The secret life of mining in Europe

A closer look at Northern Iron’s Sydvaranger Mine, Norway

Europe is not always on the mining professionals’ hit list, but they may be missing a great opportunity; often complete with free health care, excellent pensions, beautiful scenery, and the cheap cost of travelling through the European Union. For a family or single professional, European projects may have more to offer than most realise.

Most European nationals in a mining profession spend much of their career in remote expatriate positions, reaping the rewards of high salaries in very challenging, often politically and medically dangerous environments, before looking at coming back to Europe for the greater quality of life closer to home.

Kirkenes is situated in Sør-Varanger, Norway, one of the most Northern habitable places in Europe, bordering Russia and Finland. Both the town itself and the Mining project have a rich history, spreading over a century and two world wars.

Iron ore was discovered here in the late 1890s, a low grade deposit at this time, (however it is now at 68% Fe final product), relatively close to the surface and easy to extract and process using methods that would now be considered primitive, compared to today’s huge plant capabilities and highly detailed drill, blast / extraction programs.

The Sydvaranger mine, 8km from the port and town of Kirkenes, has a process plant which was blasted out of bedrock back in the late 1950s, this of course has since been modernised. Conveyor and tunnels systems travel through the mountain to connect different areas such as crushing, the main plant and the dock/shipping yard, where the product is shipped to its customer base.

This ‘Swiss Cheese’ network of tunnels that characterise this mine, were actually used during WWII to hide refugees seeking shelter from German invasion. It is staggering to consider the man power and hard labour that it would have taken to construct such tunnels over 70 years ago.

Kirkenes town itself has developed into a fully modernised community, which currently holds around 3,500 of Sør-Varanger’s 10,000 strong population. Despite cold winters, which can be a somewhat daunting -25°C with wind chill, the summer months can be a glorious +25°C, making the endless summer days very tempting. The polar day and polar night transform the region into two distinctly different places in summer and winter.

Kirkenes is a small town with full infrastructure, including a modern hospital, new schools, sports venues and a small shopping district in the centre of the town. It’s perfect for those who appreciate winter sports and absolutely breath-taking scenery. It’s the kind of place you can take a Husky or snowmobile trek in the evening, catch King Crab in the local fjord and see the Northern Lights from your own garden.

ASX listed Northern Iron Ltd took over the project in 2007 to develop the mine and turn it into a profitable company and keep the legacy of the Sydvaranger alive. After a retro-fit on machinery, process plant and rail and dock facilities, production commenced in October 2009. Sydvaranger is on the way to reaching a capacity of 2.8MT of high grade magnetite product with a current mine life of at least 25 years. The project is around 15KM from North to South of the pit, with a possibility of extending and joining some of the existing pits.

Northern Iron are looking to double the output of the mine and reduce running costs to improve the return to shareholders and increase market value. They have managed to move in the right direction where other companies have failed in the challenging environments of Northern Europe, where costs per ton can be higher and the talent pool for such projects is very slim.

After spending time in both Kirkenes town and the Sydvaranger mine site and meeting many of the staff, it is obvious that this project will go from strength to strength. They have the right leaders in the right place and are looking to expand on their current skill sets to enable their growth plans to be met.

Alexis Bird, Regional Manager EME / CIS / Western Asia

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