Leisure, nature, agriculture… The slag heaps of the North are changing

At the foot of slag heap 144 in the small town of Ryolai, a small sandy beach. In contrast, a large pond, with a bird sanctuary on one side and a recreational area – sailing, canoeing and kayaking – on the other. Above, the 140-hectare black slag heap turned green. The wall lizard, the blue-winged grasshopper, and the natterjack frog are all at home here. Circles are designed for pedestrians, with a wonderful panorama of the mining basin, which runs on both sides of Nord and Pas-de-Calais.

Northern slag piles in complete transformation

“It’s not Mont Blanc, but when we’re on our mountains, it’s made by hand, it helps,” says Jill Briand, director of studies at Mining Basin Mission, an association set up by public authorities to support their transformation. In an “urban and densely populated” area, these places are “precious,” he said. But the balance remains complex between “nature conservation, re-acquisition and development of leisure…”.

Goats to preserve the ecosystem of the northern mounds

Below, on the slag heap, goats graze, those of farmer Julian Graf, a former environmental engineer, established an organic goat and cheese dairy factory there in 2014. At first glance, “It’s not an agricultural scene, but the environment is right because they are animals made for relief and dry areas” , with “plants cut as they like,” he says.

Goats also help maintain the ecosystem. The goat herder explains that “slag piles are biodiversity cultivars that protect primary animals and plants that tend to disappear if the forest is settled.”

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What is a slag heap?

The about 300 slag piles in a mining basin, most of which are public property, are piles of rock from mining operations. “Coal extracted while rocks were feeding the slag piles was commercialized,” summarizes nature guide Hélène Decarnin, from the highest double slag piles at Loos-en-Gohelle, the highest in Europe: more than 180 metres. Here, the terrain made of black schist still looks lunar, even if nature appears slowly, with yellow and sorrel poppies with schist leaves.

“We have the repossession of the sites by families, tourists, athletes… With the first confinement (due to Covid-19) and (traffic restricted to a radius of) one kilometer, people have rediscovered these mining lands,” rejoices Ms. Descarnin.

Ski slope, trail and vineyards

In some slag heaps “the logic of sanctuary, in others the logic of industrialization” takes precedence, such as the ski slope set up 129 meters above sea level in the Noeux-les-Mines region, Gilles Briand notes.

On the slag pile 94 in Noyelles-sous-Lens, which became the “slag pile track in the arena”, equipment intended for running training (stairs, arena, fitness and balance equipment) was installed.

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Thirty kilometers away, in Hailycourt, vines grow on a slag heap, which allowed the production of 800 bottles of “charbonnay” in 2021, a dry white wine, which sells for more than fifty euros. The advantages of the land: “The slope that drains the water; the almost continuous wind that sweeps away the vines and avoids diseases; and the heat, because the slag heap is still burning and emitting heat,” explains Johann Cordnier, a vineyard worker in charge of managing these lands year-round.

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“But at first people thought we were a little crazy,” he admits. With heaps of dross, “we’ve been talking about consequences, now we’re talking about legacy,” confirms Jill Briand. He continues, “Some were ‘in the logic of this heritage’s clean slate’, but ‘that is materially impossible.'” And ‘above all, what a trifle! We will become a very ordinary heritage…”.

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