The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has added 25 places to its list of World Heritage sites. Among them are the site of the ancient inner Mongolian city Xanadu, the Indian biodiversity hotspot known as the Western Ghats, and — oh yes — some old coal mines in France.

At a glance, the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin is most notable for its enormous slag heaps, some of which cover more than 200 acres. But UNESCO said it chose the site not just for the imposing mounds of debris but also because of what it reveals about the history of industrial Europe.

The area, in Northern France along the Belgian border, was shaped by coal extraction between the 1700s and 1900s. Visitors can observe the physical infrastructure of the coal mines and transportation system, as well as the cultural artifacts showcasing the life that grew up around the mines. The homes, schools, religious buildings and health facilities reveal 19th century efforts to build model workers’ cities.

According to British newspaper The Telegraph, local officials lobbied hard to win recognition for the site, which they hope will boost tourism to the economically depressed area. The paper quotes promotional copy for the site that says, “Unesco celebrates the pyramids built by the pharaohs while some slag heaps, the fruit of miners’ labours, are just as high!”

Local leaders who talked to the paper called the site a tribute to the workers who lost their lives or health in the mines and said it’s better to raise awareness of the past than try to erase it. They also said that, over the centuries, the enormous piles of industrial waste have actually become home to a variety of natural life.

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