Monday, July 7, 2014

Aitik Mine in Gällivare

This blog was originally posted on the Environment and Society in a Changing Arctic Blog on June 27, 2014.

by Otto Rimfors and Erica Sheeran


The industrial age hasn’t left us; rather, it, in a strange parody of nature, evolves in its own way. This
morning, we visited the Aitik mine in Gällivare, about an hour and a half outside of Kiruna. The car ride there was full of nature and Nordic-ness (which are very much in the same vein of thought, if not synonyms): trees, natural streams, and Björk, among other things. Yet, upon arriving to Aitik, the shift from natural to man-made was striking: trees became crushed gravel and grassy planes became a sleek building that required hospital-esque plastic booties over hiking boots as not to damage a painstakingly clean floor. The mine hadn’t been seen in person, but postcards and informational flyers hinted at what was to come. (And, as a bonus, there was free coffee and candy.)

Tonka truck up close. Otto for scale.
After donning rubber boots, smocks, hard-hats, and reflective gear at the initial station, the complete shift to an industrial mindset kicked in. Factories are big around small-town USA, and the feelings of getting ready to see the mining facilities felt just like preparation for touring an American factory. Our first stop was a look into the new pit, which is 3 x 3 x1 km. The gaping hole had turquoise water at the bottom, which our guide noted as being attributed to the large amounts of copper. She later explained that in the concentration of copper in the water from the mine is limited by 40 kg a year. Overall, the environment was dirty and dismal, contrasted only with the beautiful forests and sloping hills outside of the mine.

From a distance, the vehicles doing the work looked like child’s toys: big Tonka dump-trucks and little Hot-Wheels pick-up trucks. However, we got the chance to play on one of those “Tonka trucks” at the next stop (the machine repairs) and they were far from miniscule. They are massive, with just the tires dwarfing a person. The view from up on the driver’s ‘deck’ showed many blind spots and an impressive height. We learned that these vehicles are hard workers: they usually take out 40 tonnes of material per truck and can be in operation for more than 10,000 hours. As mine production has gotten bigger, the trucks have gotten bigger in an almost ridiculous parody of nature.

The reconstruction of the shanty-town.
Alias: I thought I was in a horror movie.
Finally, we stopped at the refining part of Aitik, where in another humorous parody of nature, the lawn was dwarfed by a decorative lake with plastic ducks and swans. The tailing pond beside the refining plant was about the size of Södermalm; as mine production grows, so does the pond. Inside another sleek building, we learned about the history of Aitik, starting with chalcopyrite being found at the sight in the 1930’s. As of right now, production stands at over 38 million tonnes/year; the equipment and processes continue to evolve to get the most out of the copper mined: our guide explained that they can mine 0.2% copper and have 25% copper by the end of the refining process and are efficient enough to use 92% of all copper mined. Our final stop before taking a break in a very modern lunch room was one of the refining rooms. Feeling like a Dwarf of Erebor, I watched modern machines froth and bubble up liquid metals in a large scale-refining process.

In terms of production, Aitik is scheduled to increase its production of copper by means of continuing to dig in their new pit. Aside from copper, Aitik also pulls up silver and gold. To potentially increase profits, they are looking at refining methods that would pull out gold. Additionally, they are looking for ways to lessen the copper in the water; their strategy for landscape recovery includes a good bit of water. In any case, Aitik’s people were friendly, the buildings spotless, and, like any good business, are looking for any ways to continue to up production, even if it means going bigger.

As a bridge into the afternoon, the Malmberget mine was inaccessible, but museums around it were of interest. The two visited—the Mining Museum and a reconstruction of Malmberget’s original shanty town, had conflicting stories. The Mining Museum was essentially promoting LKAB. It was a good resource; however, for a brief history of industry through a company’s point of view. The reconstructed shanty-town, on the other hand, was a narrative of what Malmberget was initially, which seemed to be a mixture of poor, hardworking, and, in this reconstruction, super creepy.

Parts of the lift that during one period
carried ore out of the Malmberget mine.
Some mines slowly devour their surroundings, trees, flowers, landscapes, even towns might disappear
bit by bit into a seemingly never ending pit. For a sudden and unaware visitor, this process might be difficult to spot. The birds sing as usual and the greenery is as green as ever.

But unexpected and often ill-tended fences, roads that end as if they pass through an invisible portal and strange signs with WARNING in capital letters could reveal an enormous hole just on the other side of the tree line. You might not be able to see it, but it is there. If you would sleep over you might feel the midnight rumbling hiccup from deep below. If you would stay for decades and be able to fly across the landscape it would be obvious. The pit is growing and not stopping for anything. Like a force of nature but of the needs or greed of humankind.

Old structures from previous mining eras act as post-apocalyptic playgrounds, standing tall and trying to resist corrosion, reaching through the grass and flowers that eventually will take over with time. They patiently wait and willingly share their memories with us who are fascinated by what was.

When looking at an active open pit mine up close, if it’s large enough, it’s difficult to understand how this landscape could ever be restored, is that even the intention? What does “restore” mean? What time perspective do we have?

We live fast, our lives are filled with technology that makes everything work faster, easier. We cannot watch old movies. They are normally to slow. We fall asleep in lectures. We get anxious when we don’t have anything to do. It’s difficult to understand the time it will take for a landscape to recover (not being restored). Nature needs time to reclaim an area. The natural succession where bare rock eventually becomes forest could take hundreds of years. Are we prepared to wait?

We try to help by planting trees, bringing in soil, spreading seeds. But maybe nature does this job better than we do. Maybe we should just make sure that none of the pollutants that were once stuck in the rock, are released into the environment.

And maybe we should get rid of the fences. Nature doesn’t like fences, and neither do visitors.

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