Lessons from environmental and economic restoration efforts in the Ruhr Valley could help usher Appalachia into a new era.
Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation's Transatlantic Media Fellowships. This story was produced and published in collaboration with EHN, Southerly, and Scalawag.
"Boon and burden"<p>Birmingham was founded in 1871 when prospectors discovered all three key ingredients for steel along a ridge they dubbed Red Mountain for its rust-colored dirt, rich with iron ore. My granny was raised in Logtown, part of which was renamed Irondale and is only a couple miles from where I'm raising my family.</p><p>Before the <a href="http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1638" target="_blank">steel collapse</a> of the 1970s, industry jobs kept Birmingham's economy afloat while destroying a once lush environment where biodiversity thrived. My mom remembers returning to her car after a day's work downtown and wiping clean the soot from her windshield. </p><p>Today, the constant gray haze over the city is gone, but residents are struggling with the ongoing effects of pollution like poor air <a href="https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/2019/04/birmingham-rated-14th-worst-us-city-for-year-round-particulate-air-pollution.html" target="_blank">quality</a> and unsafe <a href="https://bhamnow.com/2019/06/23/want-to-stay-safe-from-pollution-while-swimming-in-alabamas-waters-this-summer-what-to-know-before-you-go/" target="_blank">waterways</a>, while rebounding from steel's collapse. </p><p>Revitalization that's reversed white flight and brought pockets of economic growth in Birmingham hasn't reached many of the city's working class neighborhoods, where disinvestment for decades after the Civil Rights Movement left once thriving black communities <a href="https://www.birminghamtimes.com/2019/02/city-council-adopts-urban-renewal-plan-to-fight-blight/" target="_blank">blighted</a>, without adequate <a href="https://www.al.com/news/2019/01/76-alabama-schools-on-failing-list.html" target="_blank">schools</a>, public <a href="https://wbhm.org/feature/2019/max-transit-weighs-cuts-fare-increases/" target="_blank">transit</a>, or access to <a href="https://www.wvtm13.com/article/nearly-70-of-birmingham-residents-live-in-food-deserts-mayor-s-report-says/26938870" target="_blank">nutritious</a> food. </p><p>There has been significant investment in honoring the industrial heritage in Birmingham, restoring mine sites to nature preserves and outdoor classrooms, and repurposing industrial spaces like Sloss Furnaces, a former blast furnace that is now a museum and event space. </p><p>But economic investments in <a href="https://bhamnow.com/2019/04/10/birmingham-named-as-one-of-americas-new-tech-hot-spots-by-marketwatch/" target="_blank">tech</a> start-ups, food <a href="https://www.cntraveler.com/story/the-reinvention-of-birmingham-alabama" target="_blank">tourism</a>, and green <a href="https://bhamnow.com/2019/03/02/red-rock-trail-system-revives-1925-olmsted-plan-wisdom/" target="_blank">spaces</a> haven't fixed some of the public health and environmental hazards, which activists say continue because of lax regulation by state agencies and lawmakers. Regulatory agencies "are friendly with industry" instead of serving as environmental <a href="https://www.scalawagmagazine.org/2019/09/birmingham-epa-superfund-part-2/" target="_blank">watchdogs</a>, said Michael Hansen, executive director of <a href="https://gaspgroup.org/about-us/" target="_blank">Gasp</a>, a nonprofit advocating for better air quality and environmental justice in the greater-Birmingham area.</p>
A "different nature" of capitalism<p>Beginning in the 1950s, Germany knew coal mining wouldn't be financially sustainable. A <a href="https://www.jstor.org/stable/210876?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents" target="_blank">report</a> from 1946 details how coal production dropped when the second world war ended, forecasting the demise of mining. Stefan Goch, historian and professor at Ruhr University Bochum, said slowly closing mines for more than half a century meant there weren't widespread lay-offs, but "a gradual decommissioning of mines and shrinking of the workforce."</p><p>When a mine did close, employees were offered positions at other facilities or depending on their age, offered early retirement with a pension—a practice that <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-22/merkel-cabinet-approves-45-billion-in-aid-for-coal-regions" target="_blank">continued</a> under current chancellor, Angela Merkel.</p><p>Municipalities across Ruhr tried to rebrand as hubs for arts and science. When the European Union named Essen the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/essen-named-european-capital-of-culture-for-2010/a-1966773" target="_blank">"Capital of Culture"</a> in 2010, it surprised Germans who called the efforts to shift from blue-collar to creative fields an "<a href="https://www.pri.org/stories/2010-01-22/how-industrial-ruhr-valley-became-cultural-capital" target="_blank">unlikely transition.</a>"</p><p>"A lot of critics say people around this area don't need a dancing theater or arts or some fancy start up company, but they need real jobs," said Hanna Lohmann, the press officer for the Zollverein Foundation in Essen.</p><p>Lohmann said Zollverein, the former mine turned public space, has created 1,336 jobs. Two dozen former miners, like Krantz, serve as tour guides or supervisors in the museums, and many residents from nearby working-class communities work in one of the 60 businesses and startup companies on site.</p><p>"You would find even five or 10 years ago, people would say, if you want a startup company or digitalization, you have to go to Berlin," Lohmann said. "Now, let us compete."</p><p>But "the American experience has been entirely different," said Ronald Eller, professor emeritus of history at the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky.</p>
