By Frank Dohmen and Barbara Schmid
Ingeborg Steensma grew up with mining. It shaped her everyday life and that of her family. Her father was once a demolition expert in the Sophia-Jacoba coal mine in Hückelhoven. He had lived his entire life in the small village between Aachen and Mönchengladbach in western Germany.
"When my father died, it was clear to me that I had to help," says Steensma. She moved into her parents' house to take care of her mother and her mentally disabled sister. It wasn't until weeks after moving there that she realized what she had gotten herself into. There are centimeter-wide cracks in the basement, foundation and walls of the house. Moisture penetrates through walls and floors. Some of the windows and doors are warped and can't be opened. The front section of the building is so crooked that her mother's wheeled walker starts moving on its own if the brakes aren't pulled. Life in the house is a "daily nightmare," says Steensma, 64.
She has little doubt as to who caused the damage. For years, Eschweiler Bergwerksverein (EBV), a former subsidiary of Ruhrkohle AG (RAG), mined bituminous coal in giant seams directly underneath the house, says Peter Immekus, an independent expert on mining damage.
In addition, says Immekus, the property is within the range of a crevice several hundred meters in length, which causes ongoing subsidence in the ground beneath the foundations.
The proof of mining damage could hardly be more obvious, says Immekus. Other houses in the neighborhood have been lost in landslides or are full of cracks. Until the 1980s, the mine operator had performed repairs without much fuss. But for many years now the company's behavior has changed.
Seeing No Evil
RAG now claims that fractures and imbalances are attributable to building construction flaws and that the claims of local residents are also past the statute of limitations. The company also closes its eyes to the crevice on its property. In fact, it simply doesn't appear on the mine operator's official mining maps.
For Steensma, all of this is an "appalling injustice." She refuses to accept the notion that her father's former employer is going to look on unapologetically when she and her care-dependent mother and 61-year-old sister end up on the street one day. But she doesn't have the money for a lawsuit involving costly expert witnesses and attorneys.
There is a method to the mining company's coarse approach, say victims. The coal mining industry and Germany's largest industry giant, RAG, are gradually pulling out of the country's industrial Ruhr region, now that lawmakers are no longer willing to pay billions in subsidies for unprofitable German coal. The last mine is expected to be closed by 2018. When that happens, the last shift will come to an end in a region that has seen more than 200 years of coal mining.
But instead of departing from the Ruhr region with decency, the company is apparently doing what it can to minimize costs and expenses. "It is a withdrawal that involves increasingly questionable methods, and it comes at the cost of thousands of home and property owners," says Klaus Friedrichs, the founder of one of the first victims' rights organizations in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
The sums in question are in the triple-digit millions, and more than 35,000 damage claims are filed each year. They range from trifles like warped gazebos to road subsidence to the total collapse of houses and factories.
Game of Attrition
The company has set aside about 3.3 billion ($4.4 billion) on its balance sheet to pay for the claims. But instead of comprehensively addressing the damage caused by its activities, RAG is apparently playing a wearing game of attrition with the claimants.
Those affected by the damage report that the company systematically contests and ignores damage claims. They say that the intimidated victims are paid off with insignificant amounts and, in return, are often even required to agree not to file any further claims.
The few who reject the company's offers can apparently look forward to years of legal battles with RAG lawyers, while their homes gradually fall apart. "A perfidious system has developed in which every trick in the book is used," says Andreas Mollinga, a civil engineer from the city of Marl who specializes in mining damage.
According to victims' attorneys, RAG hasn't even shied away from illegal practices to fend off millions in claims. For example, for years the company allegedly enhanced official documents and maps and flouted regulations on how they are to be filed, so as to prevent claims from arising in the first place.
The lawyers have forwarded the documents to the state parliament in Düsseldorf, which has already addressed the accusations in several committee meetings.
