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Garzweiler: an open wound in Germany

"The road just... stopped. And out of nowhere suddenly there was an abyss" (2013, me)

Author: Thushara Verhoeven | Photo & image credits: © TPJ Verhoeven Photography | 4.837 words | Published on: 22 December 2021 | Last edited on: 4 January 2022


🇳🇱 DISCLAIMER VAN DE SCHRIJVER • Er kunnen geen rechten ontleend worden aan tekst en/of beelden in dit stuk. Het is puur geschreven vanuit liefhebberij voor fotografie. In dit stuk wordt bewust géén stelling genomen. Er worden geen kanten gekozen. Het is vanuit fotografisch oogpunt geschreven. Gewoon beschouwend op wat ik als fotograaf zie en wat me opgevallen is door de jaren heen. Het is niet het doel om partijen te kiezen voor of tegen mensen, organisaties en/of instellingen. Ik word niet betaald door derden om iets te schrijven of te tonen en er wordt geen geld verdiend aan het schrijven van dit stuk of het tonen van deze beelden. Dit stuk is dus geschreven vanuit mijn oogpunt als observant/toeschouwer en liefhebber van grote machines, bijzondere beelden, urbexing en urbex fotografie. Bij vragen, stel ze gerust. Veel leesplezier.

🇬🇧/🇺🇸 DISCLAIMER FROM THE AUTHOR • No rights can be derived from anything in this article. I wrote this article mainly because of three important reasons. My undying love for photography being the most important one. Next, because I personally take an interest in large and heavy machinery. And for the final reason you just have to start reading the article, because my views on what's going on there, will become clear further along into the article. From this article my political standpoint relative to certain ways of energy generation and (inter)national political decisions regarding these matters might / can possibly be derived, but this article is in no way a political piece and it does NOT reflect my exact political standpoints on these matters. I do not get paid to say certain things about or against certain corporations, brands, people, causes, etcetera. This article is solely to be interpreted from a photographical and a humanitarian perspective. The fact that I have been to the area myself and witnessed the radical changes with my own eyes over the years, has coloured my opinion on the matter somewhat in a way, but not in favour of any particular political flavour, meaning that I do not pick sides or actively jump into the debate. I just report on the matter and I refrain from commenting on the matter in this article on a personal title. As a business I support every cause which does best for the planet in general and that's exactly from which perspective this article should be interpreted: from me as a business, as a photographter with an interest in telling stories through images. I hope you enjoyed reading it and please don't hesitate to contact me if you have questions or in case you want to leave a personal comment on it.



Preface

Dear reader,


Dec. 2021 • This is a story that started when I was a kid, watching documentaries about big machines. Since my first visit to this infamous area in Germany back in 2013 this gradually turned into a story with a more mature, more nuanced view on the subject and all things related to it. Over time it developed into a story about destruction and heartbreak, but also... resistance and hope. Hope that we as a species might eventually finally start doing the right thing for our planet from which we only have one. 


Over the years our youth have become aware, more politically active and way more involved. Climate change is on almost every governmental agenda these days and nowadays pollutive enterpreneurship is simply killing for your brand or business. Fossil fuels are on the decline and cleaner modes of transport and ways of living with preferably zero emissions have taken off. 


As stated in the disclaimer above, this isn't a political piece, but I do write this from my own perspective and view and, yes, I do speak my mind, because that's what I always do. This article does not just show cool images of big machines or decaying old houses. The story is much bigger than that. It's a bit of (climate) journalism and it's very much about images that make an impact and hopefully start to make you think. All of that combined is the story I want to share with you.


Finally, I am not trying to persuade or convince you of anything and I do not ask you to take a stand or pick sides in debates. What you eventually do with the information provided in this article, is totally up to you.


