isabell Isabell Zipfel

Isabell Zipfel grew up in Rome and now lives in Berlin. She primarily documents environmental and social issues. Her clients include among others: Guardian, Nationen, Aftenposten Innsikt, UNAIDS, Deutsche Welle, Arte TV, Zenith, taz-die tageszeitung, Gazeta Wyborcza, Alternatives Internationales, Der Standard, Handelsblatt, Global Journal, POZ Magazine.

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Germany's Illegal Toxic Waste Trade
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

Blooming Landscapes and Toxic Waste

For years, there have been reports from Naples and its surroundings about vegetable fields under which barrels of toxic waste are buried; highly poisonous substances that are simply burned off; and mountains of waste towering along the main roads; about Dioxin, lead, and uranium, substances that have poisoned people in Naples and its surroundings for years. The Italian Camorra took over the waste disposal industry in the region in the mid-1990s, and have been accused of making millions off of under-the-table waste disposal deals, both with local businesses, and with foreign ones.

Not only in Italy are millions earned with illegal rubbish disposal. Pohritzsch, a hamlet north of Leipzig; Naundorf, a small town in Saxony-Anhalt; and the central dump Cröber, lying right next to the Leipzig New Lakeland recreation areas, are just a few of the scenes of waste trafficking to Germany from Italy and beyond. The list could go on and on.

Enormous profits can be made with waste, profits that are sometimes higher than those in the drug trade. When the crown witness Carmine Schiavone declared at the end of 2013 that Germany was also involved in the Camorra's criminal schemes, there was much indignation. There was even talk of radioactive waste being allegedly transported from Germany to Naples and its surroundings. But the existence of similar schemes in Germany, mainly in East Germany, is hardly known. Industrial slag, chemical residues, filter dust, sludge, all these highly dangerous and carcinogenic substances have been dumped in Germany, mainly in East Germany, for years.

The supposedly Italian methods to dispose of toxic waste have already long been German methods, and a black market in waste has existed for years, above all in East Germany. Dangerous chemical products are falsely declared waste, which is simply relabelled, mixed or alternatively dumped. Illegal waste is dumped and quickly buried by the ton in old open cast mine pits and on old dumps, which are mostly not sealed. For Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office this is one of the biggest environmental scandals of the last few years.

 

Pohritzsch

The S.D.R. Biotec, now closed, was a waste treatment plant in Saxony until a local citizens' initiative filed a criminal complaint. The investigations led to charges of particularly serious environmental crimes. The company had promised to immobilise the toxic waste there, in other words to make the dangerous waste safe, but the waste treatment only happened on paper. The highly poisonous rubbish was simply mixed with sludge and other substances.

No one really knows what really happened to over a million tons of rubbish highly-contaminated with heavy metals (i.a. cadmium, lead and mercury) which the company promised to treat. Evidently a large part of this toxic waste was simply mixed, relabelled, and dumped in old garbage dumps through which rising ground water flows, because they are not sealed. These dumps often lie right next to cultivated fields, orchards and seemingly idyllic private houses. Freiheit III (a dump that was built on an old open cast mine, where the ground is very soft) and Spröda - the central dump Cröbern, built after the fall of the Berlin Wall, are but two of these dump sites.

 

Cröbern

Spröda is one of Europe’s biggest toxic waste dump sites. Lying in the soft ground of the slag heaps of a former open cast mining area near Espenhain, right next to the Leipzig, the central dump came into the sights of the Federal Criminal Police Office because it was alleged to be used for dumping in the criminal waste trade, from Italy among other sources of waste. Illegal deliveries of dangerous rubbish to Cröbern are now reported to have reached 800,000 tons. The dangerous rubbish was said to be untreated and dumped directly, or rerouted there to Freyburg-Zeuchfeld or Naundorf.

 

Naundorf

A small village of 400 souls in Saxony-Anhalt, Naundorf is home to a so-called waste treatment plant, the BMG/SVG Naundorf. Like in Pohritzsch, toxic waste coming to the plant is alleged to have been simply dumped. To this day, there no longer exists a trace of around 40,000 tons of rubbish, which are alleged to have been rerouted to Naundorf from the central dump in Cröbern. The Federal Criminal Police Office believes this is a clear case of organised crime.

