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A Coal-Mining 'Monster' Is Threatening To Swallow A Small Town In Germany

The Bagger 288, a bucket-wheel excavator, digs into the beet fields behind the farm of Norbert Winzen to expand Germany's Garzweiler coal mine, one of Europe's largest open-pit mines. Winzen's family is fighting coal mine operator RWE in an effort to save their village of Keyenberg, which is more than a thousand years old.
The Bagger 288, a bucket-wheel excavator, digs into the beet fields behind the farm of Norbert Winzen to expand Germany's Garzweiler coal mine, one of Europe's largest open-pit mines. Winzen's family is fighting coal mine operator RWE in an effort to save their village of Keyenberg, which is more than a thousand years old.

KEYENBERG, Germany — The first thing Norbert Winzen wants me to know about the machine is that it never stops moving.

"It runs constantly," he says. "Every day, every night, Sundays, even on Christmas."

Incessant and haunting high-pitched creaks echo along the hills of the countryside surrounding Winzen's farm. They're from a bucket-wheel excavator, a machine that's taller than the Statue of Liberty, longer than Madison Square Garden and heavier than the Eiffel Tower. It holds aloft a wheel 70 feet in diameter with 18 massive buckets along its edges, each of them capable of digging 6.5 tons of soil.

It is one of the largest machines on the planet, and it's used to dig open-pit mines. Its technical name is the Bagger 288. But as a little boy on his family farm, Winzen knew it by a different name.

"It was a monster," Winzen says. "It was like, so big. It was huge."

Back then, the monster was miles away. It wasn't until a few years later when the mine grew bigger and the monster slowly crept closer to his family farm that little Norbert realized how threatening it really was.

"Four years later when I was eight or 10, my father said, 'Maybe they will come someday to our house,'" remembers Winzen. "And then for the first time I thought, 'What? This big machine? We have no chance against this big machine. How can we fight this?'"

Norbert Winzen, pictured on his farm in Keyenberg as a bucket-wheel excavator operates in the distance. In April, Germany's constitutional court ruled that the government needs to do more to reduce emissions levels. Winzen is hopeful the ruling will help save his family farm and the village.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
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Norbert Winzen, pictured on his farm in Keyenberg as a bucket-wheel excavator operates in the distance. In April, Germany's constitutional court ruled that the government needs to do more to reduce emissions levels. Winzen is hopeful the ruling will help save his family farm and the village.

Winzen is now 57, and the machine looms just a few football fields behind his family farm, closer than it's ever been, digging into sugar beet fields to find more coal. It's called the Garzweiler mine, and it keeps getting bigger.

The mine keeps growing and villages keep disappearing

The Garzweiler is one of three massive open-pit coal mines in Germany's state of North Rhine-Westphalia, along the Dutch border, where lignite coal is mined — a dirty, brown coal responsible for a fifth of Germany's carbon emissions. Nearly 50 villages in this region have been evacuated and destroyed for the ever-expanding mines, and Winzen's village of Keyenberg — more than a thousand years old — is set to be next.

His family is worried sick. "Did you see my mom, over there?" Winzen says, pointing to a woman cleaning up the barn. "She's really sick. She's not able to talk about this anymore."

RWE, Germany's largest power company, runs the mines in the region and it has already relocated 80% of Keyenberg's residents. But Winzen refuses to leave. His family has farmed this land for more than three centuries, and they can't imagine living anywhere else.

"My niece is 16 years old and she's protesting a lot," says Winzen." And she always pushes us and says, 'You have to fight more. You have to fight more.'"

Germany's highest court orders the government to act faster on climate

But the Winzens aren't fighting alone. In April, Germany's climate policy was upended when the Federal Constitutional Court ruled the government must speed up its plan to cut emissions. It said current climate protection laws place too much of a burden on future generations. Germany's government has now been forced to revise its plans, proposing legislation that'll make the country greenhouse-gas neutral by 2045 instead of 2050.

"This means we have to phase out coal much more quickly," says Dirk Jansen, managing director of the North Rhine-Westphalia office of Friends of the Earth, one of the organizations that brought the case which led to the court's decision.

Jansen is fighting to get Germany's government to ban all coal by 2030. "You always hear the argument that if we phase out coal, that the lights will go off," Jansen says. "But the power stations are already being shut down because they're no longer needed."

A stop sign in the village of Keyenberg shows the sentiments of some local residents toward RWE, the energy company that runs the three massive open-pit mines in this region of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
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A stop sign in the village of Keyenberg shows the sentiments of some local residents toward RWE, the energy company that runs the three massive open-pit mines in this region of North Rhine-Westphalia.

This debate is consuming Germany's federal election, set for September. Chancellor Angela Merkel is set to step down after 16 years in power, and her choice to take her place is Armin Laschet, state premier of this very region and the son of a coal miner. Jansen's been fighting Laschet's pro-industrial policies for years.

"He wants to mine a further 900 million tons of lignite, destroying villages in the process," says Jansen, "and he's making the construction of wind farms difficult."

An environmental party is making its case in Germany's election

Jansen is rooting instead for the Green Party to get a big enough share of the vote to be able to call the shots in a coalition government. The party's candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, called the landmark Constitutional Court decision historic.

"The era of excuses about climate protection is over," said Baerbock. "We must act here and now. We need a new concrete climate protection policy immediately. We must double the expansion of renewable energy sources over the next five years. We must bring forward the phasing-out of coal."

The mining company RWE is already being paid the equivalent of more than $3 billion by Germany's government to phase out its coal mines.

"And if politics say 'we paint the town red,' then everybody will do it. I mean that's politics and that's the law," says RWE spokesman Guido Steffen.

He says his company has made drastic cuts to its carbon emissions following previous decisions by Germany's government. And, says Steffen, RWE is building wind farms. He shows off one near a decommissioned portion of one of the company's mines. Steffen says RWE's three open-pit mines in the region are shutting down much earlier than planned.

"Two of our three mines will close at the end of 2029, and only the Garzweiler mine will run a few years longer, probably until 2038," he says.

Guido Steffen, spokesman for RWE, stands among his company's wind turbines, constructed atop a filled section of one of the company's mines. RWE is receiving billions of euros worth of government subsidies to transition away from coal.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
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Guido Steffen, spokesman for RWE, stands among his company's wind turbines, constructed atop a filled section of one of the company's mines. RWE is receiving billions of euros worth of government subsidies to transition away from coal.

The monster is coming closer and the village is standing firm

But Norbert Winzer, whose farm is on the edge of the Garzweiler mine, doesn't have until 2038. He wants the phaseout now. He refuses to move to the so-called "New Keyenberg," a town RWE set-up for villagers who've agreed to move.

"It's nothing like a village," scoffs Winzer. "It's a suburb."

Winzen's story has become a cause celebre in Germany. A violist from the nearby Beethoven Orchestra of Bonn organized musicians to play a benefit concert at his farm in early June. Seated inside the barn, the orchestra eased into Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, a not-so-subtle reminder of the ecosystem outside slated to be destroyed.

In the meantime, another organization moved by Winzen's struggle has donated tens of thousands of dollars-worth of solar panels to his farm. Winzen says they'll install the panels next year; a message to the coal mine and the monstrous machine looming over his fields that his family has no plans to move.

Cows on farmland in the village of Keyenberg stand in front of a massive bucket-wheel excavator, one of the largest machines on the planet.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
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Cows on farmland in the village of Keyenberg stand in front of a massive bucket-wheel excavator, one of the largest machines on the planet.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this report.

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