Kind regards,

TPJ Verhoeven Photography

2013 • Contemplating the view • © EHJMWeijers

2013 • Contemplating the view • © EHJMWeijers

2021 • Shooting at Garzweiler II • © ILWisse

2021 • Shooting at Garzweiler II • © ILWisse


1. Garzweiler 101: a 'mining giant' crash course

Next time when you find yourself on either the highways A44, A46 or A61, somewhere roughly between Mönchengladbach and Düsseldorf in the West of Germany, you might want to pay attention. It's at all possible that you inevitably stumble upon this strange and peculiar sight. Seemingly out of nowhere the landscape basically just... stops, and as you drive towards and later alongside it, slowly an immensly massive hole in the surrounding area starts to appear. Driving along this stretch of the German Autobahn you suddenly might imagine yourself on a distant alien planet for a moment. However you might also probably quickly realise that this is not fiction at all. It's very real and that this is not just any ordinary hole. On the contrary...

Welcome to Garzweiler I • Spread out over a 66 km² area and excavated to 100 meter deep at some points, Garzweiler I is an open-pit surface lignite (brown coal) mine. The material from the mine fuels the nearby coal-fired power plants of Neurath and Niederaußem amongst others. Where there's a surface mine, there's actual surface. Land, soil, where people live and stuff grows.

The towns, villages and all of its people, lifestock and wildlife that resided in this incredibly vast area, obviously couldn't stay there and were forced to relocate from 2006 until this day. Over the years entire communities and livelihoods have been demolished for the sake of progress, to fuel the German economy and this country's ever increasing demand for energy.

The mine was originally scheduled to close down operations in 2045. However this might be expedited to 2038, due to a plan to phase out all coal-fired plants, in order to reduce the use of fossil fuels in Germany.

Garzweiler I: welcome to The Pit

Colourful display as we arrived at the Garzweiler I site on 16 Dec 2021

BWEs • Mining giants

I personally love big machines. Seeing those in action is just really cool. Mining machines are amongst the biggest on the planet and Discovery Channel used to broadcast many documentaries on these giants. One of those machines really stands out: bucket wheel excavators, or BWEs. They are mainly being used to dig up lignite (brown coal), which can be found in certain places on Earth just under or even on the surface where it only needs to be scooped up.

The bigger the machine, the more material can be processed in a certain amount of time. They have been around for decades and are deployed in countries like Germany, Australia and the USA to name a few. Over time they have gotten so big that every measurement about them is astronomical. Once started, BWEs don't stop, except for maintaince. In principle they are operational 365/24/7, literally for decades without slowing down, just to be cost efficient.

Bottom line is: these mining monsters are in fact the largest man-made pieces of machinery on the planet in the history of the world. And back in 2013 all I wanted was to ever see one in action with my own eyes.

Moving dirt

A behemoth at work in the early morning of 16 Dec 2021

Some facts

The name of these massive mining giants is being derivated from the giant 21m diameter wheel on the very front of the beam of the machine. BWEs are not only deployed in Germany, but all over the world. They vary in size and scale depending on the intented application and deployment across the globe, but they all have one thing in common: they are huge.

The largest BWE on Earth however is indeed put at work in a brown-coal mine near Hamburg. This one is called TAKRAF's Bagger 293 and it's currently owned by RWE Power AG, the second largest energy company in Germany. It owns or shares some records for terrestrial vehicle size in the Guinness Book of Records. It's continuously spinning and earth devouring wheel scoops up soil and raw materials with as many as 18 giant size buckets, each of which can hold over 15m³ of soil. It's capable of moving 240.000m³ of overburden every day, which equals to 96 full Olympic sized swimming pools of material. Excavations of 380.000m³ (152 pools) have been recorded. It stretches over 225m in length, towers 96m into the air and weighs in at a whopping 14.200 metric tons.

