Photo Gallery Fighting Mining Muck in the Spree River

Eastern Germany's Spree River is known for being picturesque, but now tons of iron ochre flushed up from brown-coal pit mines are turning the river brown, killing plants and animals, and threatening to drive the tourists away.
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Roland Scherz navigates a stream in Ragow, Brandenburg: The Spree River and its tributatries have been turned brown by a chemical compound known as iron (III) oxide-hydroxide, or iron ochre. The fact that it is present in such large quantities here in the rivers and streams of southeast Brandenburg can primarily be attributed to mining.

Foto: Patrick Pleul/ dpa
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An open-pit mine owned by the Swedish energy giant Vattenfall in the region: For decades, brown coal has been mined from open pits in the surrounding Lausitz region, both in Brandenburg and Saxony, its neighboring state to the south. The company's mine fields in the Lausitz region still contain some 1.3 billion metric tons of coal. Extracting it could create mining jobs, but also threaten others in the tourist industry.

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Part of the Spree River between Spremberg and Weisskeissel (August 2009): The problem has been of interest to a few scientists and environmentalists for some time now, and the dead zones in the headwaters of the tributaries continue to grow in size. Now that the brown mess has reached the edge of the Spreewald, politicians have suddenly jumped on board.

Foto: dapd
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Isabell Hiekel, a freshwater ecologist, takes water samples from a mill canal in Vetschau: Hiekel works with the activist group Saubere Spree, or Clean Spree, fighting what has become a lethal danger to the rivers around the eastern German state of Brandenburg, just a short distance from Berlin. A fine brown sludge is filling them up, killing the wildlife, from dragonflies to fish and worms.

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Now, emergency measures are to be implemented in hopes of saving the Spreewald, a popular tourist attraction and a UNESCO biosphere reserve that features a network of small channels meandering through the forested landscape.

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The idyllic setting attracts some 1.6 million overnight guests each year, not to mention countless day-trippers who enjoy the lazy rowboat trips and pickles the region is famous for. "We earn our money with an environment that's intact," says Jana Eitner, shown heer, who works for tour operator Spreescouts in the small town of Burg.

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A dock in the small town of Burg: The brown slime could endanger many of the 7,700 tourism jobs in the area.

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To prevent the massive open-pit mines in the region from flooding, the underground water level was lowered in large areas. Doing so exposed ferrous compounds to the air, leaving them to rust. When the open-cast mines were shut down, the water level climbed back up. And atypically large amounts of rain in recent years have now flushed out large quantities of iron ochre.

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A sign says "Brown Wudritz." The sign is a somewhat humorous way of pointing out a serious matter. The tributary of the Spree River is brown owning to all the iron ochre in the water.

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A walking excavator dredges up mud from the bottom of the Wudritz and dumps it out on both banks. Then it moves forward a few meters and repeats the process. This is one of many measures currently being undertaken to get iron ochre out of the waters.

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Ochre-colored sludge on the banks of the Wudritz: The emergency measures currently being undertaken do nothing to combat the source of the iron ochre and, instead, only somewhat slow down its path to the Spree.

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Plans call for the water of Vetschau's extremely polluted mill channel to start flowing back through a cleaning facility in the near future. The process is slow, however, because the iron ochre in the water has to be allowed to settle at the bottle of three basins, where it can then be collected.

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