German villagers take coal fight to highest court


Frankfurt am Main (AFP)

A group of German villagers filed a complaint with the country's highest court Wednesday in a bid to save their homes from being destroyed to make way for the expansion of a giant coal mine.

The 36 plaintiffs argue that the demolition of five villages to enlarge the Garzweiler II brown coal mine in North Rhine-Westphalia state violates their constitutional rights and is at odds with the government's pledge to ditch the polluting fossil fuel.

"Everyone should know that people in Germany are still losing their homes to lignite mining, with the full approval of the government," said Barbara Oberherr, a resident of the at-risk village Keyenberg and co-founder of the campaign group "Human Rights Before Mining Rights".

The complaint at the Federal Constitutional Court is directed at a single paragraph in the government's recently agreed coal exit law.

The legislation as a whole aims to phase out coal-fired power generation in Germany by 2038 to combat climate change.

But it specifically mentions that the Garzweiler II mine in western Germany must keep operating to feed surrounding power plants until they are shut down, with the law describing the mine as "necessary for reasons of energy policy and economics".

The sentence gives the owner, energy giant RWE, the green light to expand the opencast mine and swallow five nearby villages from 2024, affecting around 1,500 people.

The plaintiffs, however, believe their fundamental rights, including the right to property, trump those of the dying coal industry.

They say a study done by the DIW economic institute has found that halting the expansion of the mine would not endanger Germany's energy supply.

They also argue that keeping the mine open for years to come goes against Germany's commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

- Protests -

Thousands of people have in recent months protested against the Garzweiler II mine, which has come to symbolise the fight against dirty coal.

Germany remains heavily reliant on coal, partly because of its 2011 decision to abandon nuclear energy, and its power plants are among the most polluting in Europe.

Environmentalists have criticised the government's plan to exit coal by 2038 for lacking ambition and urgency, pushing instead for a 2030 deadline.

Energy firm RWE declined to comment directly on the villagers' legal action when contacted by AFP.

But a spokesman said RWE was complying with the coal exit legislation, which stipulates that Garzweiler II "will continue to be needed" to fuel the remaining power stations in the surrounding area.

The government's timetable will also see RWE close the first lignite-fired power unit by the end of the year, the large Niederaussem plant near Cologne, he added.