BWEs at work at Garzweiler I

BWEs at work in the early morning of 16 Dec 2021


2. 2013: the very first encounter, urbexing & a twist

Now I will take you to the past. Back in 2013 I got to a point where I was so fascinated by BWEs that I started to wonder if I would ever be able see them upclose in real life. I began researching where on the planet I needed to look and it took me a bit by surprise but I did find them. Very close to home. It turned out that all I had to do was embark on a two hour drive...

If you look at these mammoths from an engineering perspective, it's indeed undeniable that BWEs truly are simply awesome. I remember distinctively that seeing them in action for the first time was just awe inspiring. The sounds, the vibrations, the immense dimensions... It was like nothing you've ever witnessed before and felt indeed as if on an alien planet, especially when looking at these machines from a relatively close distance. Then it makes you definitely feel miniscule, because it's only when you see them upclose, you realise how big they truly are. Of course we couldn't get too close for obvious safety reasons, but back then we got close enough to get a really good impression. All in all, mission accomplished: my first encounter with BWEs was a succes and it would certainly not be my last.

The twist in this story...

I rang up a friend and armed with our compact cameras, we chose the German village of Pesch to navigate on and went on our way. What we found upon arrival was astonishing, a tad bit frightening and in the end actually quite... saddening. And these are still the feelings I experience everytime again when I return to the area.

As I stated before, there's a lot more to the story than just awesome mining equipment. Let me be clear: my fascination for this machinery it still there, but as I grew older I now see more of the impact us humans have on our enviroment. And it became clear in the years that this impact in this particular densly populated area of Europe is simply immense. This story is not complete if I solely reported on the BWEs alone. I have to tell the entire story and that got a whole new dimension when we arrived at our first destination: the former rural village of Pesch.

The image gallery below contains the very first photos I shot around the Garzweiler I site. Those images are the first ones, hence these are my first impressions. Keep that in mind. The images from earlier in this article all date from Dec 2021. I opened with those and that particular part of the story for a reason. Yes, I love big machines and I wanted to see those ever since I was a kid. But once I had finally done that, those initial joyous feelings got tempered a bit and looking back at it, it was a very good move to start our trip in Pesch. It opened my eyes to other things, because besides big machines I am also very fond of urbexing, urbex photography and... photographinghuman interest stories.

When we arrived we were greeted by the sight of the village of Pesch. Seeing this village and what was going on on the ground came as a shock. This shock jumpstarted everything that followed in the upcoming years until this day when I talk or think about the Garzweiler I area. It's the reason I wrote this article, because I think the story needs to be told as it is relevant and topical today as ever.

The town: Pesch (deceased, 2013)

Back to the story. Once we recovered from our initial impressions of the giant machines, something else came into view when we drove through Immerath. This village was populated and there were people on the streets going about their daily lives. But we needed to drive a kilometer further, to Pesch.

Pesch turned out to be a whole new experience. This wasn't just any village. It was certainly not the cute rural German village you might know from promotional tourist agencies on the internet... In hindsight I can now conclude this: at the time it wasn't even a village anymore. The town was already long deceased. Only bricks and stone remained. This town was a wiff of its former self and what it has been. There were no people left and the former houses lay in absolute silence. It was obvious that the soul of the village had been taken away long before we arrived there that day.

In May 2013 I arrived as a photography rookie. And this is undeniable: from a photographical perspective there's something incredibly attractive about abandoned and dilapidated buildings. Entire tribes of photographers are active in the urbexing scene, documenting the decay. Urban exploring, from which urbex got its name, is very popular. All of those people basically love broken stuff and this little town at the very edge of the pit had only that.

There were lots of abandoned and already partially demolished houses, left by the previous owners, sometimes with some personal stuff still in them, what we could see laying about through the sometimes partially shattered windows. Admidst the chaos and the construction equipment these small personal items emphasised the fact that this wasn't a construction site at all. Nothing was being built. People had actually lived their lives here and traces of that could be seen everywhere. It was clear as day that the construction equipment on site was not for building, but for tearing down. This was more like an urban graveyard and we were standing right in the middle of it... That fact hit us pretty hard.