In numerous other places in Germany, the very same thing is happening right now. Pohritzsch, Naundorf, and Spröda, are only a few of the scenes of waste trafficking; however, all of them are ticking time bombs. The ground and the air will remain contaminated for centuries.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villages
Brandenburg
By Isabell Zipfel
03 Jun 2014

Despite Germany’s reputation as an environmentally conscious nation, the country has been quietly ramping up its production of brown coal in recent years. As mining companies buy up land and dig vast open-pit mines, natural areas are being desecrated and inhabitants of nearby villages are being forced from their homes. Now, residents in nine villages in the eastern state of Brandenburg fear for the future of their homes, as the very land their houses are built on is being bought-up by Swedish mining company Vattenfall.

Brown coal is considered by many to be the black gold of the 21st century. After oil, coal is the world’s most important energy source, which makes mining it a highly lucrative business. Germany is the biggest brown coal producer in world, far ahead of China and the United States. In 2013, they produced over 162 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity from brown coal. Currently, Germany’s coal production is at a 25-year high and shows no sign of slowing down. Some coal industry experts are even calling the recent surge in production a “brown coal renaissance”.

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The Coalfields of Jharia
Jharkhand, India
By Isabell Zipfel
28 Apr 2014

In Jharia, in the eastern state of Jharkhand, around 600,000 people live in the middle of one of India's biggest coal mining areas. But most of them don’t benefit from it. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The soil, water and air of what used to be an area rich in woodlands have been contaminated by years of aggressive coal exploitation.

The story of Jharia is the story of how the greed for profit, vested interests and the thirst for power have prevailed, leaving one of the most mineral-rich areas in India economically backward.

Opened in 1896, the Jharia mines in Dhanbad district, around 270 km from Ranchi, have huge deposits of coal. Shortly after 1971, the coal mines were nationalized. Since then, the operator of the mines has been Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), which now controls one of the biggest coal deposits in India and the whole of Asia. Until 1973, coal mining was done underground. But since then, BCCL has shifted to opencast, which allows it to extract coal faster and at a lower cost. Although this type of exploitation is mostly illegal, in Jharia, coal is mined on people's doorsteps, even on the streets, on railway lines, in the station itself, which is no longer a station, coal is mined.

In order to be cultivated for agriculture again, mined areas should be filled with sand and water. For cost reasons, however, this never happens, which leads to the coal seams coming into contact with oxygen and catching fire. As a result, 40% of Jharia's inhabitants are living on top of small fires. The ground is subsiding and houses are collapsing. The smoke and vapors contain poison gas such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, soot, methane and arsenic. The damage to health is enormous. Lung and skin diseases, cancer and stomach disorders are only some of the illnesses which the people in Jharia have to fight.

The blazes are in fact controllable, contrary to the BCCL representatives' opinion. They could be extinguished with water, clay and sand. But nothing is done to straighten the situation. In fact, most of the fires are in the interest of BCCL. The company allows these fires to expand in order to gain more land for its mining activities. As the fires progress, more and more land is declared hazardous, and the people are forced to evacuate. More than 1,000 million tons of coal lie underneath Jharia.

Instead of doing something to put out the fires, one of the biggest resettlement plans in the world is to be carried out: Jharia Action Plan (JAP). The inhabitants of the areas on fire are supposed to be resettled in Belgaria, a new town in the middle of the jungle.

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Killing Fields: Farmer suicide epidem...
By Isabell Zipfel
02 Apr 2014

The Vidarbha region, of Maharashtra, India was once known for its high yielding cotton harvest. Today, it is know for its widows. In the last decade, more than 200,000 cotton farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra, 70% of them in Vidarbha.

The farmer suicide epidemic of Vidarbha began after farmers were pressured to begin farming with a genetically modified seed known as “BT Cotton.” This so-called “revolutionary seed”, which is manufactured by US-based agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto promised previously unheard of crop yields. However, unbeknownst to the farmers, BT Cotton required significantly different treatment and cultivation than the traditional seeds they were familiar with. The high cost of the BT Cotton and the cost of the pesticides needed to sow the seeds meant that farmers went in debt to cultivate this new product. However, the lack of understanding of BT cotton resulted in a catastrophic crop failure at seasons end. Farmers were left no profits, high debt, and no economic recourse. This drove many farmers to commit suicide out of desperation.

The entry of Monsanto in the Indian seed sector was made possible with a 1988 Seed Policy imposed by the World Bank, which forced India to open up its seed sector to global corporations like Monsanto. The impact of these global corporations on the country’s farming economy was immediate. Traditional, familiar seeds were replaced by corporate seeds, which needed fertilizers and pesticides and could not be stockpiled for later harvests. As a result, poor peasants had to buy new seeds for every planting season. This new expense increased poverty and put farmers in debt.

