Science, Tech & Environment

Turning mine pits into lakes in Germany

Caitlin Carroll reports from the Lusatia in eastern Germany, where a region scarred by 17 abandoned open pit mines is being transformed into a beautiful lake district for recreational use.

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If you look at an aerial view of Lusatia, it's like Swiss cheese�. pieces of land and then gaping holes. The holes are where East Germany harvested almost all of its energy in the form of brown coal or lignite.

After the Berlin wall fell in 1989, East Germany collapsed, and most of the mines were abandoned. Mining of any kind scars the landscape.

When the mines close down, regions are often left without vegetation, wildlife, or an economic future. Many former mining communities around the world spend decades trying to rehabilitate the land.

They don't always succeed.

But more than 11-hundred square miles of abandoned coalmines in Eastern Germany are making the transformation � from a lifeless landscape to a land of lakes.

Janine Mahler is with IBA, a group that's managing the restoration of Lusatia. She said this area used to all be an open mine, one of 17 in Lusatia. But over the last two decades the landscape is changing from a mining area to a lake area with about 20 lakes.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand have all tried similar mining reclamation projects, but nothing on the scale of Lusatia. Over the past decade, German authorities have spent more than $11 billion to turn this wasteland into what they hope will be Europe's largest artificial lake district.

Brigitte Scholz is a landscape architect with IBA.

She said it was a bit daunting when the project started. �When I first came here, this pit was still active and for me it was a bit like going to the moon,� she said.

Back in the day, big machines scraped away dirt and sucked out water to expose the brown coal below the surface. Once the mining stopped, water seeped back into the pits. But that water was highly acidic � not something to swim in. So engineers diverted fresh water from nearby rivers to help dilute and fill the lakes.

Scholz said this doesn't happen overnight.

�It takes about 10, 20, 30, 50 years and in this process it is really important to have realized projects that people can use and go to them.�

These projects include monuments, forts, floating hotels and �beach� bars.

Visitors can learn about Lusatia's industrial past while climbing to the top of a massive mining machine � called the F60. At night, lights flash and recordings of sounds from the former mines drift out.

Klaus-Peter Zuhlke and his young niece are at one of the tall mining monuments that locals call �the rusty nail.� Zuhlke worked in the mines for forty years and still lives in the area.

Zuhlke said that he likes what he sees. Back when the mining industry collapsed, he had no idea what would follow in its place. Now after ten years of work, it's clear what the new Lusatia will look like. Now he shows the area proudly to his relatives from Berlin.

But not everyone shares this optimism.

Reinhardt Huettl is a geoscientist who consulted on the mine reclamation process. He notes that unemployment still hovers around 15 percent and young people continue to leave to find jobs elsewhere.

Huettl said the area is wonderful during summer, but that's about its.

�It's terrible during fall and winter. So what you have is half the year is well functioning for tourism and the rest of the year is not,� Huettl said.

This area started as a forest. Mining turned it into a dust bowl. Now locals are waiting to see what this new ecosystem will bring. The hope is that as the lakes rise�maybe their fortunes will too.