EiJ Photo Essay: Vielank, Germany

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Emergency shelter

"Hundreds of evacuees for days in gyms, tents or in hotels. Full of fear for homes, belongings, livestock and pets. The smell of smoke in the air. Distant noise of helicopters. Explosions in the distance. Tanks and other military vehicles drive by. Food provisions are handed out by disaster relief organisations."

“Most […] disasters, or most damages in them, are characteristic rather than accidental features of the places and societies where they occur.” (Hewitt 1983) The case highlights the dialectics of “long emergencies of slow violence” (Nixon 2011, 3) and the manifestations of spectacular disasters like wildfires. With this local disaster several “slow disasters” of more than seven decades come into view such as mining, resource extraction, “unnatural” reforestation initiatives after World War II that together with the problems of UXOs produced the disaster in 2019.

Vielank: Satellite Image

In 2019, the largest wildfire in the state of Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania led the evacuation of fives villages in Germany. The wildfire occured on a former military training. The evacuation lasted for days as exploding UXOs made fire suppression nearly impossible. Acrid smell from the blaze drifted as far as Berlin, 200 kilometres away.

A compound disaster

With the compound disaster of 2019 a “slow disaster” of more than seven decades comes into view. A small fire found a lot of conifer fuel of old trees that are a result of the reforestation initiatives after WWII. Furthermore, lots of deadwood due to an un-natural and unmanaged forest gave fuel to the fire.

At the same time firefighting on the ground, which is the norm in Germany, was simple impossible due exploding ammunition. For a variety of reasons that--to some extent--are also related to post-WWII architecture of disaster management in Germany, the country has only very small aerial fire suppression capacity with helicopters of the Federal police. Since regular fire fighters and fire suppression helicopters were forced to keep at least 1000m distance from the fire (and potential exploding devices), tanks of the armed forces were used to cut swathes as the main tactic to contain the fire. Aerial firefighting could only be used as a support measures.

After a couple of days and due to change of weather the fire was finally extinguished. However, the underlying root causes of the dissaster persist.

Industrializing the area

An important aspect of the region is that it was used for mining potash salt and rock salt. In 1882, first test drilling took place. And from 1886 to 1912 mines were operated--ending with a first industrial disaster that was followed by multiple environmental transformations in the region.

On June 24th, 1912, an inrush of water ended the mining in the area. All miners were evacuated in time but since then sinkholes pull through the landscape and still endanger both local people and first responders in times of disaster.

Militarizing the area

The origins of the 2019 disaster can be traced back to a whole series of processes that originate in the 1930ies and that are associated with national socialism, facist ideology, preparations for total war and actual warfare. In 1936, an ammunition factory was founded in Jessenitz. More than 360 bunkers and depots were installed on-site to establish the main ammunition bunker of the German Kriegsmarine, the so-called Marineartilleriezeugamt.

During WWII 2000 forced laborers from Russia, Poland, Italy, France, Netherlands, etc. were forced to produce ammunition for the national socialists and their total war that affects the area until today and will continue to do so for decades.

In the years 1945 until 1947 the Red Army detonated the bunkers inappropriately with the effect that unexploded ordnances were dispersed in the whole area.

Military training area

With such a huge amount of ammunition in the forest and in the soil the options for use of the area were limited. But additional military practice and more pollution with ammunition became possible.

Thus, until 1960, the area was used as a military training area for the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG). In 1964, a still active ammunition disposal service was established on site. From 1956 until 1990 the GDR’s National People’s Army used the military training area before in 1991 the German Armed Forces inherited the military training area and used it until 2013.

The military training area was used for tank practices, shooting and counter-insurgency practices for Afghanistan and other countries. Due to changes in the organisation and structures of the armed forces, they left the military training area in 2013 without a proper explosive ordnance disposal.

The result of more than 75 years of producing and firing of all kinds of ammunition is that parts of the military training area are highly contaminated with ammunition without any knowledge where the ammunition is and how the area could be cleared.

Only one example of many

Even though, the given case is a very specific case it may shed some light on more general aspects concerning the “repositories of vulnerabilities”. In Slow Violence, Nixon (2011) uses the example of so-called precision warfare and uranium ammunition to highlight the distant and cross-scale effects of warfare.