Simply out of respect (and for safety reasons) we didn't enter any of the buildings, even if doors were unlocked and slightly open. At the time I didn't realise it yet, but then and there I basically took my first steps into urbexing photography. I remember that the entire experience was quite humbling. We shot our photos mainly in silence and I clearly recall that we didn't start speaking again until we were already kilometers from the area on our way home. This first visit made an impression that sticks with me to this day and I knew back then already that this first visit would not be my last. 

A sad sight • Pesch, May 2013

Photo gallery: The remains of the village of Pesch + the Jackerath skywalk, 2013 • 64 photos


3. 2015: It's just... gone...

Since my interest in the area hadn't dwindled, combined with the relative close distance to home, I wanted to return to the area to visit Pesch again. Little did I know...

I first came to the Garzweiler I mine in May 2013 and I went back in February 2015 and more recently in December 2021.

The grounds of Pesch

Nowadays Pesch doesn't exist anymore. The acutal soil this town was rooted in, has long since been excavated up to 100 meters deep. There is literally nothing left that refers to its actual geographical location anymore. It's just simply... gone. Erased from the map, as if it never existed at all. Only memories and a name remain: Pesch.

Two years later the town of Pesch was still showing on Google Maps. You could still see the 'Pescherstraße' leading from nearby Immerath to Pesch, but when we arrived on location the village itself was already completely leveled. The ground the town used to be on was still there and we were even able to walk up to the very edge of the pit to get some shots. 

This visit had a very dark and gloomy atmosphere hanging over this part of the land. The weather was cloudy, windy and drizzly. There was literally nothing comfortable or nice about it. The vibe fitted perfectly with the weather and what we witnessed there that day. In my opinion that's what shows in these photos really well.

Remark about the photo quality of this particular gallery: since it was one year prior to my DSLR period, I didn't have a compact camera anymore so all photos were shot with my Sony Xperia Z3 smartphone.

When Pesch was simply... no more • Pesch, Feb 2015

Photo gallery: Former grounds of the village of Pesch, 2015 • 23 photos

The town of Immerath

Before arriving in Pesch, you always first had to pass through the village of Immerath. This village was situated just a kilometer down the road from the edge of the pit. Up until April 2018 Immerath also was a common rural German village.

Of course residents did lots of protests against the expansion of the Garzweiler I mine in order to save their town, but eviction, relocation and demolition of the village was inevitable and had already started as early as 2006. In 2014 the local cemetery was cleared and remains were reburried elsewhere by relatives. The last people moved away in 2016 to the surrounding villages, with about 80% of the residents moving 7 km away to the South East to 'Immerath (Neu)', New Immerath.

In what was now old Immerath the Church of St. Lambertus was the last building still standing up until January of 2018. Along with the demolition of this 400 years old church, Immerath also vanished from the map to become a memory as well.

My last images of Immerath • Immerath, Feb 2015

Photo gallery: Immerath, my final impressions of a dying village, 2015 • 23 photos


4. 2021: tension & expansion

Halfway through December 2021, after five years of abscence, it was time to return to the region to look for... well, whatever was left. This time I would take some seriously powerful photo equipment with me, resulting in way better photo quality. I'm convinced that the images from this trip make even more impact, further illustrating this story.

Jackerath Aussichtspunkt / Skywalk

I anticipated grazing light so we decided to leave before dawn, to be able to catch that early morning light rising over the pit. In wintertime this isn't particularly difficult since dawn is starting late anyway, but since it's a two hour drive it still meant getting up fairly early.

After a smooth two hour drive and a stop for coffee along the way, my third Garzweiler encounter started out rather foggy on that early morning of 16 Dec 2021. We started the day with a visit of Jackerath Aussichtspunkt (Jackerath Skywalk). It's the official lookout point, put up there by RWE Power AG. I had visited that platform multiple times in the years before, however always with clear skies. Luckily despite the morning mist I still managed to take some good photos from the mine from there.

