The Reporter (Vacaville)

Norway's last Arctic miners struggle with coal mine's end

- By Giovanna Dell'orto

ADVENTDALE­N, NORWAY >> Kneeling by his crew as they drilled steel bolts into the low roof of a tunnel miles-deep into an Arctic mountain, Geir Strand reflected on the impact of their coal mine's impending closure.

“It's true coal is polluting, but … they should have a solution before they close us down,” Strand said inside Gruve 7, the last mine Norway is operating in the remote Svalbard archipelag­o.

It's scheduled to be shut down in two years, cutting carbon dioxide emissions in this fragile, rapidly changing environmen­t, but also erasing the identity of a century-old mining community that fills many with deep pride even as the primary activities shift to science and tourism.

“We have to think what we're going to do,” Strand, a 19-year mining veteran, told two Associated Press journalist­s as his headlamp spotlighte­d black dust and the miners' breath in the just-below-freezing tunnel. “(Mining) is meaningful. You know the task you have is very precise. The goal is to get out coal, and get out yourself and all your crew, safe and healthy.”

After the main village of Longyearby­en, 16 kilometers (10 miles) away, announced it would switch its only energy plant from coalfired to diesel this year, and later to greener alternativ­es, mining company Store Norske decided it would close its last mine in Svalbard. The date was then postponed to 2025 because of the energy crisis precipitat­ed by the war in Ukraine.

Puzzlement over the future mingles with grief 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 stylish café where their retired predecesso­rs gather on weekday mornings to trade news.

“A long, long tradition is fading away,” said foreman Bent Jakobsen. “We're the last miners. Makes me sad.”

The history of mining and its perils are etched on the mountainsi­de in Longyearby­en. Below abandoned coal conveyor towers on a midJanuary day, a trail of footprints in the snow led to a memorial monument, floodlit in the constant darkness of winter's 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 worked in mining for more than 40 years.

The half dozen other retired miners sipping their morning coffee were quick with more examples of the sacrifice that mining entailed, citing the exact ages and dates when colleagues were killed.

Among the last was Bent Jakobsen's older brother, Geir, who was 24 when he was crushed to death inside Gruve 3 in 1991. Their eldest brother, Frank, who also worked at the mine, rushed to the scene only to be told by the doctor that it wasn't survivable. Frank did most of the research for the memorial, erected in 2016.

“We have a place to go and put flowers on Christmas Eve,” Frank said. “It's not only our brother, it's other colleagues, too.”

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

“People ask themselves the question, `Was it (worth) nothing?' So there's a kind of sorrow,” Limstrand said in the church's cabin, a retreat built in the broad valley below where Gruve 7's entrance lights shone in the polar night. “It should upset us in the community.”

In nearly two decades at Gruve 7, Bent Jakobsen rose to production manager and is now working on the clean-up processes needed for the closure.

His pride in the job is palpable, whether he's driving down a 6-kilometer (3.7 mile) tunnel dug with “a lot of time, a lot of sweat, a lot of swearing,” or scraping off a piece of 40-million-yearold coal, or checking one of the steel bolts, each 1.2 meters long (4 feet), that hold up 400 meters (1,300 feet) of mountain above the workers.

“We're a really tight-knit group in the mine, because you actually trust and lay your lives in the hands of others every day,” he said.

Jakobsen has seen how the landscape outside the mine is rapidly changing, too. Scientists say this slice of the Arctic warms up faster than most of the rest of the world.

From his childhood, the Svalbard native recalls the rhythmic clanking of the coal carts making their way across town, every day except Sunday. Today, herds of reindeer dig through the snow for moss and grass by the disused mining conveyance­s.

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