Germany and the same is true for many other countries shows that “less precise”, more “conventional” warfare also involves vast extents of slow violence, too.

The contamination with ammunition and other explosive devices is much more common than widely known: ammunition from WWII (and after) can be found all over Germany. It is assumed that 10% of Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania are highly contaminated with ammunition. In some German states even up to 12 % of state territories are highly contaminated with the result that hundreds of thousands of ha in Germany are contaminated with ammunition. It will take decades before all areas will be cleared and a common legal framework for all sixteen German states is still lacking.

UXOs as safety and environmental threats

Millions of unexploded ordnances (UXOs) originating form wars and military training are a hazard around the world.Accidental detonations can occur, for instance in case construction work disturbs UXOs but also without any outside influences, and result in fatalities (e. g., in 1994 in Berlin, Germany). As they degrade UXOs are also responsible for environmental contamination with chemicals such as explosives (e. g., TNT).

Despite some demining efforts, central Europe and Germany in particular is still highly contaminated with UXOs from both World War I and World War II. Especially around industrial and urban agglomerations that were bombed heavily in World War II large numbers of unexploded bombs remain in the soil as it is expected that up to 270,000 tons, i. e, 10% to 20% of all bombs dropped on Germany, were UXOs.

But not only unexploded bombs of air raids pose a threat today but also ammunition and UXOs that were discarded both on land and in the sea after the end of the World Wars. Large amounts of explosives including chemical warfare agents like sulfur mustard or phosgene can be found both in the North and Baltic Sea resulting in environmental contamination and accidents. Today up to 12 % of state territories in Germany are (still) contaminated with UXOs and ammunition.

While UXOs are a hazard themselves they can also trigger other hazards such as wildfires in case UXOs, e. g. with phosphorus, ignite themselves. But UXOs especially pose a threat when interacting with other hazards, for instance when wildfires that are increasing with climate change occur in highly combustible forests.

Reforesting for a highly-combustible forest

After WWII the German population faced severe supply shortfalls with regard to food, non-food items but also firewood. The result was widespread illegal logging of the remaining forests.

Furthermore, the allied forces demanded reparations. Part of the reparations were so-called “Reparationshiebe” (reparation chops) that lead to clear-felled areas all over Germany. In the British Sector the North German Timber Control Commission (NGTC) was in charge of the Reparationshiebe, in Soviet sector to which Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania belonged the Soviet Military Administration in Germany was responsible.

In response to the deforestation so-called “Kulturfrauen”--sometimes also called „Trümmerfrau“ of the forest--replanted millions of trees all over Germany. This work was later commemorated on the 50 Pfennig coin of the Deutsche Mark.

The reforestation had significant impacts both on the composition of the forests and age structure of the forests. Because they grow faster conifer forests were preferred with the result that conifer forest prevail in Eastern Germany and that a certain age structure is predominant. In Mecklenburg-Hither Pomerania the planting of non-native conifers was an economic driven process that started long before WWII but was intensified after WWII.

While in Western Germany some of the associated dangers of forest fires became known due to the devasting forest fire of 1975 and subsequent reforms of forest management and firefighting tactics, it seems that in the GDR these findings were much less prominent which may also be seen as a result of the German separation that followed National Socialism.

Forest fires and climate change

Projections show that climate change will intensify natural hazards in the future: scenarios predict that there will be more dry phases, more hot days and more days with heavy rainfall.

Looking at the current discourse concerning climate change, natural hazards and disasters a paradox effect becomes apparent. While it seems that climate change acknowledge the role of mankind in the production of disasters, at the same time climate change seems re-naturalize disasters, while the imperial formations, the slow violence and repositories of vulnerabilities are shadowed.

Lasting problems for safety and the environment

Behind the spectacular disaster of 2019 are a large number of people who were directly and indirectly affected by the events.

The inhabitants of five villages had to leave them for days and were very frightened for property and animals. In addition, there was health stress due to smoke on site but also to a lesser extent hundreds of kilometers away. Even though the wildfire died out after a few days, the underlying dangers continue to exist. The next wildfire is only a matter of time.

