier exit

There is a dispute about the year in which lignite power generation is to be ended, which is causing uncertainty in the region. It has been agreed by 2038 at the latest. The Greens are also aiming to bring the phase-out forward to 2030 in the eastern German lignite states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. This was decided by her parliamentary group in the spring at a closed conference as an important step for climate protection. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the state government, the Federal Ministry of Economics and the energy company RWE have already taken a step in this direction.

In the east, the prime ministers of the affected countries have so far stuck to 2038 as the exit date. Too many questions are still unanswered in Lusatia, for example, such as securing the power supply without coal, who will ultimately bear the decades of follow-up costs for the renovation of the opencast mine and how Lusatia is to be supplied with water in the future.

On the one hand, heat and drought as a result of climate change have made things difficult for the region in recent years, and on the other hand, there is great concern as to where water will come from in the future if mine water is no longer pumped out of the open-cast mines that will then be closed and will be pumped into lakes and rivers like the Spree can flow.

The Greens parliamentary group also wants an earlier phase-out of coal in the East and is providing the first key points.

Who bears the follow-up costs?

The CO2 emissions are decisive, not the date for the coal exit, says René Schuster from the environmental group Cottbus and refers to a study published in April this year by the European University of Flensburg on behalf of the climate activists from “Fridays for Future”. It states that carbon dioxide emissions in the Lusatian lignite mining area must be limited to 205 million tons if Germany wants to comply with the 1.5 degree limit on global warming agreed at the Paris World Climate Conference. According to the study, this would mean immediately reducing the utilization of coal-fired power plants by a quarter or bringing forward the phase-out of coal to 2026.

It is important to him that these 205 million tons of CO2 are not exceeded, says Schuster. The phase-out schedule must then be based on this, and then upcoming problems such as security of supply or water management can also be discussed.

The follow-up costs should also not be lost sight of. If LEAG, as an opencast mine and power plant operator, wants to invest in other business areas such as renewable energies or hydrogen, this should not be funded by the state and federal government without binding commitments from the group to permanently assume the follow-up costs of the opencast mine renovation. Part of these follow-up costs are also the Senftenberg Lake and the Lusatian Lake District.