More than 30 million tons of coal were extracted over 17 years and there’s still another 10 million tons inside, but the symbolic final step of sealing it off seemingly forever occurred Wednesday as the entrance tunnel at the Svea Nord mine was padlocked during a wistful ceremony featuring speeches and song.
“Svea Nord is the mine that has produced the most coal in our entire history and represents many facets in the history of Store Norske,” said Jan Morten Ertsaas, the company’s administrative director. “Svea Nord was an industrial adventure.”
There has been mining in the settlement since 1916 and Svea Nord was open between 1999 and 2016. It was the main source of production for Store Norske when operations ceased in 2017 due to a lengthy collapse in coal prices beginning in 2014 that left the company on the verge of bankruptcy.
Large-scale layoffs occurred and the Norwegian government stepped in multiple times with assistance in the hopes of prolonging operations – or at least maintaining the facility until it was profitable to operate again – but ultimate decided to not just cease operations, but order all infrastructure removed.
That removal, which has been underway for a couple of years, will continue in full swing as about 60 buildings, the harbor, airport, lots of equipment and roads in the area still need to be removed. The current estimated total cost of the shutdown is 2.5 million kroner – far above the original estimates, which have further fueled anger among locals opposed to the shutdown who argued it didn’t make economic sense – although Store Norske is expected to release an updated estimate this month that may be somewhat lower, according to NRK.
“The hope is that as much as possible of the material will be reusable, for example in Longyearbyen,” Gudmund Løvli, supervisor of the dismantling, told the news agency.
Soil will also need to evaluated for oil and other contaminates left by years of industrial activity, and carried away if necessary, he said.
While comments by local residents on news stories and social media sites overwhelmingly expressed sadness and regret, Maren Hersleth Holsen, state secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, told NRK the shutdown operation at Svea and the nearby Lunckefjell mines will be exciting to follow, and are “definitely worth the money.”
“It is a unique project to see how to take back nature, after utilizing the natural resources that lie there,” Holsen said. “It is important for the environment and for the climate here in Svalbard.”
Mining operations at Svea began in 1917 when the Swedish company AB Spetsbergens Svenska Kolfält established a Svea mine at the innermost end of the Van Mijenfjord, according to a history by Store Norske at its website. Store Norske bought Svea in 1932 and there has been mining there at irregular intervals, although only a guard force was present during some periods. The Svea West mine was depleted and closed in 2000. In the summer of 2005, there was a fire in the Svea Nord mine. Although nobody was injured, the work of extinguishing the fire and preparing for a new startup of mining operations took more than eight months.
Lunckefjell – which briefly opened in 2014 in the hope of being Store Norske’s primary producer for several years, only to be shut down almost immediately – cost 1.2 billion kroner to build, a cost the Norwegian government is writing off entirely. The company’s only active mining is the relatively small Mine 7 near Longyearbyen, which provides coal for the town’s electrical plant and is expected to continue operating for 10 to 20 more years.