Still, no solutions exist for UXOs and the unique challenges of wildfires on munitions-laden terrain that are substantive. The problem will remain and only increase with climate change. Similar problems of forest fires on munitions-contaminated land are evident elsewhere in Germany and around the world. But even without forest fires, UXOs remains a general problem for safety and the environment.

EiJ Photo Essay: Middle Germany chemical triangle

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EiJ Case Study Framework

The Framework used to create this photo essay. Each slide covers one question.

chemical industry, power plant, contaminted site

Chemical Industry, Coal Power, Contaminated sites

1. What is the setting of this case?

The chemical triangle has been a core sector for the German chemical industry since the 1930's. Huge industrial areas are still operative at Merseburg, Schkopau and Bitterfeld. These are often powered by coal power plants. Huge landfills with toxic waste are visible in the landscape.

Contaminated ground water, pollution, accident in a mining shaft

A legacy of contamination, air pollution, and toxic waste disposal

2. What environmental threats (from worst case scenarios, pollution and climate change) are there in this setting?

Mainly before 1990, the industry has produced an enormous amount of toxic byproducts that are partly stored in some of Germany's largest landfill sites and partly just leaked into the soil and underground water bodies. In Bitterfeld, the degradation of soil and water bodies presents an immediate risk for citizens that has given rise to the term “Bitterfeld-syndrome”.

The underground water bodies below Schkopau (near Halle) contain high concentrations of mercury and aromatic hydrocarbons (highly toxic) that are known to have leaked to the nearby village of Korbetha and also have to be continuously managed. Several landfill sites were constructed with inefficient barriers and are leaking toxic substances.

Former mining shafts are flooded after water management has been suspended, ruptures in the soil can cause earthquakes (Teutschental September 11, 1996) and flow-out of toxic substances. In Halle, unknown quantities of pre-products for mustard gas remain underground at the site of the former Orgacid-Werke in Halle-Ammendorf and toxic by-products of gas production remain on the site of the fromer gasworks on the Pulverweiden-island.

The chemical plants that are still active and the coal power plants produce air pollution that affects the nearby villages and the greater area. This pollution is not adequately monitored by the state which defers responsibility to the companies, but doesn’t supervise them. The health impact was evaluated by Greenpeace to cause several dozen deaths a year, but that claim was never examined by state agencies.

The old salt-mining shafts (eg. Teutschenthal, also in the nearby village of Zielitz) are use as storage for current hazardous waste from world-wide sources. The safety of these operations is highly questionable. In Teutschenthal alone there has been an earthquake (1996/11/11), an underground explosion (2019/11/08) and a continous flow of water through an abandoned shaft that has created a new salty lake.

Buna Werke during GDR

Loosing with pride

3. What intersecting factors -- social, cultural, political, technological, ecological -- contribute to environmental health vulnerability and injustice in this setting?

The Chemical triangle lies in East Germany, a region still economically disadvantaged through its history as part of the GDR and the events after its collapse. The GDR system was completely dismantled by the Federal Republic of Germany and its uncompetitive industry was sold to western companies for very low prices by the “Treuhand” or completely torn down. This approach to unification led to very high unemployment in the east and to the pressure to take any work you can get or migrate to the economically more successful regions. The workers that were able to continue working in the often hazardous jobs in the chemical plants considered themselves lucky. The privatization process of the industry excluded heavily polluted assets that still have to be managed by the state. The companies that became the legal successor of the GDR “Kombinate” were largely exempted from taking any responsibilities for the toxic legacy that remains till today. Although the federal state has received a lump sum of 1 billion euros to take care of the contaminated sites, this proved to be insufficient to clean up the remaining toxicity. In addition, it soon became clear that some remediation efforts will continue indefinitely, mainly to prevent flooding and further contamination. There is no clear plan on how these measures will be financed by the economically weak federal state.

Still, there seems to be a certain pride among institutions and citizens in the Chemical Triangle in their profession. During the GDR, the slogan “Plaste und Elaste aus Buna” was a famous slogan for the chemical products from the Buna Werke at Schkopau, near Halle. The football Stadium in Halle recently adopted the InfraLeuna company as a sponsor and is now called “Leuna-Chemie-Stadion''. This pride in the importance of the local chemical industry might facilitate turning a blind eye on its disastrous effects on the environment by state agencies.