Dr. Nadine Gerner, part of a nonprofit team overseeing the Emscher River restoration, said the river is "near natural" after deindustrialization and proper sewage management. (Credit: Katherine Webb-Hehn)<p>The regions aren't perfectly matched comparisons. Appalachia spans 13 states covering more than 200,000 square miles and is home to a diverse population of <a href="https://www.arc.gov/noindex/research/ACS-infographics2013-2017/DataSnapshot-AppalachiasPopulation.pdf" target="_blank">25 million</a> people, especially in southern Appalachia where people of color account for more than a third of the population. Ruhr is only 1,700 square miles with a population of <a href="https://www.rvr.ruhr/" target="_blank">5 million</a>. After generations of immigrants arriving to work in the mines, Ruhr is one of the most multicultural regions in Germany.</p><p>The main discrepancy, Eller said, "is the different nature of their capitalism."</p><p>The U.S. had a similar opportunity for long-term planning to slowly move away from coal after the second world war, Eller said, which would have allowed for a transition that didn't overwhelm taxpayers in addressing environmental and economic needs. "The chance for revolutionary change was lost," Eller said, because "those who control the jobs, control the political system."</p><p>In Germany, coal companies were powerful, but did not hold as much control over the system. A consolidated government plan included political leaders and companies acknowledging coal would come to an end. In 1968, a coal conglomerate, Ruhrkohle AG (RAG), was formed to oversee the continued operations and slow decommissioning of mines. In 2007, Germany <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/germany-decides-to-abandon-coal-mining/a-2730382" target="_blank">ended mining subsidies and the</a> possibility of German coal being competitive with imports.</p><p>That's a stark difference from the politicians here who "are saying that 'the coal jobs are coming back,' making a transition seemingly unnecessary," said James Van Norstrand, Director of the Center for Energy and Sustainable Development and law professor at West Virginia University.</p><p>"Instead of taking responsibility for leading that necessary energy transition, political leaders doubled down on coal," Van Norstrand said. "The result is lost opportunities...for the future economy, where large employers want renewable energy to satisfy corporate sustainability goals and low-cost energy."</p>
Prioritizing a pollution purge<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="52cc697d7f16b54f91eb12e215040deb"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/G9XmdyznTTw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Archaeologist and historian Dr. Brigitta Hübner grew up in soot-soaked Essen in the 1960s. Back then, she said pollution in Ruhr was so commonplace it was laughable to even suggest the sky might one day be blue.</p><p>"All the green here now, it's amazing," Hübner said.</p><p>The shift away from hard coal mining in Ruhr was economic, Hübner said. But as mines closed, the environmental reality hit: in order to attract new residents, tourists, and investors, and to carry out <a href="https://www.iddri.org/en/publications-and-events/blog-post/just-transitions-coal-sector-are-going-mainstream-policies-also" target="_blank">a socially just transition</a>, meaningful environmental restoration needed to take place.</p><p>The Ruhr valley was flat until mining restructured the landscape to "little hills and valleys," Hübner said. The hills are a visual reminder of the rock that's been unearthed there, not unlike mountaintop removal mining operations in Appalachia. Underneath Ruhr today, Hübner said it's all "Swiss cheese," a series of tunnels and holes. The instability causes movement similar to <a href="https://www.thelocal.de/20110909/37487" target="_blank">earthquakes</a> that can damage homes — but more troubling, Hübner said, is the accumulation of rainwater in abandoned mines. If that rainwater reaches the water table depths, it could contaminate drinking water. Taxpayers and the German government <a href="https://www.rag-stiftung.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Publikationen/RAG-Stiftung_GB2017_E.pdf" target="_blank">spend 220 million euros</a> (equivalent to $241 million) each year to support removal of water from the mines.</p>
Known as "Droppings Creek," the Emscher River in the early 20th century was heavily polluted by mining and wastewater.
