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11 September 2019

Who'd be a Miner?

Mining is a strange occupation, bred of an almost surreal optimism that believes that digging a hole will provide a route to riches.  As one who has only ever been involved in the commercialisation of the product, in one way or another, and who signally lacks the technical background and knowledge to understand the why - is it there? - and the how - do you get it out? - I’m always struck by this feeling of unreality when I am taken down and shown an underground mine. My first thought, every time, is why on earth would I choose to go down into a hole in the ground, where millions of tonnes of rock, earth, whatever, is pressing down on the little tunnels the humans scurry around in, pausing only - it sometimes seems - to set off explosions which serve to disrupt further the natural order of the rocks?

But all mines aren’t the same, even to the layman. I did once go down a coal mine, a long time ago, and it was frankly horrible. Dirty, dusty, choking; yet that was in the modern age, with lighting, twentieth-century equipment and at least halfway civilised working conditions. How it must have been at the birth of the industrial revolution that coal powered, without electricity, with no real way of testing for gas, is almost unimaginable. 

The mines we in the non-ferrous business are more familiar with, though, aren’t really like that, at least in my experience. I recall one of KGHM’s copper mines, at Lubin in Lower Silesia. It was modern and well-equipped, although people were still setting off explosive charges below the earth’s surface, to which I will never be reconciled. There was, though, something else there. The copper belt of eastern Europe sits below a layer of salt, which over the centuries has also been mined. At Lubin, it’s possible to go from the copper workings into the old salt mine. There you find some unbelievably spectacular caverns in the salt, where the crystals reflect with dazzling clarity the lights the company has installed to show off the stunning size and beauty of the space. I’m sure such caverns exist elsewhere as well; I found it absolutely breathtaking. It still wouldn’t persuade me to go underground day after day, though.

I came across the unexpected elsewhere, as well, although in this case not such a pleasant surprise. At Norilsk, in the high arctic, they have some of the most difficult mining conditions to be found, as well as some of the earth’s richest orebodies. I visited there just after the turn of the century and there had clearly been a lot of investment in new, modern mining equipment; the overall impression was a smart, efficient operation. One thing, though, caught me unawares. Chatting to one of the Russians, he mentioned that the only bit of kit remaining from the 1940s and 50s was the train from the base of the shaft to the active parts of the mine. They were still the same ones that carried the slaves of the Stalin era. Why that brought me up with a start was because I had an uncle, who disappeared at Stalingrad in 1943. No, that’s not quite right; I would have had an uncle - my mother’s elder brother - had he not disappeared in the aftermath of the Stalingrad battle. Now I know that not many Stalingrad battle prisoners ended up at Norilsk - they were mostly used as labour elsewhere - but who knows? Maybe I was sitting on the same wagons that he had. At any rate, those who had been there in the 40s and 50s were slave labour, which is what sustained the mine in its early days. Good thing Stalin managed to find enough people who dared to disagree with him to keep the whole thing moving……….. And people still contemplate voting for Marxists?

Another unexpected bit of mining - although not underground - was in the Malaysian jungle. Not deep jungle, actually quite close to Kuala Lumpur. As we drove along the road, the noise got louder and louder, although nothing was visible. A clanking, rattling, earsplitting sound. At last, turning the final corner, we reached it, hands over ears against the noise. A great lumbering tin dredge, rolling its buckets through the pool in front of it, sending them rattling back to empty into the maws of the great creature as it sucked the alluvial tin out of the swamp. Jurassic Park had nothing on that monster. The noise and vibration were horrendous - how the workers stood it day after day I cannot imagine.

Anyway, this is really just to thank the miners and mining engineers for doing something so fundamentally necessary for our society, and yet which I could never do, even though every so often something beautiful, interesting or disturbing becomes apparent.     

   


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