Severe water intrusion paralyzes Longyearbyen’s coal mine | Polarjournal
The company Store Norske’s mine 7 is the only Norwegian coal mine still active on Svalbard. Every year it delivers around 30,000 tonnes of coal to Longyearbyen and another 80,000 to Europe. Photo: Michael Wenger

Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, has grown up with coal. But after the collapse of the coal industry, only Gruve 7, about 15 kilometres outside Longyearbyen, was still in operation. The mine supplies the coal needed to produce electricity in the village. Now a massive water intrusion at the end of last week has completely paralyzed the mine. The damage caused by the water is more severe than previously thought. The irony is that the water shortfused the electricity generators and probably came from meltwater above the mine.

“The first thing we now want to get control of is the water that goes out of the mine.”

Per Nilssen, Head of Mine 7

When the water intrusion was noticed during a routine inspection on Sunday, July 26, 2020, a quick fix of the problem still seemed feasible. But the installed pumps, which are routinely installed, could not cope with the water quantities. Additional pumps and the construction of a dam were started to keep the masses at bay and to prevent further water intrusion. But the measures were in vain. The water shortfused the power generators on Wednesday evening and suddenly everything stopped running. “The first thing we now want to get control of is the water that goes out of the mine,” explains Per Nilssen, the head of Mine 7. “We therefore dig a canal from the mine and out towards the mountainside outside the mine, so that the water can be led out of the mine and down into a brook valley (Bolterdalen river valley). That way we get the least possible damage to buildings and equipment,” Since Sunday, many workers from Store Norske, with the help of the Governor, Pole Position, the Coast Guard and Lufttransport, have been trying to get to grips with the problem.

Inside the mine, the electricity completely failed after the water masses caused a short circuit. This means that neither light nor the pumps work. Picture: Bernt Rostad, via Flicker CC-BY 2.0

However, the plan to carry the water into the river valley via a natural drain encounters another problem. Below the mine are both a road and the sled dog depot of Basecamp Explorer, a local tour company. If the water flows uncontrollably down the slope, there is a risk that the camp will be affected. In addition, the water may already be contaminated by equipment inside the mine. “We want to direct the water out into the area where there are roads or natural streams, so that there is as little damage as possible to untouched nature,” Jan Morten Ertsaas, CEO of Store Norske, explains in a press release. “We also ensure that the water is not directed towards Basecamp, so that there is no danger to the dog farm.”

The camp of the company Bascamp Explorer is popular with tourists, as not only the dogs are waiting for their assignments here, but also an insight into the trapping experience in ancient times is given. The water from the mine above the camp now threatens dogs and infrastructure. Archive image: Michael Wenger
The situation map shows the location of the mine and the Basecamp Explorer camp. Photograph: TopoSvalbard, Norwegian Polar Institute

Where the water came from which has flooded the mine that much, is not entirely certain. But it is believed that the massive heat wave that had hit Svalbard last weekend, had caused a sharp melt of the ice above the mine and then the water penetrated through the rock into the mine. The incident does seem a bit ironic, as the temperature extreme is attributed to climate change, in which such extremes occur more frequently and the burning of coal and the resulting CO2– and soot quantities are partly blamed for the accelerated melting of the ice areas on Svalbard.

“We also do not know when we can expect to get back into operation.”

Per Nilssen, Head of Mine 7

The mine is currently not in operation due to the COVID crisis and for economic reasons. It should have resumed operations on 17 August. But that is now unlikely. “We are also working on trying to get an overview of equipment that we can expect has been destroyed and must be replaced to start operations again,” says Per Nilssen. “We also do not know when we can expect to get back into operation.” However, the energy supply for Longyearbyen is secured for at least the next five to six months, according Store Norske.

The outer areas of the mine overlook the Bolterdalen and towards Adventdalen and Longyearbyen. It is about 15 kilometres to the place, which is still dependent on coal, at least for the time being.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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