A foggy Winter morning over the pit • Jackerath skywalk, Dec 2021

Photo gallery: Jackerath skywalk, 2021 • 16 photos

Camp Lützerath

Before we even went on our way, my friend told me of a story in a local newspaper she read prior to this trip, telling about this village somewhere in the Garzweiler area where this one farmer still remained, refusing to leave his land and still holding his ground. That story hit home and we got lucky.

After the skywalk we drove in the direction of Immerath, which as of Dec 2021 still appeared on Google Maps. However upon following the route, we quickly found out that Immerath in the meantime had suffered the same fate as Pesch more than six years earlier. It was also almost gone. Only a few skeletons of the former residences remained.

Now the nearest village was the village of Lützerath or what was left of it anyway. So we decided to stay in the car and drove until we ran into a roadblock: we had arrived in the town of Lützerath at the very end of yet another closed off 'road to nowhere'. To my surprise we found out that what was left of Lützerath had in fact been taken over by climate activists who had set up serious shop with tents, tree houses, electricity, water, food courts, latrines, their own car parks and security measures.

They were there to fight against RWE Power AG and to support that very last farmer in his lonely uphill battle against the energy company. In the recent years the attention for climate change and worldwide protest against the global 1.5° C temperature rise, fuelled a whole new generation of (mostly) young people, taking a stand against these major energy companies, who made sure they were letting their voice heard.

After getting out of the car and walking into the village, we all of a sudden found ourselves on the very front of a true David against Goliath battle: the farmer and the climate activists on one side against the energy company on the other side, with a very clear barrier between them. After dusting off my German we spoke to some activists and were basically given the okay to take photos. They seemed cool with our presence and cameras and they didn't bother us at all, probably since we clearly didn't bother them, so we took lots of photos. Amidst the chaos I even stumbled upon a photo, printed on a large protest canvas, of the actual moment of the demolition of the church of St. Lambertus' of the late town of Immerath in January 2018. The photo is included in the gallery.

Since this was the front line of this very real struggle, in a day and age where tensions in climate change debates ran high, we were also able to capture some striking images of the abundance of present security personnel from the energy company, who were watching our every move very closely on their side of the barrier. This barrier basically consisted of a wall of dirt together with a large ditch. 

The photos I took were contradictory to the situation on the ground. It was a very sunny and clear morning when we arrived at Camp Lützerath. The farmer already rode around on his tractor still tilling his field, which was now on the very edge of the pit. Over the edge in the distance we could clearly make out the BWE 100m down in the pit.

And then there's this, because these images are particularly striking if you know the meaning behind them: the farmer passing the pickup truck with security personnel. They greet each other out of politeness, but you can feel the tension between both sides right there. Another one are the chairs, pulled up by the activists, pressed up right against the barrier, in turn just to watch every move by the energy company closely.

We even encountered people with yellow vests and sunglasses in and around the abandoned houses of Lützerath, but I didn't take any photos of them, as to not provoke them and possibly harm the activists' cause.

🇩🇪 "Lützerath bleibt!" • Lützerath, Dec 2021

Photo gallery: Camp Lützerath and surroundings, 2021 • 50 photos

Holzweiler: a village under threat

Since the road very much ended in Lützerath, we had to track back and find a different road to get further up North. Parallel to the edge of the pit and further in land, we managed to find one. The first village we there encountered was Holzweiler (Erkelenz municipality).

This village and its centrally situated church were still standing, but however quiet and peaceful it looked, the growing threat and presence of the nearby mine could also be felt here. Sidewalks and empty parking spaces were already strategically filled with red and white barriers. This was a village under siege. (And that turned out to be correct, because later that evening back home, I read that this village is scheduled for relocation and demolition as well. It's still uncertain if that's actually going to happen though).

