Norways last arctic miners struggle with coal mine end.webp

Norway’s last arctic miners struggle with coal mine end


January 27, 2023 GMT

ADVENTDALEN, Norway (AP) — Geir Strand knelt beside his crew as they drilled steel bolts into the low ceiling of a tunnel jutting miles deep into an arctic mountain and pondered the implications of the impending closure of their coal mine.

“It’s true that coal pollutes the environment, but… they should have a solution before they shut us down,” said Strand at Gruve 7, the last mine Norway operates in the remote Svalbard archipelago.

It is slated to shut down in two years to reduce carbon emissions in this fragile, rapidly changing environment, but also to erase the identity of a centuries-old mining community that fills many with deep pride, even as core activities shift to science and tourism.

“We have to think about what we’re going to do,” Strand, a 19-year-old mining veteran, told two Associated Press reporters while his headlamp illuminated black dust and miners’ breath in the just-below-freezing tunnel. “(Mining) makes sense. You know that your task is very precise. The goal is to get coal and yourself and your entire crew out safe and sound.”

After the main village of Longyearbyen, 16 kilometers away, announced that it would convert its only energy plant this year from coal to diesel and later to greener alternatives, mining company Store Norske decided to close its last mine in Svalbard. The date was then pushed back to 2025 because of the energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine.

Confusion about the future mixes with sadness at the end of an era. It pervades the underground space where the last five dozen soot-covered miners take a break during their 10-hour shift and the stylish cafe where their retired predecessors meet on weekday mornings to share news.

“A long, long tradition is fading,” said foreman Bent Jakobsen. “We are the last miners. That makes me sad.”

The history of mining and its dangers are carved into Longyearbyen’s mountainside. Beneath abandoned coal rigs, a trail of footprints in the snow on a mid-January day led to a memorial, floodlit in the constant darkness of the wintry polar night, listing the 124 miners who have died on the job since 1916.

“I’ve been there and families go there,” said Trond Johansen, who has been in the mining industry for more than 40 years.

The half-dozen other retired miners sipping their morning coffee were quick to provide further examples of the sacrifices that mining has entailed, citing the exact ages and dates when colleagues were killed.

Among the latest was Bent Jakobsen’s older brother Geir, who was crushed to death in Pit 3 in 1991 at the age of 24. Her eldest brother Frank, who also worked at the mine, rushed to the scene of the crime only to be informed by the doctor that it was not survivable. Frank did most of the research for the 2016 memorial.

“We have a place to put flowers on Christmas Eve,” Frank said. “Not just our brother, other colleagues too.”

Longyearbyen’s only pastor, Rev. Siv Limstrand, whose Svalbard Kirke was founded by the mining company a century ago and still plays a crucial role in the community, said it was important to recognize the pain.

“People ask, ‘Was it nothing (worth)?’ So there’s a kind of mourning,” Limstrand said inside the church’s hut, a retreat built into the broad valley below, where Gruve 7’s entrance lights shone in the polar night. “It should upset us in the community.”

In almost two decades at Gruve 7, Bent Jakobsen has risen to production manager and is now working on the clean-up processes required for the closure.

His pride in his job is palpable, whether it’s driving down a 4-mile tunnel dug with “a lot of time, a lot of sweat, a lot of swearing,” or a chunk of 40-million-year-old coal, or inspecting one of the 1.2 meter long steel bolts holding the mountain 400 meters above the workers.

“We’re a really tight-knit group at the mine because you really trust and you put your life in someone else’s hands every day,” he said.

Jakobsen has also seen how the landscape outside the mine changes rapidly. Scientists say this part of the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world.

The Svalbard native remembers from his childhood the rhythmic clink of the coal carts that drove through the town every day except Sunday. Today, herds of reindeer rummage through the snow for moss and grass next to the disused conveyor belts.

Jakobsen recalls when the archipelago’s fjords regularly froze over in winter, allowing polar bears easy passage, while earlier this month it was all open water. However, he is not convinced that closing the mine will make a significant difference.

Environmental scientists agree that Svalbard’s own emissions are tiny – its coal reserves could keep the world economy running for about 8 hours, according to Kim Holmén, special adviser at the Norwegian Polar Institute and professor of environment and climate. But they counter that every pollutant counts and the archipelago can set an example.

“We are all part of the problem and should become part of the solution… every action has a symbolism, is a value, is a point,” said Holmén.

Jakobsen and others in the mining industry are particularly worried about the alternatives, especially since Gruve 7 not only feeds the local power plant but also exports coal for the European metallurgical industry – such as car engine construction in Germany.

“If you’re not taking charcoal from us, you’re taking charcoal from someone else, where it’s not as good — the world needs to take charcoal for your Tesla battery,” he said.

Even windmill components need coal, added Elias Hagebø, his face smeared with coal dust as he grabbed a quick lunch in the mine’s underground break room.

“If they just throw coal away, that’s stupid,” he said. At 18 he is the youngest worker and hopes to have a career in the mine like his father.

Additionally, Russia has been operating mines on Spitsbergen for 93 years under an international treaty that gave Norway sovereignty on the archipelago and gave all signatory states equal rights to commercial enterprises.

“There are no plans to cut back on these operations,” Ildar Neverov, general manager of Russian mining company Arcticugol, told AP in an email from Barentsburg, a village about 37 miles (60 kilometers) from Longyearbyen.

With world powers, including China, scrambling for increasingly profitable natural resources in the Arctic, some in Longyearbyen fear Norway could give up valuable rights by closing the mine.

“It will be an unusual situation when the Russians are the only mining nation. This is a very geopolitical place,” said Arnstein Martin Skaare, a businessman and former Store Norske shareholder, at the retired miners’ coffee hour at Longyearbyen’s café.

Back at Pit 7, crouching in a four-foot-tall tunnel, Jonny Sandvoll said he wishes people would understand more about coal and its uses before they decide to close the mine.

“That’s not the way to go,” said Sandvoll, a miner’s son with 20 years of mining experience. Then he focused again on the huge machine beside him, which was noisily boring into the shiny black vein and extracting more coal.


The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.


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