The restored Emscher River is a site for recreation in 2019. (Credit: Katherine Webb-Hehn)<p>"It's called the 'eternal task,'" Hübner said. "The water will have to be pumped for eternity, which will cost every child." If there was a widespread electrical outage or if pump funding ceased, the region would <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/mining-damage-in-the-ruhr-region-costs-for-all-eternity/av-17788798" target="_blank">flood</a>.</p><p>Similar pollution and land development problems plague mountainous Appalachia, including Birmingham, which sits on karst topography, defined by soluble rock that creates underground sinkholes and caves.</p><p>Across the region, land unsteady from mining and fracking has played a role in landslides, floods, and sinkholes that have <a href="https://www.wbir.com/article/weather/flooding-landslides-and-sinkholes-heavy-rain-causes-issues-in-some-east-tenn-counties/51-34eb5498-148a-41dc-b94b-9bd97fcd81ae" target="_blank">devastated</a> communities. Wastewater treatment plants and other industrial facilities leak or spill into waterways, and some low-income, urban areas where industrial plants are sited have found toxic chemicals in their soils and water.</p><p>The largest environmental project in Ruhr began in 1990 when multiple municipalities dedicated 5.5 billion euros to a decades-long project to restore the region's Emscher River, polluted by untreated wastewater.</p><p>"Generations had passed where people didn't know the Emscher was even a river," said Dr. Nadine Gerner, a biologist who works with the nonprofit Emschergenossenschaft.</p><p>Local governments deemed the restoration a public health necessity and funded a modern, underground sewage system. Nonprofit partnerships ensured the ecological restoration would be completed with local communities in mind. Gerner said bike paths, outdoor classrooms, and parks are part of an effort to rebrand what was known by locals as "Droppings Creek."</p><p>One of the most ambitious pieces of the project involved demolishing a former steel mill and turning the site into a lake for luxury housing and recreation. People laughed at first, Gerner said, but today, <a href="https://www.ruhr-tourismus.de/en/the-ruhr-area/cities/dortmund/lake-phoenix.html" target="_blank">Lake Phoenix </a>is a site of major economic growth. Overall, from the Emscher restoration, there's been an estimated 4.6 billion euro impact on the region, with 3,700 new jobs created annually.</p>
Historian and archaeologist Brigitta Hübner said the tranistion in Ruhr was political, economic but led to environmental restoration. (Credit: Katherine Webb-Hehn)<p>But Gerner said critics worry encroaching gentrification needs to be curbed in order for the small number of long-time residents, mostly working class families, to remain.</p><p>Central to environmental success, Emscher's restoration happened alongside significant reduction in ongoing pollution as the country <a href="https://www.cleanenergywire.org/news/germanys-2025-renewables-share-goal-within-reach-think-tank" target="_blank">adopted</a> and worked toward ambitious clean energy goals. Germany is also accountable to the European Union, which monitors pollution levels and <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/eu-takes-germany-to-court-over-air-pollution/a-42351552" target="_blank">sues</a> over exceeded limits. </p><p>But there's still pollution in the region: Prosper-Haniel, the last mine in Ruhr to shutter, was near the small town of Bottrop, a quaint town an hour north of the Emscher with cobbled streets and café-lined squares. Dorothee Ladner, who works in the mayor's sustainability office, said the town recently received environmental reports indicating local soil had higher-than-safe levels of toxics—likely from a nearby coking plant that continues to operate.</p><p>In Birmingham, activist Keisha Brown has lived across from one of the coking plants in Birmingham's Superfund site all of her 40 years and has suffered chronic asthma since she was a child. When her son was 14, she said the EPA told her not to let him play outside; not to eat, drink, or chew gum in the yard, and immediately wash any soil from his clothes.