We got out of the car, walked around a bit and took some shots. In the back of our minds was the constant reminder that these might have been the last shots we would ever take of this village as well.

Living in uncertainty: under threat or safe? • Holzweiler, Dec 2021

Photo gallery: driving into the village of Holzweiler, 2021 • 6 photos

Garzweiler I: Aussichtspunkt #2

After leaving Holzweiler, we tracked further North and found another lookout point. This time on the very Northern most tip of the pit. This would also be our last stop for today and my last stop of my third visit to the Garzweiler I area.

Colours

This vantage point provided a good lunch spot and since the fog had lifted a bit, I managed to take some striking photos of the area that you can see below. Be sure to watch the sunlight hit the mine and be sure to click on each photo to zoom in, just to get a sense of the massive scale of the mine. In a way it's beautiful, horrifying and saddening at the same time. Yes, it's a colourful display, but the apparent and obvious destruction of the rural landscape, as well as the ever present threat the mine poses to the surrounding villages that are still there for now, is tangeable up there.

Sounds

What struck me the most was the eery absence of sounds of nature. Nature seemed truly dead from up there and not a single sound could be heard, other than the massive machines humming in the distance, together with the white background noise of the surrounding highways. Sometimes an occasional bird flew by, but nothing else that resembled nature even slightly could be heard or seen other than the deafening sound of plain dead silence. This was as close to the definition of a pillaged Earth as it could get.

Pillaged earth • Garzweiler I, Dec 2021

Photo gallery: RWE Power AG lookout point with views of the Garzweiler I mine and our lunch spot for the afternoon, 2021 • 23 photos

Garzweiler II: Elsdorf

Garzweiler II

After we took the final photos of Garzweiler I, we decided to head 25 km to the South to Garzweiler II. We ended up next to the village of Elsdorf. The pit of this mine is even deeper, but we unfortunately didn't find any good vantage points to take good photos. We drove around for a bit and I managed to take a couple of shots, but this is all I got.

lookout point • Elsdorf, Garzweiler II, Dec 2021

Photo gallery: Garzweiler II is definitely more secluded from stranger's eyes • 4 photos


Latest remarks

16 December 2021

As of December 2021 this is where the Garzweiler story stands today from my point of view. It's a truly interesting area where you can actually sense the world politics and global forces of energy and progress at work. When you look more closely, you are also be able to pick up a lot of sadness and heartbreak simply by just paying attention. From my perspective as a photographer with an interest in heavy machinery but also with a heart for the planet, it's all about capturing a full story.

Yes, humanity needs the energy, but might it also be possible in other ways? Mining lignite is increasingly controversial since it's heavily polluting. The ground water levels of the surrounding areas are dropping significantly. The local people are mainly dead against it, since they are forced to move from their houses, from grounds where their ancestors lived, grounds dating back hundreds of years. And lastly because of the utter irreversible destruction of the landscape on an truly unbelievably massive scale.

The villages of Reisdorf, Garzweiler, Priesterath, Stolzenberg, Elfgen, Belmen, Morken-Harff, Epprath, Omagen, Königshoven, Otzenrath, Spenrath, Holz, Pesch and Borschemich are already gone and Lützerath and Immerath are basically gone as it is. Berverath, Keyenberg and Kuckum Unter- en Oberwestrich are still standing as of Dec 2021, but they are under threat to be demolished as well.

In roughly two decades after mining will be complete, the remaining hole will be filled with water which will form a 23 km³ lake. The Garzweiler I mine is scheduled to be operational until 2045, but an upcoming plan to phase out all coal-fired plants in Germany by 2038 might have effect on the Garzweiler lignite mine system. 

This will be updated in the future. For now, thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed it. Be sure to reach out if you have remarks or questions.

Kind regards, TPJ Verhoeven Photography


View of the village of Keyenberg from lookout point Tagebau Garzweiler I / Hochneukirch on 16 Dec 2021

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