PHOTOS: We Went Underground With Some of Spain’s Last Coal Miners

La Escondida remains the last functioning coal mine in El Bierzo, a region scattered with shuttered mines, in the far north of Spain.

by Agnes Walton
03 February 2019, 9:17pm

Antonio “Toño” Gomez Souto started working in La Escondida, the Hidden Mine, when he was 17. Until he could afford a car, he walked the eight miles from his village to the coal mine and back, every day. Working at the mine in northern Spain was almost a family tradition. His father and grandfather had been miners there too.

But at just 43 years old, Toño left the workforce forever on December 21. He wasn’t alone. Around 1,500 of Spain’s last 2,000 coal miners worked their final shift at the end of last year.

Toño was one of the lucky ones. Like many miners over 40, he was eligible for early retirement. For the rest of his life, he’ll receive a miner’s pension.

“Early retirements are enough to get by and stop worrying. The problem is young miners and temporary contractors who won’t get any benefits,” Toño said.

Today, almost every Western economy is transitioning away from the most polluting fossil fuels. As part of a national plan to move beyond coal, Spain’s government reached a deal with miners’ unions and coal companies in October that would, in effect, euthanize the dying industry. Almost all the country’s few remaining coal mines had to close by December 31.

To put a progressive face on the layoffs, the government negotiated a compensation package for miners and promised to spend 250 million euros (about $284 million) on early retirements, retraining, and jobs in environmental restoration. Aware that they might be next in line, other countries watched to see how the deal would play out.

Although their unions had negotiated the terms, Spain’s miners weren’t thrilled about the compensation. An estimated 40 percent have no right to early retirement. At La Escondida, some hoped they might find temporary employment cleaning up mine sites. But they’d probably have to leave the area, or even the country, to find long-term jobs.

Toño at the end of his last Monday at La Escondida. Caboalles de Arriba, Spain, on December 16, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News)

At its peak, Spain’s mining industry employed more than 100,000 workers, though it’s been in rapid decline since the early 1990s. An EU resolution from 2010 was the beginning of the end. It required member states to stop subsidizing unprofitable coal companies before the beginning of 2019.

After years of negotiation, a socialist government took power last summer and offered mine owners a deal: Pay back the subsidies they’d received in the last eight years, or close on December 31. In exchange, millions would be made available to help unemployed miners.

One of El Bierzo’s many mine ruins. Two retired miners said they’re some of the youngest men left in the village. Torre del Bierzo, Spain, December 16, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News)

By now, almost all of Spain’s mines are in bankruptcy proceedings, but not La Escondida.

It remains the last functioning coal mine in El Bierzo, a region scattered with shuttered mines, in the far north of Spain. The owners are in talks with the government to strike a deal for paying back the money they owe. Local press reports said they’re planning to stay open “past January 2019.”

But as the December deadline approached, La Escondida’s workers didn’t believe their jobs would survive into the new year.

“This mine’s days are numbered. The staff is getting laid off, and the company will shut down,” Toño said. “We will extract any ore of value left by the end of the month.”

Miners preparing for their shift in La Escondida’s locker room. Caboalles de Arriba, Spain, on December 17, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News).

In the locker rooms, miners prepared for the afternoon shift as they always did: by layering thick waterproof trousers and jackets over dark blue overalls and cinching the outfit at the waist with tough leather belts to hold the heavy batteries for their headlamps.

The sound of axes being sharpened with grindstones echoed between tall metal lockers, and cigarette smoke moved through the room. Bulging parcels of ham baguettes were stuffed under waterproof jackets before the miners climbed onto an aging white bus that crept roughly two miles up the mountainside to the mouth of the mine.

An antiquated bus struggles to climb up to at La Escondida’s entrance in fresh snow. Caboalles de Arriba, Spain, December 17, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News)

When the bus pulled up outside the first tunnel, a huddle of men stood outside, faces caked in coal dust. Their shift had started at 5:30 a.m. and for the past six hours, they’d worked in almost impenetrable darkness. Some lay on their backs, wedged in a narrow mine shaft as the cutting machine sliced through the seam of coal beside them.

