Lots of fire, but no heat? Hundreds of torch-carrying protesters object to mine shutdowns, but trade minister stands by proposal

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The government’s spin is the mines may be closing permanently, but there will be significantly more jobs locally during the shutdown period as Longyearbyen attempts to transition its economy. It doesn’t appear many locals are buying the argument.

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Hundreds of Longyearbyen residents, many wearing miner outfits, march with torches from the miner’s statue to the Radisson Polar Blu Hotel to meet with Norwegian Trade and Industry Minister Monica Mæland on Monday evening. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

A series of emotional meetings Monday by Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry Monica Mæland with local officials – along with a protest by about 250 residents carrying torches to the hotel where she is staying – made the extent of that displeasure clear.

Not only is the government proposing shutting down Svea and Lunckefjell as part of next year’s budget – operations Store Norske claims could result in about 300 jobs for perhaps a decade – but the proposal also seeks to dismantle the infrastructure at the sites, making them unavailable for alternate uses such as tourism or research.

“Dear Monica, please take all the input you’re receiving from your visit here and make sure that there is a thorough political discussion in Parliament about Store Norske, Svea, Lunckefjell and what is best for Longyearbyen,” said Malin Nilssen Alexandersen, leader of the youth political group AUF Svalbard, which initiated the protest, in a speech to Mæland when the residents with torches reached the hotel.

While a crowd of protesters carrying torches might invoke ugly images elsewhere, Monday’s demonstration in Longyearbyen was remarkably civil on all sides as Mæland stood outside the hotel in sub-zero weather to meet the residents. She exchanged pleasantries with Alexandersen and other speakers (one of whom gave his torch to her to hold while he spoke), before addressing the crowd herself and repeating many of her comments from earlier meetings.

“Longyearbyen and Svalbard are important for Norway,” she said. “We have been clear that Store Norske will continue to play an important role in Longyearbyen in the coming years.”

But while Mæland said in an interview being confronted with a crowd of torch-carrying protesters is a new experience in during her time in a minster’s job when complaints are frequent, nothing she heard during the day altered her views about the fiscal reality of Store Norske’s two major mines.

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Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry Monica Mæland, left, meets with local youth political leader Malin Nilssen Alexandersen during a torchlight protest Monday night in the parking lot of the Radisson Polar Blu Hotel. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

And while there was plenty of enthusiastic cheers and applause for the protest speakers Alexandersen said afterward she’s realistic enough to know it may not make any ultimate difference,

“It didn’t sound like it, but I’m hoping so,” she said.

Mæland, in an interview with NRK shortly after her arrival Monday, reiterated the government’s argument in the budget proposal that permanently closing Svea and Lunckefjell is more economically practical even though it means the 1.2 billion kroner in the latter will be completed written off and the shutdown process will cost hundreds of millions of kroner more,

“It’s simply about what we’re thinking about the future,” she said. “We do not think it will be a profitable investment to start up again in Svea and Lunckefjell. That will result in a lot of lost money.”

Store Norske reduced its workforce from about 400 a few years ago to less than 100 as of late last year due to suspension of operations in the mine as of Oct. 1. Mæland told the network that the shutdown will means some extra jobs for Longyearbyen for the few years the work will take, even if it’s fewer than resuming operations.

“There are still many employees here and especially during the cleanup period the actual number of employees will increase significantly over a temporary period at Svea,” she said. Store Norske supplies Svalbard with energy, and that make them an essential company both for settlements and livelihoods here in Longyearbyen.”

Much of the government’s decision was based on the fact that resuming operations would also be costly and, while coal prices have recovered enough to allow at least break-even operations, there’s no assurance those prices will hold.

A plea to amend the decision was made by the Svalbard Labor Party, which is the largest representative of the ruling coalition of the Longyearbyen Community Council.

“(We) have good reason to believe that this can be done in an economically sound manner,” the part wrote in a statement Monday. “We therefore ask that Store Norske have time to work out a new proposal for the operation of Svea and Lunckefjell.”

“Longyearbyen has a big and necessary restructuring ahead of it. Store Norske has broad expertise. Assuming that it does not happen in competition with other private and public providers, Svalbard’s Labor Party asks that Store Norske continues to work for the development of profitable jobs in Longyearbyen.”

Arnt Vegar Jensen, who is leading an effort to establish a Progress Party organization in Longyearbyen, stated in a Facebook post supporting the torchlight protest he also considers dismantling the mines a disaster.

“We are talking about up to 3,000 man-years in Svalbard,” he wrote. “The socioeconomic side of this and the importance of mining for Longyearbyen need no elaboration.”

Mæland met with Store Norske officials and the Svalbard governor’s office on Monday. She is scheduled to visit Mine 7, Store Norske’s only mine in operation, on Tuesday.

 

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