Night Clubs to Botanical Gardens: New Uses for Old Mines
Former mines around the world have been imaginatively turned into everything from gardens to science labs and World Heritage Sites
In 2002, American astrophysicist Dr. Ray Davis sat down for dinner in Stockholm having been awarded the Nobel Prize.
Dinner included a side-helping of mushrooms (grown in a disused iron mine in Sweden). His prize was in recognition for work on solar neutrinos, which he had detected a mile underground in the world's deepest science laboratory (built out of an old mine owned by Barrick Gold). His great rivals in the science world were meanwhile hard at work in a lab in Canada (converted from an underground nickel operation).
Dr. Davis' memorable dinner amply demonstrates some of the varied, curious uses that have been found for old mines around the world, many of them catalogued in an equally curious book, 101 Things To Do With A Hole In The Ground.
First published in 2009, it is not an obvious topic for a beautiful book. Old mines are usually either seen as an environmental problem, or as an item on the wrong side of a balance sheet. But with flare and imagination, the book suggests, when a mine closes, if it is given a good new purpose, a new future can easily begin.
Ultra-deep mines are ideal for experiments that need to be protected from interference from cosmic rays, but they have also been used for everything from vaults to high-security data storage. One silver mine has even been turned into a night club: youngsters can jump on a train in Mexico and are taken 160-metres below ground to what was once a rock-crushing room. Going deeper, an old copper mine in Sweden has been turned into the world's dingiest sauna, 1,440-metres below surface.
Open-pit mines are meanwhile ideal as large venues: a quarry in Sweden has been turned into an opera house, whilst a clay pit in Sydney was due to be converted into a massive tennis arena, until it was found
to contain a thriving population of endangered bell frogs, so it is now preserved as a wildlife sanctuary. In total, 16 former mines around the world, from tin workings in Cornwall to old mining towns in Brazil and Chile, are now ranked as Unesco World Heritage Sites.
But perhaps the book's best examples are in agricultural and botany. An unstable clay pit sitting below the water table in Cornwall has miraculously been turned into the Eden Project, a string of bubble-like tropical greenhouses that pull in over a million visitors a year. Exhibits are “designed to make visitors think about their dependence on the natural world”, from the plants they eat to the metals they rely on.
A limestone quarry on Vancouver Island has similarly been turned into a beautiful botanical garden, whilst disused mining tunnels across Canada and the US are now used for growing millions of tree saplings. In Africa, quarries, diamond fields and an ex-colliery have been turned into banana and rice plantations and into a huge organic farm, pumping out broad beans. Most of the projects are “easily replicable.”
Even the damage done by some mines can be turned around, the book hopefully suggests. A mountain top that was flattened in Kentucky turned out to be perfect as an airport, whilst an empty copper pit in New South Wales has found new life as a bioreactor. Half a million tonnes of waste from Sydney is dumped into the mine each year, giving off methane, used to create green electricity.
“It's hard to fault the ingenuity,” the book concludes. “There is a wonderful wealth of creativity in the post mining-field. It is just not well documented yet.”
101 Things to do With a Hole in the Ground, by Georgina Pearman
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