Swedish town makes un­prece­dented move for iron ore mine


In a colos­sal un­prece­dented ex­per­i­ment, Swe­den’s north­ern­most town Kiruna is pre­par­ing to move its en­tire city cen­ter to make way for its ex­pand­ing iron ore mine.

Lo­cated 145 kilo­me­ters (90 miles) north of the Arc­tic Cir­cle in Swedish Lap­p­land, Kiruna was built up in the early 1900s around what has be­come the world’s largest un­der­ground iron ore mine.

Now home to 18,000 res­i­dents, Kiruna needs to move about 4 kilo­me­ters (2.5 miles) to the east as the mine’s ex­trac­tion area inches deeper and closer to the town, caus­ing cracks to shoot up un­der its foun­da­tions.

“We have al­ways lived off the mine and we al­ways will,” Bror Pu­das, 79, who lives on Gruvvae­gen, or Mine Road, says as­suredly.

But the task is mam­moth: all ma­jor build­ings, streets, the high­way and rail­road have to be re­built, as well as apart­ment build­ings and wa­ter, sewage and elec­tri­cal sys­tems.

Nes­tled high up in the wilder­ness, Kiruna is sur­rounded by pris­tine, stunning na­ture, within view of Swe­den’s high­est moun­tain Keb­nekaise. It en­joys the mid­night sun in sum­mer, and is plunged into dark­ness for six weeks in win­ter.

Its town cen­ter mixes charm­ing old wooden houses with drab and char­ac­ter­less con­crete build­ings on wide streets. Some 6,200 res­i­dents and most busi­nesses and shops have to re­lo­cate. Half of Bror Pu­das’ street will dis­ap­pear so the state-con­trolled com­pany LKAB can con­tinue to mine the 4-kilo­me­ter wide vein of iron ore be­neath the sur­face.

“The town wouldn’t col­lapse right away. But there would be de­forma- tions, ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties un­der­ground that could dis­lodge pipes and crack build­ings,” ex­plains Kiruna’s Deputy Vice Mayor Ste­fan Sy­d­berg.

At least 100 more years

LKAB in­formed Kiruna of the sit­u­a­tion in 2003, and told town of­fi­cials they ei­ther move the parts of the cen­ter that could col­lapse if the com­pany’s ex­pan­sion went ahead, or risk sti­fling Kiruna’s largest em­ployer, with 2,100 jobs.

The lo­ca­tion of “new Kiruna” was se­lected in 2009, steer­ing clear of min­ing con­ces­sions and the mi­gra­tory routes of rein­deer.

The goal is to move all of the town’s busi­nesses to the new cen­ter at the same time in 2019.

But with less than five years to go, work on the new town has yet to begin. The site is still an ev­er­green for­est, with no con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als or work­ers as far as the eye can see.

While most lo­cals sup­port the move — un­der­stand­ing the need to keep the mine in busi­ness to keep jobs — some are skep­ti­cal about how it’s go­ing to be done.

Linda Pers­son, who works at an op­ti­cian lo­cated close to the mine, is one of them. “We want to know who will be mov­ing when. But no­body has any an­swers,” she says.

The project is un­par­al­leled. Ger­many tore down vil­lages to make way for brown coal mines, while the Chilean town of Chuquica­mata was aban­doned be­cause it was too close to the world’s largest cop­per mine. But never be­fore has an en­tire town cen­ter been de­stroyed and re­built else­where. The move is es­ti­mated to cost be­tween 15 and 30 bil­lion kro­nor (US$1.8 to US$3.55 bil­lion). LKAB will pay for most of it, its busi­ness boosted by a min­eral whose qual­ity im­proves the deeper the mine goes.Min­ers are cur­rently ex­tract­ing iron ore at a depth of 1,045 me­ters (3,428 feet). Mean­while, other work­ers are tun­nel­ing and build­ing a new site at 1,365 me­ters, to be op­er­a­tional in 2017.

“We’ve test drilled down to 2,000 me­ters and the de­posits con­tinue. Be­neath that we don’t know, but we know there’s still enough for at least an­other 100 years of min­ing,” ex­plains Marit Olof­s­son, who guides vis­i­tors through the mine’s mu­seum.


1. This pic­ture taken on March 19 shows the Kiruna’s down­town due to be de­mol­ished be­cause of ground de­for­ma­tions trig­gered by iron min­ing. 2. This pic­ture taken on March 17 shows hel­mets avail­able at the Kirunavaara mine vis­i­tor cen­ter 540 me­ters un­der­ground in Kiruna. 3. This pic­ture taken on Novem­ber 5, 2013 shows a red wire on a model of Swe­den’s north­ern­most town of Kiruna that marks the area of the town that will be moved few kilo­me­ters away to save it from sink­ing into the ground due to un­der­ground cracks cre­ated by iron ore min­ing.

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