Photo by David Ghione
When it comes to the new international airport (BER) set to open in June, the Berlin government is putting commercial interests above those of its citizenry, routing planes through the heavily populated, bucolic suburb of Müggelsee. But a fired-up group of lake-dwelling retirees turned activists is fighting back.
A single police van is parked on Bölschestraße, the central street of Friedrichshagen at the southeast border of Berlin. There’s no obvious threat coming from the couple of hundred demonstrators gathered in front of the church.
The average age of the demonstrators lies somewhere far beyond the thirties. Some lean on canes. They whistle, they clap, and every time one of the speakers on the load bed of the transporter in front mentions the name of a politician they shout, “Pack of Liars! Pack of Liars!”
“We citizens have been lied to. We have been betrayed and deceived,” says Hans Behrbohm. He stands next to the stage, a tall 56-year-old man with thick glasses. He has just finished his shift at Park Klinik Weißensee, where he’s the chief of the ear, nose and throat department. And since he opened his daily paper one beautiful morning last July, Behrbohm is also a protester for civil rights.
It was back then that out of the blue the Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS) announced that planes using the newly built BER international airport, one of the most ambitious and prestigious infrastructural projects in Berlin’s history, are going to fly over Müggelsee, the biggest urban lake in Europe. When the wind blows from the east (that’s the case on approximately 100 days per year), an average of 122 planes will fly over the lake on a single day, at a height of 1150m.
“It felt like a punch in the face,” Behrbohm says. He and his wife have a house on Müggelsee. Behrbohm was born in Friedrichshagen, and he spent his childhood sailing on the lake. The day after the announcement Behrbohm and a couple hundred other Friedrichshageners gathered at the town centre for the first time.
And Behrbohm, also a specialist on environmental medicine, grabbed the mic and spoke about the dangers posed to human health by aircraft noise that can be as loud as a truck passing right through your garden.
Behrbohm has spoken more than 20 times since then, about fine particulate air pollution and how toxic de-icing chemicals from planes might end up in the bottom of the lake, an important reservoir for Berlin’s drinking water. Or about how Berlin’s climate is currently balanced by cool, fresh air that flows from Müggelsee into the city on hot summer nights, air that will soon carry thousands of tons of kerosene.
The citizens’ group, founded immediately after the announcement of the Müggelsee route, did extensive research. It is an unusual assembly, its members mostly well-off citizens of Friedrichshagen: lawyers, artists like successful film director Leander Haußmann, and doctors like Behrbohm.
If you listen to Behrbohm speak, you soon realise that the issues of the initiative are more than just complaints by residents who are soon going to live in the air corridor of a new airport. Such complaints might be understandable, but the planes have to go somewhere.
What makes this protest different is that even official reports, such as one by the Umweltbundesamt (UBA), have always listed the Müggelsee route as one of the least preferable, due to the high number of citizens affected by aircraft noise.
Behrbohm says that the routes across Müggelsee have been planned solely for reasons of economic interest. Indeed it was Air Berlin, Germany’s second biggest airline, that suggested the route to the DFS at the beginning of 2011 in front of the Fluglärmkommission (Flight Noise Commission) and made it part of the airport planning process.
Air Berlin’s CEO Hartmut Mehdorn is one of the most influential people in Germany’s financial sector, having been CEO of Deutsche Bahn for 10 years until 2009. For Behrbohm and his fellow activists it is very obvious: Air Berlin is more important to mayor Klaus Wowereit than the health of Berlin’s citizens.
When the initiative wrote to the Bundesverkehrsamt (Department of Transportation), asking why planes couldn’t turn southward after takeoff to less populated Brandenburg, the answer further highlighted the government’s priorities: such re-routing would constrain the capacity of the airport, allowing fewer planes to start and land, and therefore would not be an option.
And the situation seems to be getting worse and worse. The newest publications of the DFS state that many planes will fly directly over the city, over Kreuzberg, Mitte and Friedrichshain, directly affecting some 1.1 million Berliners. “What’s to come?” Behrbohm asks. “Is it necessary to remind them of 9/11?”
In an official report dating from January 2012, the UBA emphasised again how problematic the Müggelsee route is: “The late disclosure of this route showed substantial changes to the original plan. People who assumed not to be affected by BER now find that they actually are. Müggelsee is an important recreational area that will be disturbed tremendously by aircraft noise,” it says, coming then to the conclusion: “We think other routes are possible.” They support an alternative recently suggested to the Fluglärmkommission by the senate’s environmental department.
Behrbohm has somewhat lost hope that anything will change any time soon. “What we’ve learned is, facts don’t count,” he says bitterly. “The incompetence of politicians, that is what makes me angry. This is not a bus stop!”
The couple of hundred people in front of the church are the hard core of the protest. BER is going to open on June 3. For the members of the initiative this doesn’t mean it’s over. They are going to continue protesting every Monday in Friedrichshagen, voicing their anger about the deceit.