Moving an entire city for Sweden’s LKAB ore mines

From ToxicLeaks

LKAB operation in Sweden[edit | edit source]

Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB) is a state-owned mining company in Sweden, with a history that dates back to the late 19th century and the discovery of iron ore. The LKAB mine at Kiruna is one of the world’s largest, and runs four kilometers long and 80 meters wide. Its operational depth, which has changed over the decades in the search for more ore, now stands at a main-level depth of 1,365 meters in what began as a surface-level strip mining operation. The known deposit depth is some 2,000 meters.

A southern mining division was established at Malmberget – also above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland – with current mining operations (primarily for magnetite) at 10 of the scattered 20 ore sites. Main depth level at Malmberget is 1,250 meters. An additional surface mine is located at Svappavaara. Production in 2017 was 27.2 metric tons, marking progress toward a 6-year, 5 percent increase by 2021. A 2018 permit application would allow mining at deeper depths, but that’s what’s caused Kiruna’s woes.

Iron ore and mining subsidence[edit | edit source]

The removal of iron ore and related minerals began more than a century ago, and with each passing year that’s meant reaching deeper into the earth to extract the resources. Some environmental impacts are now irreparable, and by 2004, the constant digging for LKAB deposits produced visible cracks at the surface in the heart of Kiruna, home to about 18,000 people who also rely on tourism for their viability.

Yet it’s a mining town, set against the ore-rich mountain behind it. Most residents are connected to LKAB and long accustomed to the sound of controlled explosions and other operational impacts. “The mine has always worked in symbiosis with Kiruna,” says Niklas Sirén, a Kiruna city council leader. “It was never an option to close the mine.” But it was no longer safe to live in the city either, because it is directly over the land deformations caused by extraction. When ore is removed, the land above it sags into even more subsidence. The mine can’t move, so the entire city will. It will take at least 20 years.

Moving the city of Kiruna[edit | edit source]

LKAB takes ground measurements twice a year, with periodic reports in between. It became clear that although parts of Kiruna had been razed in the 1970s because of subsidence – and it’s not the only town where mining forced change – this time would mean the largest move in modern history and Kiruna’s entire center city would need to move for good. The relocation includes more than 3,000 homes, as well as a hospital, schools, stores and more. LKAB has invested USD$1 billion in building a New Kiruna about 3.2 kilometers to the east. Construction of the new city hall is under way as part of a broad urban plan; the bell from the old city hall will be preserved and installed there. In other cases, entire buildings of historical or cultural significance have been moved to New Kiruna and relocated – Hjalmar Lundbohm’s House and Kiruna Church among them. In August 2017, the company announced five of eight planned heritage building moves had been completed. The 240-ton Länsmansbostaden followed in October. The rails and roads are now rerouted to make way for the mining of what LKAB calls Sweden’s “black gold.”

A miner with 48 years’ experience with LKAB said he began on Level 420 and worked all the way to current Level 1,365. “It was like a funeral; this is starting now, the buildings are going now,” he said. Yet most residents are resigned to the reality: They cannot live in a town that is collapsing beneath them.

“In order for us to be able to continue mining iron ore, up until 2035, everything on top of the mines must be moved to safety,” says LKAB on a dedicated urban transformation website. “Everything.”

Impacts to Malmberget-Gällivare[edit | edit source]

Extraction took its toll in Malmberget too, although in different ways. In the 1970s, much of the city center disappeared. The church, schools, cinemas, a community center, shops and residences have already been demolished or moved. The community is now being completely emptied and those who still live in Malmberget will eventually move to Gällivare, which is about 50 kilometers to its south.

As with Kiruna, the municipality and its residents are compensated by LKAB for their lost homes. By 2032, almost all of Malmberget will be converted to an industrial area. The plan, executed in four stages across a timeline of 20 years, will mean two-thirds of the town will disappear. It will exist only in Gällivare, where a precise, detailed 170 square meter model of Malmberget will preserve its memory.