The last miners in Norway’s Arctic fight against the end of the coal mine
By GIOVANNA DELL’ORTO
ADVENTDALEN, Norway (AP) — Kneeling with his team as they drilled steel bolts into the low ceiling of a tunnel miles deep into an arctic mountain, Geir Strand reflected on the shock of the impending closure of his coal mine.
“It’s true that coal is polluting, but … they should have a solution before they shut us down,” Strand said inside Gruve 7, the last mine Norway operates in the remote Svalbard archipelago.
It is scheduled to be closed in two years, reducing carbon dioxide emissions in this fragile and rapidly changing environment, but also erasing the identity of a centuries-old mining community. that fills many with deep pride even when the main activities shift towards science and tourism.
“We have to figure out what we’re going to do,” Strand, a miner with 19 years of experience, told two Associated Press reporters as his headlamp illuminated the black dust and miners’ breath in the subzero tunnel. “(Mining) is significant. You know that the task you have is very precise. The goal is to get coal out and get you and all your crew out safe and healthy.”
After the main town of Longyearbyen, 16 kilometers (10 miles) away, announced it would switch its only power plant from coal to diesel this year and then to greener alternatives, mining company Store Norske decided to close its last mine. in Svalbard. The date was later postponed to 2025 due to the energy crisis precipitated by the war in Ukraine.
The bewilderment for the future is mixed with the pain for the end of an era. It permeates the underground room where the last five dozen soot-covered miners take a break during their 10-hour shifts and the elegant cafe where their retired predecessors gather on weekday mornings to exchange news.
“A long, long tradition is fading,” said foreman Bent Jakobsen. “We are the last miners. It makes me sad.”
The history of mining and its dangers are etched into the mountainside at Longyearbyen. Beneath abandoned coal derricks on a mid-January day, a trail of footprints in the snow led to a memorial, illuminated in the constant darkness of the polar winter 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 worked in mining for more than 40 years.
The half dozen other retired miners sipping their morning coffee were quick to give more examples of the sacrifice mining involved, citing the exact ages and dates the colleagues were killed.
Among the latter was Bent Jakobsen’s older brother, Geir, who was 24 when he was crushed to death inside Gruve 3 in 1991. His older brother, Frank, who also worked at the mine, rushed to the scene only to be told by the doctor. said. that he was not a survivor. Frank did most of the research for the monument, erected in 2016.
“We have a place to go and put flowers on Christmas Eve,” Frank said. “It’s not just our brother, it’s also other colleagues.”
Longyearbyen’s sole pastor, the Rev. Siv Limstrand, whose Svalbard Kirke was founded by the mining company a century ago and still plays a key role in the community, said it’s important to acknowledge the pain.
“People ask the question: ‘Was it worth nothing?’ So there’s a kind of sadness,” Limstrand said in the church cabin, a retreat built in the wide valley below where the gate lights of Gruve 7 glowed in the polar night. “It should upset us in the community.”
In nearly two decades at Gruve 7, Bent Jakobsen has risen to production manager and is now working on the cleaning processes required for closure.
His pride in the job is palpable, whether he’s driving through a 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) tunnel dug with “a lot of time, a lot of sweat, a lot of cussing,” or scraping up a $40 million chunk. a year’s worth of coal, or check out one of the steel bolts, each 4 feet (1.2 meters) long, that hold up 1,300 feet (400 meters) of mountain above the workers.
“We are a very close group at the mine, because you really trust and put your life in the hands of others every day,” he said.
Jakobsen has seen how the landscape outside the mine is also changing rapidly.. Scientists say this portion of the Arctic is warming faster than most of the rest of the world.
Since his childhood, the Svalbard native remembers the rhythmic sound of coal wagons crisscrossing the town every day except Sunday. Today, herds of reindeer dig in the snow for moss and grass alongside disused mining transports.
Jakobsen recalls when the archipelago’s fjords would regularly freeze over in winter, making it easy for polar bears to cross, whereas earlier this month it was all open sea. However, he is not convinced that closing the mine will make a significant difference.
Environmental scientists agree that Svalbard’s own emissions are minuscule: Its carbon reserves could keep the world economy running for about 8 hours, according to Kim Holmén, special adviser to the Norwegian Polar Institute and professor of environment and climate. But they reply that every pollutant counts, and the archipelago can set an example.
“We are all part of the problem and we must become part of the solution… each action has a symbolism, it is a value, period,” Holmén said.
Above all, Jakobsen and others in mining worry about alternatives, especially since Gruve 7 exports coal for Europe’s metals industry, such as building car engines in Germany, as well as powering the local power plant.
“If you’re not taking coal from us, you’re taking coal from someone else where it’s not so good — the world needs coal for its Tesla battery,” he said.
Even the components of windmills need coal, Elias Hagebø added, his face smeared with coal dust as he ate a quick lunch in the mine’s underground break room.
“If they just dump the coal, it’s stupid,” he said. At 18, he is the youngest worker and hopes to make a career in the mine like his father.
In addition, Russia has operated mines in Svalbard for 93 years under an international treaty that gave Norway sovereignty over the archipelago and allowed all signatory nations equal rights in commercial ventures.
“There are no plans to wind down this operation,” Ildar Neverov, CEO of Russian mining company Arcticugol, told the AP in an email from Barentsburg.a town about 37 miles (60 kilometers) from Longyearbyen.
Given the race by world powers, including China, for increasingly profitable natural resources in the Arcticsome in Longyearbyen worry that Norway could give up valuable rights by closing the mine.
“It will be an unusual situation if the only mining nation is the Russians. This is a very geopolitical place,” Arnstein Martin Skaare, a businessman and former Store Norske shareholder, said at a coffee hour for retired miners at the Longyearbyen cafe.
Back inside Gruve 7, crouching in a 1.3-meter-high (4.1-foot) tunnel, Jonny Sandvoll said he wanted people to understand more about coal and its uses before deciding to close the mine.
“It’s not the right way to do it,” said Sandvoll, the son of a miner with 20 years in mining. Then he turned his attention back to the huge machine beside him, clanging loudly in the glistening black seam and pulling out more coal.
Associated Press religious coverage is supported through the AP partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.
Associated Press climate and environmental coverage is supported by several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.