Exploring abandoned mines

KONGSBERG, Norway – What happens when a mining company closes shop? When the last load is extracted and the last miner leaves the tunnel, is that the end of everything?

The Mines and Geosciences Bureau in 2012 said that there are 31 abandoned and inactive mines in the Philippines which pose environmental risks such as erosion and flooding as well as health problems to the communities living near the mines.

Here in Kongsberg, population 27,000 and located more than an hour away by train from Oslo, the silver mine, which was discovered in 1623 and was operational until 1958, a total of 335 years, continues to draw people to its cold dark tunnels and adits.

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THE ARRIVAL Hall. Tourists take the trolley ride for 15 minutes from the entrance.

Elmer Sidro, a staff at the Norsk Bergverskmusem who has worked in Norway for more than a decade, said that even as the Kongsberg Silver Mines ceased its operation in 1958, the mines remain a source of interest for people across Scandinavia and beyond.

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THE TOURIST guide shows the green line where the path of the entire tour will take place.

This silver mine has a long history which is intertwined with the story of Norway.Industrial FairytaleIn the summer of 1623, two children Jacob and Helga brought home some black pieces of rock after playing in the field one summer day.  Jacob’s father Kristoffer Arnesson Loftstuen and Helga’s stepfather Arne Verp, recognized these as silver and smelted some of it. They tried to sell it in the neighboring town of Drammen and Skien. Arne was however accused of selling stolen silver and was forced to disclose the source to authorities.

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AT THE main shaft, the mine which reaches 1,608 meters down from the surface. This is the lift bringing workers down the shaft.

Christian IV, King of Denmark-Norway, learned about the discovery of the silver deposits and a year later visited the site and founded the town of Kongsberg. The spot where the children found the silver was called “The King’s Mine” and the first workers were summoned from Germany since the locals were mostly farmers, fishermen and traders who did not have the needed expertise in extracting mines.

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NJAL Isene, operational chief of the Kongsberg Mines

A total of 1,350 tons of silver has been extracted in the duration of its operation and at one time contributed to more than half of the GDP of Norway. Not only did it provide job opportunities for miners, it also supplemented farmers who were indirectly involved in the mining activity through downstream activities like transport, wood-chopping , charcoal-burning and food production.

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THIS used to be the processing plant of the mines

Tourism

According to Njal G. Isene, the operational and security chief, even before the mine was finally closed in 1958, there were already educational visits allowed by the government. A booklet published by Kongsberg travel association in 1889, already invited people to the King’s Mine together with a tour leader. It said that pump trolleys were used to transport visitors through Christian VII adit into the mine. In 1889, it was documented that the tour lasted for about four hours.

Njal said that every summer, the mining site opens to tourists and students. From May 8 to September 1, the trolley that leads to the tunnel begins rolling for 15 minutes, stopping at the Arrival Hall where a guide begins the one-hour tour.  Even in winter, special trips and events can be requested, and most of these are Christmas parties and weddings as the cavernous mines provide stunning aesthetics.

One of its chambers was reconstructed to accommodate 200 guests.

On a good day in summer, they can accommodate as much as 600 tourists. Walking through the adits and tunnels with a very competent tourist guide is an experience that truly transports one many centuries earlier. Centuries of dust and coal ash are plastered on the mine’s walls and the basic hammer and chisel, the wooden trolleys and the fahrkunst, a personnel lift  used by the miners since 1881, are witnesses to the passing of the years.

Morten Overeng, in charge of the Norsk Bergverksmusem, said the story of The King’s Mines is an “industrial fairytale.”

“This is the mine that built the city,” he said, and it brought other industries as well, with the skills, technology and the opportunities that the mines provided for the community. Kongsberg is known as a major technology center in Norway with companies developing high technology in defense and maritime industries.

At the museum, mining equipment and technology are displayed including some raw silver extracted from the mines. It also houses educational exhibitions: Industry history, Norwegian minerals, King and Moose: design of coins and medals for 200 years, Kongsberg Jumpers 1928-1948, and Mint exhibition.

Overeng said that the museum, with the King’s Mines, receives a grant of about 15 million Norwegian Kronnor annually from the government to subsidize the upkeep of 58 buildings.  In the summer, their staff is augmented by students on summer break, including the tourist guides.

Can we do this?

In 2014, Rep. Sharon Garin of the AAMBIS-OWA partylist, passed House Resolution No. 397, calling for an inquiry into the status of rehabilitation and restoration of the abandoned mines to productive use. Of the 31 abandoned mines mentioned, only one is being rehabilitated, the Bagacay Mines in Samar.

On the same year, the Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (COMP) proposed for a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) structure for the rehabilitation and reopening of abandoned mines in the country. The group however wants to check if other abandoned mines still have ore deposits which can be mined and the profits used for its rehabilitation.

Environment Secretary Gina Lopez is facing a tough job ahead in making the mining industry benefit the majority of the Filipino people. The Kongsberg Mines experience is worth looking into for historical and educational purposes but making it safe would entail serious work and funds.

The Mining Act of 1995 has provisions that could help the public  and private sector in re-imagining the fate of our abandoned mines.

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