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Energy

Quest for coal forces resettlement in Germany

The excavation of lignite coal in Europe's largest reserves west of Cologne, Germany, is forcing many residents to move. The energy company RWE profits from the resettlement, but one man is fighting the inevitable.

The word "Immerath" still stands inscribed on a city sign, but nearly all of this town's residents seem to be long gone. The windows are shuttered, and doorways have been boarded up. Even the graves in the local cemetery are empty. The remains of the dead were exhumed and then buried 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) away in a town called "Immerath (neu)" (Immerath (new)).

Signs on the now abandoned buildings show that there was once a pharmacy and two bakeries here. There's something oppressive about being in this ghost town. As I look around, a delivery truck suddenly shows up out of nowhere. It's a mobile bakery, selling goods to the few residents that remain in Immerath.

"I've lost so many customers," the baker says. "And many old ones couldn't cope with the loss of their home. They died before the resettlement. That's all not good."

A cemetary in Immerath
Photo: DW/ Karin Jäger

Not even the dead were spared Immerath's relocation

Buying up entire towns

The baker's customer is also itching to leave Immerath. "The atmosphere here is intolerable. My husband is a roofer. He works on houses in Neu-Immerath. We don't even have time to finish building our own house there."

The woman points to a large gate, saying, "That's where he stores all of his materials. And we can't leave until it's used up. After all, there are constant break-ins and theft here. I don't even really want to stay for another day."

She says she does not know how many people still live in Immerath but supposes the number is around 50 to 100. Before resettlement began in 2006, 1,200 people called the town home.

They have to leave by 2014 because the village will be razed. The buildings are blocking the way to valuable lignite coal - often called brown coal - deposits underground. The energy company RWE Power makes such a profit from lignite that it can buy up entire blocks of land, including homes and businesses, to carry out its operations. As a result, more than 30,000 people residing in 80 places will have found a new place to live by the year 2045. But will it be home?

Immerath resident Stephan Pütz
Photo: DW/ Karin Jäger

Stephan Pütz is challenging the legality of the resettlement arrangement

Perfectly legal?

Uprooting people brings a number of problems with it. The residents complained that they were instructed by municipal officials to get in touch with RWE. "Why didn't RWE come to us directly?" wonders Immerath resident Stephan Pütz, adding, "After all, no one wanted to give up his home voluntarily."

Pütz also criticized the energy company for failing to provide completed new homes for residents, instead leaving them to organize the building themselves. It's a process that takes years. One question that emerges is whether the state has the right to affect the life planning of individuals over such a long period of time. Pütz does not believe so, and together with the German environmental organization BUND, he has brought a case with the Federal Constitutional Court. But a lower court, the Higher Administrative Court (OVG) in Münster, ruled in 2007 that forced resettlement can be consistent with the public's interest and that, as such, citizens' property can be taken away.

Stephan Pütz sees a component of violence in the resettlement policy, but most of his fellow residents have resigned themselves to their fate. Nothing can be done, many local residents and politicians say with a shrug.

An image shot in Neu-Immerath shows the spacious layout of the town
Photo: DW/ Karin Jäger

Neu-Immerath is more spacious but lacks some of its predecessor's character

Secretive negotiations

The new community has a spacious layout. Houses are not built right next to one another. But what's lacking is a city center, and there's none of the charm of a village that had grown together over centuries, as in the case of Immerath. The former town's imposing neoclassical church with its double steeple will no longer be part of the community. In fact, there will be no church at all, but simply a meeting place instead.

Stephan Pütz says just half of Immerath's residents will resettle in Neu-Immerath. Those who moved elsewhere felt their prospects would have been limited, or they wanted to buy an existing home with the money they received from RWE. The compensation sums are a topic of utmost secrecy, and RWE negotiates personally with each property seller in Immerath. There's a tendency among residents to want to demonstrate that they handled the resettlement well, and some are taking out loans to supplement the compensation they received from RWE. Immerath's landowners receive new land, but it's often not said that the land is located in eastern Germany because there's nothing available locally.

No one will be left homeless by the process. But Stephan Pütz believes that the psychological strain is enormous and draws support from a report by city planner Peter Zlonicky about the social consequences of resettlement. If Germany's supreme court rules against Pütz in his case, which hears oral arguments on June 4, 2013, then he, too, will have to find a new home. "You just have to look ahead and find inner peace," he says.

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