End of an Era: Germany Closes Its Last Black Coal Mine

The end of black coal production marks the end of an industry that started German's industrial revolution and its post-war economic recovery. The mines once dominated the surrounding Ruhr region, employing up to half a million people.

BERLIN â€” Straining to hold back tears, their once-white helmets and overalls smeared with dust, seven miners in Germany stepped out of a metal cage Friday bearing the last piece of black coal hauled up from 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) below.

The ceremony marked the end of an industry that laid the foundations for Germany's industrial revolution and its post-war economic recovery.

The men at the Prosper-Haniel mine symbolically handed the football-sized lump of coal to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier with the words "Glueck Auf." The ancient miners' greeting roughly translates as "good luck," reflecting the uncertainty of a life spent prospecting deep underground.

"A piece of German history is coming to an end here," Steinmeier told the miners. "Without it, our entire country and its development over the past 200 years would have been unthinkable."

The Prosper-Haniel mine in the western city of Bottrop and another colliery in Ibbenbueren, 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the north, were the last remnants of an industry that once dominated the region, employing half a million people at its peak in the 1950s. Together, they helped feed the Ruhr valley's hungry steel mills until imports of cheaper, foreign coal made Germany's "black gold" lose its sheen.

For decades, the mines survived only thanks to generous subsidies. But in 2007, a political decision was made to phase them out, with a promise of early retirement or retraining for their remaining workers.

According to government figures, Germany's coal mining industry received more than 40 billion euros ($46 billion) in federal funds since 1998 and is slated to get another 2.7 billion euros through 2022. Some of the money is needed to deal with mine maintenance and environmental cleanup efforts that include preventing parts of the Ruhr region from slowly sinking as myriad tunnels give way over time.

Further vast sums have been spent supporting economic redevelopment in the region, which has seen a growth in universities, research facilities and IT start-ups in recent years.

Steinmeier urged the miners and their loved ones to look to the future, but also to take pride in a culture of hospitality and openness. The Ruhr region became a melting pot with the arrival since the 19th century of successive waves of immigrants, from Poland, Italy and Turkey, in search of well-paid work down the mines.

The end of deep-shaft mining is seen as a test for the planned closure of open-cast lignite, or brown coal, mines that still operate in Germany.

Germany still generates almost two-fifths of its electricity from burning coal, a situation that scientists say can't continue if Germany wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Lignite is considered even dirtier than black coal but remains relatively cheap to extract, even in Germany.

More than 400 coal mining regions around the world will face similar pressures to shut down in the coming decades amid international efforts to curb global warming.

Some in Germany fear that other sources of energy—chiefly renewables—may not be sufficient to power an industrial nation, especially as the country also plans to shut down its nuclear plants by 2022.

A government-appointed panel is due to deliver a report in February laying out proposals for the gradual phasing out of lignite mines.

Toward the end of Friday's ceremony, miners paid their respects to colleagues who lost their lives underground. The dangers were highlighted Monday, when a 29-year-old worker was crushed to death by a metal door in the Ibbenbueren shaft.

And overnight Friday, news emerged of the deaths of 13 miners in an explosion at a colliery in the Czech Republic.