Corporate alliances and citizen protest

4. Who are stakeholders, what are their characteristics, and what are their perceptions of the problems?

While small citzen NGO's protest the conversion of former mining sites to toxic waste disposal sites, corporations and state agencies have formed an "Environmental alliance" to promote environmentally responsible behaviour by corporations. Goverment agencies are mainly concerned with measurements of allowed concentrations of chemicals in air and water. As long as these are not exceeded, they assure the citizens, there is not cause for alarm.

Containment efforts prevent the worst

5. What have different stakeholder groups done (or not done) in response to the problems in this case?

Remediation efforts of contaminated sites are in progress, but due to the extent of the contamination are often only containment processes rather than clean-ups.
Private companies continue to store toxic waste in former mining shafts.

State of Saxony-Anhalt has exempted buyers of chemical sites from responsibility for the remediation of contaminated sites and has transferred that responsibility to state agencies, coordinated by the LAF, Landesamt für Altlastenfreistellung (State Office for Contaminated Sites exemption).

There seems to be a lack of supervision and regulation of private companies by the state and this is publicly critized by local experts.

The Federal Republic of Germany and EU don’t provide sufficient funds for large scale clean-up projects

Picture of news report on environmental damage in eastern Germany

Local news coverage cautiously optimistic

6. How have environmental problems in this setting been reported on by media, environmental groups, companies and government agencies?

There has been constant coverage on problems of toxicity by local media, yet relatively little interest by larger, country-wide media. Coverage tends to focus on historically generated problems and implemented solutions rather than current pollution, but also covers some contemporary accidents and problems.

Dismantling of old natural gas mining infrastructure

Dismantling postindustrial ruins

7. What local actions would reduce environmental vulnerability and injustice in this setting?

In some cases (mainly around Bitterfeld), the removal of larger areas of contaminated soil and water would held to stop the influx of toxic substances. The main reason why this is not executed on a large scale is the enourmous cost of such an operation. Not funds currently exists for such an enterprise. Also, there is currently no safe storage solution for such an amount of contaminated soil and water.

The removal of dams and other infrastructure in the waterways to re-enable the water bodies to flow in their natural ways would help eco-systems to better cope with the pollution.

Government supervision of corporations and their handling of toxic waste could improve further contamintion. Yet, because of a trend in germany politics to trust corporations to take responsible actions, supervision is currently very inconsistent.

transparency international

The gentle hand of the state

8. What extra-local actions (at state, national or international levels) would reduce environmental vulnerability and injustice in this setting and similar settings?

The chemical industry would need to more tightly controlled by a stronger legal framework in Germany.

The parliament should adopt laws that legally bind companies to fund remediation efforts in the area they operate in and of the natural resources they profit from.

Additionally, the local state agencies should take a lot more measurements and closely supervise if corporations operate within this legal framework.

NGOs like Transperency International partly fill this niche and call for more transparency of government-corporate interactions (lobbyism).

map groundwater

Necessary data and research

9. What kinds of data and research would be useful in efforts to characterize and address environmental threats in this setting and similar settings?

In respect to toxic legacies and current pollution, Independent measurements of air and water quality are needed, especially of contaminated landfill sites.

A better understanding of the strategies local and federal NGOs use to hold the state and private companies accountable and how effective these strategies have been might help them to efficiently use their resources.

Better knowledge how corporations influence politicians could help to expose their strategies and to increase the likelyhood that stronger legislation to protect citizens and natural resources might be implemented.

Gini coefficient germany

A trash can for late capitalism

10.What intersecting injustices -- data, economic, epistemic, gender, health, infrastructure,  intergenerational, media, procedural, racial, reproductive -- contribute to environmental injustice in this setting?

Germany is a world leader in wealth inequality. In few other countries do the rich posess such a large part of the total wealth. By privatizing the profitable parts of Saxony-Anhalt's chemical industry while the public has to pay for remediation efforts and clean-up operations, the German federal as well as local government are deepening the gap between the rich and the poor. The intransparency of lobbyism in Germany enables powerful, yet often invisble influcence of corporations on government officials.

This is especially pronounced in East Germany, a region with a history of disadvantages which is not well represented in the federal government and thus becomes a giant trash can for toxic waste disposal from international companies.

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