Mine collapses – water may flood up to 400 hectares of forests

Zapadliska po kopalni

In the forests surrounding the village of Hutki near Olkusz, where the Olkusz-Pomorzany zinc and lead mine still operated until recently, the ground has been slipping for months. The mine tailings are gradually filling up with water that has stopped draining from the pits. Although there is no threat of environmental disaster, the water could flood up to 400 hectares of forest.

All to blame for the closed mine

The Olkusz-Pomorzany mine in Hutki, as well as the neighboring Olkusz and Boleslaw units, has mined since 1953. More than 130 million tons of zinc and lead. The ore, which had been intensively mined for more than half a century, became exhausted, resulting in the mine’s permanent closure.

As mentioned by Olkusz Forest District spokeswoman Maria Gronicz, the institution was informed of the consequences of the end of mining. In 2020, when the decision was made to close the mine, forestry employees were warned that the ground in that area would collapse. They also knew that the pump that had previously drained water from underground would be permanently shut down, and that water could flood up to 400 hectares of forest.

tereny zagrozone podtopieniem aktualizacja 2023 plus oddz. 506 i 517
Map 1. Area at risk of flooding with possible sinkholes

Mine collapses appeared earlier than expected

Although it was expected that sinkholes would form after the mine, no one thought that problems would arise so quickly. As mentioned by a spokeswoman for the Olkusz Forestry Division, the ZGH management talked about a perspective of several to a dozen years. Meanwhile, the first mine sinkholes appeared as early as January 2022. – Literally weeks after the pit was closed.

The most damage was reported in the Pomorzany forestry area, which covers 2,400 hectares of centuries-old, picturesque, and rich in mushrooms and fruits. As we learn from the State Forestry website, nearly 130 sinkholes have so far occurred within its borders, which are gradually filling with water, turning previously forested areas into swamps. The hydrological imbalance occurred on a total of more than 40 hectares.

Bypass destroyed, infrastructure at risk

One of the sinkholes, first noticed in February of this year, occurred several meters from a recently constructed provincial road. In May, a landslide contributed to a huge hole that literally absorbed a section of recently laid asphalt from the new Boleslaw bypass. The road remains closed until further notice – as it is possible that more sections will be destroyed.

The ZGH Group’s mine collapses also threaten other elements of local infrastructure. The biggest concern is the nearly eight-meter-deep hole in the ground that has appeared in very close proximity to the gas pipeline. However, according to experts, the sinkhole is not expected to threaten the installation or affect the safety of nearby residents.

Ban on entering Olkusz forests

As we read on the website of the State Forests, the sinkholes left by the Olkusz-Pomorzany mine are from several tens of centimeters to several meters deep. Although specialists estimate that the frequency of their occurrence should decrease, staying in the Olkusz forests has become very dangerous. The Olkusz Forestry Commission is trying to successively secure and mark landslide areas.

As mentioned by the unit’s spokeswoman, measures including fencing off dangerous areas with caution tape or netting were no longer sufficient. As a result, an absolute and unconditional ban on entering most of Olkusz’s forests was issued by a decision dated July 31, 2023. It is to remain in effect until the end of the year, although the decision notes that the period may be extended. The wording of the announcement also details the exact areas where it applies.

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Map 2. Branches 468 to 517 prohibited from entering
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Map 3. Branches 524 to 530 prohibited from entering

As you can see, the exploitation of natural resources is not without impact on nature. After more than half a century of mining, nature is still paying for the mine’s operations, but it’s not the only one – the ground in the forests is collapsing, threatening animals and people, new roads and infrastructure are being destroyed.

Photo source: National Forests. Olkusz Forest Inspectorate

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