</p><p>"It's a noxious smell. There's no way bringing in a foot of soil is supposed to make us safe," she said, referring to the EPA remediation that's replacing toxic topsoil with fresh dirt.</p><p>In the 13 Appalachian states, there are <a href="https://ballotpedia.org/Superfund_sites_in_the_United_States" target="_blank">406 </a>Superfund sites. While taxpayers fund the cleanup of these sites, the EPA under the Trump administration is weakening regulations for coal ash, chemicals, and air pollution, and working with industry to craft its policies. The 15 toxics <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/pha/35thAvenueSite/35th_Ave_Site_Soil_HC_Final_01-18-2017_508.pdf" target="_blank">found</a> in Birmingham's soil included arsenic, lead, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons like benzo(a)pyrene and are associated with cancer, skin lesions and developmental delays. Stories from Birmingham residents echo those in rural communities near mining operations, where multiple generations living with <a href="https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=scalawag+martin+county+water&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8" target="_blank">contaminated water</a> have skin and respiratory problems and higher rates of diseases.</p><p>"It's one thing to take a job in a factory and risk your health for the paycheck. I did," said Birmingham activist Charlie Powell."It's another thing for the community suffer and not even know it."</p><p>Cleanup efforts in the U.S., without proper oversight, fail workers, too. More than 200 workers who cleaned up the <a href="https://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/2019/02/05/kingston-coal-ash-spill-timeline-lawsuit/2767409002/" target="_blank">nation's largest coal ash spill in Tennessee</a> have fallen sick or died from exposure to toxics without proper protective gear. A decade later, their families are still trying to hold Tennessee Valley Authority <a href="https://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/crime/2019/08/20/kingston-coal-ash-spill-tva-board-disaster-workers-jacobs-engineering/2048263001/" target="_blank">accountable</a>.</p>
Emma Fuchs, 15, is a member of Fridays for Future, the youth-led climate activist group. (Credit: Katherine Webb-Hehn)<p>The 30 years dedicated to the Emscher restoration are coming to a close in a new era of environmentalism. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/20/climate/global-climate-strike.html" target="_blank">Youth</a> climate justice activists are rallying around the world and organizations like the <a href="https://www.duh.de/" target="_blank">Right to Clean Air</a> are litigating diesel bans in Germany. Last year, thousands of German <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/germany-thousands-protest-to-save-hambach-forest/a-46060826" target="_blank">activists</a> gathered successfully in the Hambach Forest to protest mining the 12,000-year-old ancient forest. </p><p>Young climate activists have pushed 2020 presidential candidates to center climate change in their platforms and launched lawsuits against the government over inaction against fossil fuel companies.</p><p>For these movements to start to make significant, lasting change, activists and experts say, there has to be political will to benefit people and the environment.</p><p>"I don't remember a moment when I thought, 'I have to save the environment.' This is our reality," said Emma Fuchs, a 15-year-old German activist with Fridays for Future, the youth climate activist group organizing school walk-outs. Fuchs said she's hopeful but realistic about the future.</p><p>"It will be a long time until we see the real change."</p><p><em>Katherine Webb-Hehn is a multi-media journalist in Birmingham, Alabama. You can find her work at <a href="http://katherinewebbhehn.com/" target="_blank">katherinewebbhehn.com</a></em><em> or follow her <a href="https://twitter.com/kawebb_?lang=en" target="_blank">@KAWebb_</a>. </em></p>