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Toxic Waste Trade 20
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

An inhabitant of Brehna, a small town next to Pohritzsch, has lived in the area since 1960. In the former GDR he worked in power stations like Jänschwalde, Vetschau and Lübbenau. He remembers the abominable smell in Brehna when S.D.R. Biotec operated. But he says in the former GDR, the smell from the chemical factories in Bitterfeld was much worse.

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Toxic Waste Trade 21
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

The BMG/SVG Naundorf "waste treatment plant" received over 40,000 tons of dangerous waste from the central Cröbern dump. There is to this day no trace the toxic waste said to have been re-routed there.

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Toxic Waste Trade 18
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

An archive photo belonging to a former worker at S.D.R. Biotec in Pohritzsch shows how highly poisonous rubbish was simply mixed with sludge and other substances and relabeled.

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Toxic Waste Trade 16
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
26 Nov 2014

A statue, the Monte Carlo of Leipzig as people call it, looks over New Lakeland. Right next to it, the central dump Cröbern, is one of Europe's biggest toxic waste dumps.

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Toxic Waste Trade 17
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

A watchdog stands guard at S.D.R. Biotec in Pohritzsch.

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Toxic Waste Trade 14
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

An archive photo belonging to a former worker at S.D.R. Biotec in Pohritzsch shows how highly poisonous rubbish was simply mixed with sludge and other substances and relabeled.

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Toxic Waste Trade 15
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

An 68 year-old inhabitant of Pohritzsch has always been against the plant since she came to the area in 1995. She remembers how the trucks passing through came from everywhere: from France, Italy, Switzerland, Belarus. Her cats died, and she remembers that many dogs in Pohritzsch and the small town Brehna died as well. Samples from the soil in the area contained many heavy metals - including uranium.

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Toxic Waste Trade 12
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

Delitzsch is a small town along the railroad line near Pohritzsch.

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Toxic Waste Trade 13
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

A 67 year-old inhabitant of Pohritzsch has been working for many years in Munich since he fled the GDR. After the fall of the Wall, he came back to East Germany and built a house in Pohritzsch. He is paraplegic.

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Toxic Waste Trade 10
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

The S.D.R. Biotec waste treatment plant in Pohritzsch is closed now. A local citizens' initiative filed a criminal complaint that led to charges of particularly serious environmental crimes. Until now, no verdict has been issued.

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Toxic Waste Trade 11
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

Orchards cover the land near S.D.R. Biotec in Pohritzsch. The waste treatment plant lies right next to cultivated fields, orchards and seemingly idyllic private houses.

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Toxic Waste Trade 07
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

The BMG/SVG Naundorf "waste treatment plant" received over 40,000 tons of dangerous waste from the central Cröbern dump. There is to this day no trace the toxic waste said to have been re-routed there.

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Toxic Waste Trade 08
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

A member of local citizens' initiative who has filed a criminal complaint against S.D.R. Biotec has been fighting to expose and punish of the waste trade in the region for years. A farmer since 1991, in the former GDR he worked as an electronic engineer. He now keeps up the farm belonging to his parents.

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Toxic Waste Trade 09
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

Sheep graze next to S.D.R. Biotec in Pohritzsch. The waste treatment plant lies right next to cultivated fields, orchards and seemingly idyllic private houses.

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Toxic Waste Trade 06
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

A 55 year-old former worker at S.D.R. Biotec in Pohritzsch worked there from 2002 to 2012. He now suffers from Polyneuropathy, because he had been exposed for years to heavy metals (i.a. lead and mercury). He remembers relabeling the waste and loading it up on the trucks which brought it to the dumps.

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Toxic Waste Trade 03
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

An archive photo belonging to a former worker at S.D.R. Biotec in Pohritzsch shows how highly poisonous rubbish was simply mixed with sludge and other substances and relabeled.

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Toxic Waste Trade 04
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

A sign in Pohritzsch reads, "We welcome you to Saxony.“

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Toxic Waste Trade 01
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

The BMG/SVG Naundorf "waste treatment plant" received over 40,000 tons of dangerous waste from the central Cröbern dump. There is to this day no trace the toxic waste said to have been re-routed there.