No conclusions have been reached yet, but if the accusations prove to be correct, RAG could face millions more in damage claims. Indeed, the authorities could very well be looking into whether to file criminal charges against company executives.
RAG "firmly rejects the accusations." According to RAG Director Peter Fischer, "all damage related to mining" is addressed quickly and without red tape to help the victims. More than 90 percent of awards are for less than 5,000, says Fischer, while appeals and lawsuits are marginal. The cases cited by the attorneys are old, he adds, and they often involve no damage or significantly less damage than estimated. Fischer denies that there was any "systematic manipulation."
The victims' attorneys disagree. They are specifically concerned with mining maps, which are official documents that are prepared by mine surveyors at RAG and can be used as evidence in court cases. RAG is required to meticulously identify all mining sites on the maps, as well as to regularly note all mining-related and natural abnormalities on the earth's surface.
This includes crevices, shifts or areas of subsidence that occurred in the past as a result of natural conditions, such as earthquakes or tectonic plate movement.
The reason for this measure is simple: If there are mining-related or natural areas of subsidence, crevices or natural terraces, mining coal underneath these areas is associated with significantly higher risks than is already the case.
This means that mining in deeper layers "acts like a catalyst," explains expert Immekus. The earth sinks and, in some cases, entire tectonic plates are set into motion. Mining agency documents refer to these conditions as "discontinuities," and thus as serious indications for the occurrence of "especially severe mining damage."
The process is undisputed. And lawmakers have also created clear rules to address these problems. If visible damage occurs to houses or land in these mining areas, mining itself, in the form of a reversal of the burden of proof, is initially to be viewed as the cause. In other words, it is not up to homeowners to prove that a mine operator is responsible for damage. Rather, RAG must prove that it was not responsible. If it cannot do so, it is required to compensate the injured parties.
The Sommer family in the Baerl district of Duisburg also assumed that this was the case. After saving for many years, some 24 years ago the couple finally achieved their dream of owning a home: a 240-square-meter (2,580-square-foot) house, lovingly furnished and cared for, on a property with a small swimming pond.
Everything seemed perfect to the Sommers, until the first small cracks appeared 12 years ago. The couple quickly recognized the cause. The house is in an area where coal was mined until a few years ago. Mining damage resulting from tremors and subsiding soil are common.
At first, RAG offered no objections when the Sommers contacted its claims department. "Without any complaint, walls were plastered, and tiles and warped door frames were replaced," says Eveline Sommer.
But in 2007 RAG began to change its previously accommodating approach. The company now informed the couple that the damage to the house was not attributable to mining, and that the company would not pay the Sommers' claim for compensation.
"Our nightmare began that day," says Sommer. The earth continued to shift underneath their house. Heavy floor panels and footings in the basement have cracked since then, and tiles, floors and doorframes are breaking throughout the house. Even the roof has collapsed in some spots.
An Astonishing Discovery
The Sommers hired lawyers and appraisers, who made an astonishing discovery when they reviewed the mining maps: a fracture passes through the entire region. But according to the RAG maps, the discontinuity -- miraculously enough -- stops precisely at the Sommers' property line and begins again immediately on the other side of it.
This is hardly possible, geologically speaking. The discontinuity in the family's garden is visible with the naked eye, even to a layman. But not to RAG. Its mine surveyors cite "inexplicable phenomena" and doggedly refuse to revise the maps.
This has serious adverse consequences for the Sommers. "Without the revision," explains Michael Terwiesche, a victims' attorney in Düsseldorf, "the family stands a significantly poorer chance of prevailing against the company." Using expensive geological reports and surveys, the Sommers must now attempt to prove that mining is to blame for the damage. They have already had to take out a 125,000 loan.
Even legal protection insurance wouldn't have helped them. All insurance companies operating in Germany refuse to accept cases against mining companies. An arbitration board that has since been established can only become involved in cases with the active consent of the mining company. According to RAG, however, arbitration is only used in rare cases.
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