Sweden to Shift Iron Ore Town

Sweden to Shift Iron Ore Town

Moving house is a complicated ordeal that can take thousands of dollars and many weeks to organise. Try moving half a town.

The Arctic town of Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost municipality, is under threat as cracks caused by decades of iron ore mining slowly erode its foundations.

So two years ago the municipal council decided to move more than half of the town from the shadow of Kiirunavaara mountain, site of the world’s largest underground mine.

This month it chose the new site for Kiruna’s centre, at the base of Luossavaara mountain, about 4 km (2.5 miles) away.

The town’s deputy mayor puts the cost of moving the buildings at about 30 billion Swedish crowns ($4.28 billion), not including rerouting the railway and roads.

The council also hopes to win government approval for a 2-billion-crown tunnel to keep the railway from dividing the new town.

LKAB, the state-run firm that owns the mine, said the move was essential if it was to access the estimated 800 million tonnes of crude ore still in the ground.

“If a decision would have been made not to move the town, that would also have been a decision to close the mine,” said Goran Olovsson, who oversees mining legal issues at LKAB Kiruna.

Since it was founded more than a century ago, Kiruna’s fate has been bound to Kiirunavaara, the ore-rich peak that looms above it, strung with white lights like a vast cruise ship.

Underground blasting in the early morning, the safest time as few workers are around, can rattle dishes in Kiruna’s houses.

The mine has until recently been the town’s largest employer. Because of this, its residents have greeted the idea of moving with little more than a shrug.

“The people in Kiruna have known since 100 years ago they were living on iron ore,” said Vice Mayor Hans Swedell. “They knew that sometime they would have to move.”


Olovsson said surging iron ore demand from new industrial powerhouses such as China had not played into the decision to shift Kiruna, which is cloaked in polar dark for much of December and where temperatures can hit minus 40 Celsius.

“The prices on the world market have not influenced the production rate,” Olovsson said. Kiruna produces pelletised iron ore, and pellet prices are at an all-time high; although the company says it has not estimated what the total potential value of the ore reserves will be.

Now comes the hard part.

Some buildings will be torn down and rebuilt, others — including an historic wooden church once voted Sweden’s most beautiful building — will be taken down piece by piece and reassembled in their new locale.

The move will happen gradually over 40 to 50 years and poses many challenges, its planners say.

Thomas Nylund, the municipality’s head architect, wants much more extensive investigation of the chosen site before the council’s decision can be deemed correct.

“It’s a political decision and it doesn’t take … notice of the many difficulties that we may face because it’s not even certain that it’s possible to build on some parts of the ground,” he said.

The base of Luossavaara is covered with waste rock — the parts of the mountain discarded during mining — and Nylund and fellow planners will hire consultants to ensure it is stable enough to support the new settlement.


Nylund, whose research centres on what makes urban environments pleasing, said the move must be managed with care.

He cites the case of Malmberget, a town south of Kiruna. Iron ore mining there has over the years created a growing pit that has led several blocks of the city to be abandoned.

“Malmberget is just a tragedy and no one wants the same thing to happen here. It has become spooky and a very unpleasant environment,” he said of the emptied part of the town.

Nylund also worries that a glossy brochure issued by LKAB that suggests the new town can boast a complex with such wonders as an indoor ski hill and tropical rainforest will lead politicians and residents to expect the impossible.

LKAB said its vision of the complex was never meant to amount to a promise.

“The LKAB vision is exactly that, a vision. The ideas presented in it are therefore not thoroughly examined, but the indications we have show that for example the ski slope would be possible to build,” said Olovsson.

What is not clear is who will pay for the move, although Swedell thinks it will be a joint effort by LKAB, the Swedish state and Kiruna itself.

“The mine must go on, I think. But it doesn’t matter to me so much,” said Stig Loskog, who runs a car dealership in Kiruna’s outskirts. “You can’t have everything for all time.”

Source: Reuters

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