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Toxic Waste Trade 02
Friedewald, Germany
By Isabell Zipfel
25 Nov 2014

A member of local citizens' initiative who has filed a criminal complaint against S.D.R. Biotec has been fighting to expose and punish of the waste trade in the region for years. A farmer since 1991, in the former GDR he worked as an electronic engineer. He now keeps up the farm belonging to his parents.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
11 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. A former glass factory in Haidemühl, a small village which has been destroyed because of brown coal excavation. In former GDR (Communist East Germany) glass and brown coal were the largest industries. After the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the glass industry collapsed completely.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
11 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. A former glass factory in Haidemühl, a small village which has been destroyed because of brown coal excavation. In former GDR (Communist East Germany) glass and brown coal were the largest industries. After the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the glass industry collapsed completely.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
12 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. This German-made Trabant car (produced in Communist East Germany) has been abandoned in the forest next to Neu Petershain, a small village 2km from Welzow, that is also affected by the coal mines.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
11 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. When the extraction of brown coal is complete, a process of ecological renaturation begins. The old pits are filled with water and turned into lakes. However these lakes are highly acidic and further contaminated with metals, left from the mining process.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
13 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. An abandoned house in the village of Haidemühl. In 2005, Haidemühl was abandoned to make way for mining activities. Its residents were relocated to a nearby settlement called Neu Haidemühl (New Haidemühl).

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
13 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. The Jänschwalde Power Station, outside the small village of Jänschwalde, is the second-largest brown coal power-plant in Germany. Brown coal power stations like Jänschwalde require a constant flow of large quantities of coal to produce power.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
11 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. A former glass factory in Haidemühl, a small village which has been destroyed because of brown coal excavation. In former GDR (Communist East Germany) glass and brown coal were the largest industries. After the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the glass industry collapsed completely.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
13 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. This church, in the tiny village of Kerkwitz, will be bulldozed if the mining plans in the area go ahead. Swedish mining company Vattenfall has been buying up large areas of land for coal mining purposes in eastern Germany. Often, villages located on purchased land are forced to relocate, or significantly alter their ways of life when mining companies move in.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
12 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. G.W.'s house in Welzow most probably wont be demolished, but if the plans go ahead, he will be living very close to the open-pit mine. He lives near the disused airfield, which is being bulldozed to make way for the mine, but he is not sure if this will force him to move away as well. In the meantime, his daughter has hung a sign up at his house, saying “To the beach”, because in a couple of years there will be a huge mine on their doorstep.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
13 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. An open-pit brown coal mine in Welzow. The hunger for brown coal by power plants like the one in Jänschwalde, is fed by coal mines like this. Open-pit coal mining destroys the eco-system around it and renders land unusable once the coal mine is no longer operational.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
13 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. R.Z. spent her childhood in Kerkwitz, a village which is under threat of being demolished. She moved back to the place where she grew up to retire in 2007. Kerkwitz is in an area of natural conservation and everyday R.Z. goes for a long walk to take a look at the lake and the forest, both of which will probably be destroyed when the mine expands.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
13 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. A.G. built his own house in the town of Welzow, where he lives with his wife and granddaughter. The part of town in which he lives will probably be flattened by bulldozers. He has reconciled himself with the situation and says that he will probably move to west Germany, where his son lives.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villages
By Isabell Zipfel
11 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. A former glass factory in Haidemühl, a small village which has been destroyed because of brown coal excavation. In the former GDR (Communist East Germany), glass and brown coal were the largest industries. After the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the glass industry collapsed completely.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
12 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. K.M. is an inhabitant of Kerkwitz, a small village due to be destroyed in the mine expansion. He has lived there for 45 years, together with his wife and their cats, but they may soon be forced to move.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
13 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. W.M. was born and raised in Grabko, a small village near the coal field of Jänschwalde. He is very reluctant to leave his hometown, where his mother, brother, and sister also live. The Swedish power company Vattenfall is planning to expand its east German open-pit mines, meaning that Grabko will be dug away. The necessary drainage for the brown coal mine in Jänschwalde affects the ground water levels in the surrounding area enormously. The lake and the forest in the nature reserve, near Grabko, are continuously loosing dangerous amounts of ground water.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
12 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. X marks the spot. A sign used by inhabitants of the villages, which are due to be destroyed, as a symbol of protest.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villages
By Isabell Zipfel
13 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. The desolation caused by the brown coal mine in Welzow.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
12 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. This is a map showing the villages that have been destroyed because of the coal mining. Since 1924, 136 villages have disappeared and more are bound to follow. The villages of Welzow-Süd, Proschim, Atterwasch, Kerkwitz, Grabko, Rohne, Mulkwitz, Mühlrose and parts of Schleife are to be destroyed.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
12 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. A dilapidated house in Welzow.

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Germany's Black Gold Threatens Villag...
By Isabell Zipfel
11 Mar 2014

Brandenburg, Germany. Once the coal mines are no longer of use they are filled with water and turned into lakes. However, these lakes are contaminated with acidic pollution resulting from the coal mining. This sign reads: 'No entry. Danger to life. The lake is acidic, contaminated with metals, and there is a danger of falling in'.