Circular economy in mines: multiple opportunities for reuse of mines

A thematic workshop on mine reuse brought together people interested in and working on the topic in Oulu in September 2023, with case studies from Europe, the United States and Canada. Participants also visited Callio in Lake Pyhäjärvi, where reuse of the mining environment has been extensively tested and planned.
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The life cycle of a mine consists of an exploration phase, a construction phase, a production phase, a closure phase and a reclamation phase. The objective of the closure process is to restore the mine site to its pre-extraction state, thus eliminating any threat to human health or the environment. At the same time, consideration is given to possible future extraction from the mine or further use of the area. It is important to remember, however, that the mining company's responsibility for the physical, chemical and biological safety of the area and the environment does not end with the closure of the mine, but that the state of the environment must be monitored, and any necessary clean-up measures must be taken even after closure.

Significant investments have been made in mining and the region's municipal infrastructure. A functional, sufficiently effective municipal infrastructure can serve as an excellent opportunity for other industrial and manufacturing sectors. In particular, major investments in electricity transmission networks have been made in the mining sector.

Several business opportunities

The reuse of mining environments does not have to focus on a single theme, but can be very holistic and multifaceted. A good example of this is Pyhäjärvi Callio - Mine for Business, where the company Pyhäsalmen Kvanttikiinteistöt Oy, which is owned by the City of Pyhäjärvi, is holistically developing the reuse of the Pyhäsalmi mine. This includes energy storage, renewable energy, circular economy, rescue training, 5G-enabled technology testing and scientific reuse. The Kerttu Saalasti Institute at the University of Oulu is coordinating the scientific reuse of the Pyhäsalmi mine.

The reuse of mines is particularly important for value chains, such as energy solutions and the circular economy. These include solar power, energy storage and the utilization of mining waste and side streams.
In Finland, a museum and a restaurant have been built in mines, but Pyhäjärvi Callio is currently the only real actor in Finland working in the field of mine reuse, which plans the holistic reuse of mines in several different business segments. Pyhäjärvi will be home to Finland's most significant weatherization resource, a 75MW pumped-storage power plant, a 30-hectare solar farm, a world-class technology test centre, an occupational safety training center and future innovations in the circular economy.

Examples of mine reuse from around the world

The examples of reuse presented at the international thematic workshop on mine reuse in Oulu covered only a portion of the total range of knowledge on the subject. The example from Estonia was the Industrial Symbiosis Agropark (EISAP) in Ida-Viru County, which focuses on the reuse of an old oil shale extraction site as an industrial and agricultural park. The tourism potential of mining environments was explored through the Wieliczka salt mine in Poland. This mine is also one of the first mining sites on the UNCESO World Heritage List.

The Hagerbach Test-Gallery in Switzerland represents the use of mining environments for research and development as well as for events. The Reiche Zeche educational mine in Germany demonstrated education and research opportunities, while the Boulby underground physics laboratory in England was used as a showcase for underground physics laboratory facilities. Although the examples presented here were mainly from Europe, there are also examples of the reuse of mining environments from elsewhere. For example, there are several underground physics laboratories in North America. They have also piloted various types of underground food production systems, such as strawberry cultivation.

Mining closures have a significant impact on employment in the region

The closure of a mining operation is always a major structural change, which also affects the socio-economic situation of the host municipality. The greater the percentage of employment and tax impact of the mine in the region, the greater the impact of the closure.

In Finland, mines are mainly located in rural, sparsely populated areas. Under the state-owned Outokumpu Group, many mines and their associated villages have been established and closed down. The villages lived and died with the mine. The mining village of Lampinsaari in the municipality of Vihanti is worth mentioning, as it has flourished with the contribution of its inhabitants. Another good example is the village of Ruotanen near the Pyhäsalmi mine, where the village association has worked to revitalize the village with a village hall, outdoor activities and historical trails.

Pyhäjärvi Callio aims to create jobs through its own projects and service business. For example, Callio's driver services in Sandvik and Normet technology testing employ former miners who know the local mining conditions well and can do much more than just drive machinery.

The Mining Act does not sufficiently address the reuse of mines

Planning for the reuse of mines remains a challenge. Reuse planning must start years or even a decade before the actual closure of the mine. Although closure planning is ongoing and updated throughout the life cycle of a mine, the current Mining Act in Finland does not address reuse whatsoever. In fact, the Mining Act stipulates that no activities other than those related to mining or mining operations may take place in a mining area. However, the early inclusion of mine closure and reuse activities can enable a smooth transition from a mine to a reuse environment, thus allowing closures to also contribute to reuse.

Jari Joutsenvaara, Research Coordinator / Callio Lab / University of Oulu, Kerttu Saalasti Institute
Sakari Nokela, Development Director / Pyhäjärvi Callio