The next two shifts would pick up where they left off, excavating exactly one meter further into the mountain every day. As they moved inward, they’d reinforce the tunnel with wooden beams. Others would load coal onto wagons that run on waterlogged train tracks through a labyrinthine system of tunnels.

A system of rails and wagons stretches through La Escondida to transport coal and excavated rock, both emitting clouds of dust. Caboalles de Arriba, Spain, December 17, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News)

These days, the work seemed to move in slow motion. After all, why continue to chip away at solid rock when your job is becoming obsolete? In a recent interview with local station Radio Bierzo, the country’s Minister of Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera had said that “coal has little future.”

The miners reluctantly agreed.

A miner taking empty wagons into La Escondida, to bring another load of coal to the truck waiting by the mine’s entrance. Caboalles de Arriba, Spain, December 17, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News)

Ribera found a more appreciative audience for the deal among international observers. Every EU country — bound by the same directive to stop propping up mines and their promises to slash carbon emissions under the Paris Agreement — is looking for a way to leave coal behind without decimating mining communities.

They were hopeful that Spain’s phase-out deal, which promised a “fair transition” for those still dependent on coal, could provide a model to replicate. Those hopes were buoyed by the fact that even the miners unions had signed.

But there’s a disconnect between the optimism of international commentators and the realities of life in El Bierzo.

A miner rides the locomotive that powers La Escondida’s coal wagons. Caboalles de Arriba, Spain, December 17, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News)

Enrique Daganzo, a miner at La Escondida in his 40s, has been doing the job all of his adult life and is proud of it. “I like the fellowship between the workers. It's like a drug. It hooks you. And suddenly they say, ‘It's over,’” he said. “This job is more than just a job.”

But as a temporary contractor, Enrique is not entitled to an early pension or severance under the coal phase-out plan. He’ll be forced to claim unemployment.

“The reality is we practically only get crumbs, a few jobs for a few months, to shut people up,” said Enrique, referring to the work the government says miners like him will be offered, restoring the environment around closed mines.

Enrique Fernández Daganzo, right, in the mine workshop before washing off the coal dust. Caboalles de Arriba, Spain, December 17, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News)

Enrique’s skepticism about the government’s ability to provide new jobs isn’t unfounded. El Bierzo bears many similarities to mining communities in Appalachia and parts of northern England. Coal was the only game in town. And so far, nobody’s found a replacement.

It’s not for lack of trying. Before the economic crisis took hold in 2008, the government spent — some say misspent — millions of euros on economic stimulus in former mining communities. A local newspaper in Asturias, just north of El Bierzo, counted 43 projects in the area, including research centers and museums, all built with public money, all empty years after construction.

Patrons of Mesón Minero playing scopa in Caboalles de Abajo, Spain, on December 17, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News)

The larger region around El Bierzo has lost 9 percent of its inhabitants in the last 48 years, while the Spanish population ballooned by almost 40 percent. If you don’t have a pension, you leave.

Mesón Minero, the Miner’s Inn, is one of few businesses in Caboalles de Abajo, two villages downhill from La Escondida, that have managed to stay open. The clients are mainly retired miners, though the mine’s chief engineer, Javier Alvarez, has reportedly eaten lunch here every day for two decades.

Sitting in front of the bar, by a window overlooking a row of boarded-up houses along the town’s small main street, Enrique drank a beer. “A region closes its mines and dies slowly. There are not enough jobs, so there's no other way than packing up, going somewhere else,” he said.

The scene inside Mesón Minero told that story well. Elderly men played round after round of scopa, an Italian card game. In the back, the last engineer at the last coal mine in El Bierzo ate a steaming plate of roast lamb.

After the mine closes, he probably won’t be back.

Cover image: Spain's last coal miners are clinging on to their jobs at La Escondida, or the Hidden Mine. Caboalles de Arriba, Spain, December 17, 2018. (Jackson Fager/VICE News)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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