Moving mountains for cleanup

SUN JOURNAL

Germany: The government is spending $7 billion to reclaim a huge former spa area in the east devastated by decades of uranium mining.

March 19, 2002|By Carol J. Williams | Carol J. Williams,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

RONNEBURG, Germany - Eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year except Christmas, a deafening concert of grinding gears and groaning engines serenades neighbors of Germany's most daunting post-Communist cleanup.

The $7 billion project is aimed at reclaiming the rural landscape across an 80-mile swath of Thuringia and Saxony states from the wreckage of Wismut, a Soviet-run mining colossus that made East Germany the world's third-largest uranium producer and a vital supplier for Moscow during the arms race.

When the Communist world began to come apart a dozen years ago, the Eastern Bloc market for uranium fell with it. No longer able to sell its product, Wismut was transformed from the biggest employer in the region into a slow-motion disappearing act. It was given the task by the German government with taking itself out of business and restoring the environment to its bucolic, pre-Cold War condition.

Easier said than done. The effort, which has run for 11 years and is expected to take at least 10 more years, involves moving mountains.

Four conical piles of radioactive tailings, too symmetrical and jarring on the flat terrain to be mistaken for natural peaks, tower over Ronneburg and its 6,000 residents. The man-made hills, discarded residue from more than four decades of hell-bent excavation, testify to the feverish quest that consumed this region during the Communist era to help build atomic weapons.

The slag heaps came out of the most striking environmental affliction left by Wismut, the open-pit mine, which is the largest gouged into Europe, said its creators. In a reversal of the life's work of the company, reclamation specialists are moving the voluminous tailings, putting all 58 million cubic yards back where they belong, one truckload at a time. Once the relocation is finished, in 2007, the mine - which yawns more than 2 miles in diameter - will be capped with clay and a layer of soil to return the landscape to grass and forests.

Ronneburg is just one of dozens of towns and villages in Thuringia and in Saxony blighted by Wismut, which at its post-World War II peak enslaved 130,000 Germans in a war-reparations program founded and run by the Soviet military. After Wismut's restructuring in 1954 into a joint Soviet-East German company with wage-earning employees, the highly secret operations ran roughshod over the surrounding environment for nearly four decades more, poisoning ground water, piling up radioactive waste, and perforating the land with 875 miles of shafts and tunnels.

Some of Wismut's properties are so honeycombed with subterranean passages that entire neighborhoods have been swallowed by cave-ins. Other sites have been inundated by avalanches from the ubiquitous tailings.

"What I still find astounding is how all this activity went on right in the middle of populated areas," Peter Wagner, in charge of the slag-relocation project, said as he surveyed the cleanup in Bad Schlema, a once and future spa town in Saxony.

From a natural promontory in the foothills of the Ore Mountains overlooking Bad Schlema, Wagner pointed out the former site of a luxury hotel renowned in the 1930s for providing radium bath treatments to those suffering from rheumatism. The sprawling hotel was razed in the 1960s after mining came too close and damaged its foundation.

A fleet of earthmoving equipment second only to that at Ronneburg is at work grading Bad Schlema's artificial ridges into smoother terrain, which will be laced with hiking paths and other recreational facilities, including fairgrounds and a golf course for the spa guests returning to the town for "cures."

Even below the surface, Wismut is at work undoing its past. More than 200 veteran miners are filling in passages that threaten to cause cave-ins. Measurements throughout the Wismut sites have established that about 15 percent of the company's territory is contaminated with radiation and needs cleanup, said Wismut's information officer, Werner Runge.

Dilapidated housing blocks thrown up to shelter thousands of workers remind visitors that these ghost towns were once thriving industrial hubs. Constructed of cheap, prefabricated panels and never well maintained, most of the buildings are slated for demolition.

One of the idle ore-processing sites has been transformed into an industrial park, with a furniture maker and a trucking company taking advantage of the property abutting the main Frankfurt-Dresden highway. But most of the sites are monuments to the region's economic depression: abandoned buildings, empty parking lots, and weeds sprouting through the approach roads and sidewalks.

As is the case in much of the region that was dependent on Wismut, the populations of Ronneburg and Bad Schlema have been halved as workers have moved in search of jobs.

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