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Leaving coal mining behind

A wind turbine stands behind a mound of coal outside a factory in Buettel, Germany.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: The same problem that's brought General Motors and the American auto industry low -- cheaper imports and falling domestic sales -- is playing out in Germany's Ruhr Valley.

Coal mines and steel factories there drove Germany's recovery from World War II. But Kyle James reports modern economic realities are changing a way of life.


KYLE JAMES: Benno Henschen has never had a tan. That's because the 49-year-old has spent every working day since he was 14 underground, operating the machines that look for hard coal thousands of feet below the surface.

It's grueling work, and when Henschen comes up from the pit he's exhausted and covered in black coal dust. But that doesn't matter -- Henschen, whose father and grandfather also worked the mines, is doing the work he says he was meant to do.

BENNO HENSCHEN: I've always wanted being a miner, and I still love my job. But I'm worred about the future -- I'm not sure where I'm going to go.

Neither are many of the other 35,000 hard-coal miners in Germany. Mines have been closing for years, and remaining ones have only been able to operate thanks to $3.5 billion a year in subsidies. Now Berlin has said: enough, and is phasing out the support.

When the subsidies end in 2018, hard-coal mining in Germany will cease. When coal can be imported from Australia or the U.S. much more cheaply, why bother mining it at home? That's according to Oliver Wittke, the transportation minister of Germany's main coal-mining state.

OLIVER WITTKE: There's no reason to use public money to subsidize hard-coal mining. On the global market, a ton of hard coal can be had for about 50 euros, but a ton here costs 180. Domestic hard coal is simply not competitive.

It might make economic sense to say "auf wiedersehen" to coal. For many, though, the emotional bonds to the black stuff are not so easy to put aside. Mining looms large in the German consciousness. Soccer fans in the Ruhr valley sing about mining at every home game. Miners have their own vocabulary, traditions and a comraderie you probably won't find at your basic grouping of cubicles. Again, miner Benno Henschen:

HENSCHEN: The conditions down there mean we have to respect each other and be able to depend on one another. Now that solidarity is being pulled apart along with mining families. That's a real shame.

But those in favor of ending the subsidies say the miners have nothing to complain about. The German government doesn't want to throw the place into economic chaos. It's pledged to avoid layoffs, and is providing billions to send miners into early retirement or train them for jobs aboveground. Christof Beike is a spokesman for DSK, which owns the country's remaining eight mines.

CHRISTOF BEIKE: We have employees who look for new jobs for them. We help them with special education for a new job -- perhaps we give a little start help when they go into a new job. So, I think we do a lot of things for our miners.

Meanwhile, the whole Ruhr region is slowly reinventing itself. It has to -- the decline of the coal and steel industries ravaged the region's economy. Just a few years ago, unemployment was at 20 percent. Now, instead of the rumble of coal conveyor belts, you're more likely to hear the low hum of computers or works from sound artists.

Huge abandoned industrial sites are being transformed into art galleries, theaters or high-tech research centers. And new jobs are being created. Coal, it's the past -- shipping, chemicals and health services are the future.

It all looks good on the balance sheet, and in the boardroom. But for many, it does little to move the soul, as the image of the soot-covered man in a hard hat has in this country for so long.

In Germany's Ruhr region, I'm Kyle James for Marketplace.

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