What is an open pit mine?

Have you ever swum in the Liblarer See lake in Erftstadt, Germany?? Did you know that under the water there used to be a huge hole where excavators worked? The Liblar lake is a former lignite hole. It has only been around for about 50 years. But what does it mean? What is an open pit mine? And why are people protesting against lignite mining in the Rhineland at the moment?

What is lignite?

If you have a fireplace at home, you know that when the wood burns, it gets warm. So energy is released. Lignite is something like very, very tightly compressed wood: when you burn it, it creates energy. But much more than a piece of wood, because the lignite is so tightly pressed. Maybe you have heard about the hard coal. It is compressed even more tightly than lignite – and therefore contains even more energy.

How is lignite produced?

A piece of freshly excavated brown coal (Photo: dpa)

There used to be huge forests with large ferns and tall trees here in the Rhineland. But just like today, the plants died after a certain time and fell to the forest floor. When more and more dead plants were added and then there were floods, this material was compressed. This is how lignite was created over millions of years. So you can say that lignite is compressed old plant remains. And the longer these plant remains lay deep in the earth, the more solid they became. Lignite is found everywhere where forests have sunk. This is the case here in the Rhineland, but also in parts of eastern Germany. And it also exists in other places around the world.

What is an open pit mine?

View of brown earth: excavators digging through the ground in search of lignite. (Photo: dpa)

A little more than 300 years ago, people discovered lignite while digging – and discovered that it could be burned when it was dry. Over time, people developed better and better methods for extracting lignite from the ground. Throughout Germany, more than 2300 square kilometers have been mined for lignite. Just imagine: That’s almost the same area as the state of Saarland has. The machines also became more and more powerful and the excavators bigger and bigger.

How energy is extracted?

With the black briquettes some still fire their stoves at home today. In the picture: a briquette factory. (Photo: dpa)

For a long time, lignite was used to make briquettes. The black blocks were thrown into the oven and used to heat the houses. But in the past 50 years, more and more houses got heating systems that work with gas, oil or other technologies. People no longer needed briquettes. Today, however, lignite continues to be mined and burned in giant power plants. The energy that is generated is converted into electricity in a complicated process. Electricity we use to turn on the lights, charge our cell phones or turn on the kettle.

Why the excitement?

Coal-fired power plants blow pollutants into the air as they generate energy. (Photo: dpa)

People regularly demonstrate against lignite mining. (Photo: dpa)

There are two reasons why people get upset. First, when lignite is burned, not only is energy released, but other toxic substances and carbon dioxide are also released. If there’s too much of it in the air, it can make it warmer on Earth. And that has many bad consequences. Critics say: Today, electricity can also be generated by wind turbines or solar plants – and that’s much better for the environment. You want electricity to be created only in this way. At the moment, however, that electricity is not enough.

And the environment?

People used to dredge for coal here. Now people can swim in this quarry pond in southern Germany. (Photo: dpa)

The second reason is that where there are gigantic dredge holes today, there was something before: old forests, fields or villages. Many forests were cut down for lignite mining and the animals that lived there were deprived of their homes. Many villages were demolished – instead, new houses were built for people in other places. The companies that mine the lignite are helping the people to do this. And they are also trying to make beautiful nature out of the old open-cast mining holes again. For example, bathing lakes like the Liblar Lake. Still, a newly planted forest is not the same as a 200-year-old forest that was home to many different animals. This is why some people protest against brown coal mining.

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