Mining induced earthquakes are damaging many locations in the world - Focus on Bytom, Silesia, Poland

Over and over again ER  is noticing that small to moderate earthquakes occur  in regions with intense underground mining activities. Collapsing tunnels, planned explosions and faults enabling groundwater to penetrate are the main reasons for these shocks.
Larger quakes, rare but possible, may lead to serious damage, as observed in recent years in various locations around the world (To name a few : Australia, China, Germany, South Africa, USA, etc).

“But  does it matter if there is only one major quake every few decades?”, some of you may think.
In other regions earthquakes are also a current problem, although mining does not exist there anyway, and after all these mining regions are benefiting from it. In this case you can cope with those shocks, especially when you receive compensation payments!

Particularly problematic is the situation in the mining regions in Poland.
Unfortunately it is not so easy to find a consensus between the economic benefits of mining and the social aspects.
2 regions are especially attracting our attention.

First the Lower Silesia region.
Earlier this year a relatively strong Magnitude 4.5, caused a mining accident in which several people were injured. Small daily earthquakes are very common in this region.

Second, the Silesia region in the south of Poland.
One of the most hit locations in this area is Bytom (near Katowice).
The history of the town starts in the 11th century. In the Middle Ages Bytom was the  capital and the seat of government of the same-named region. At the same time, the city was an important trade center. Wars and other disasters have plagued the city until modern times.
In the 19th century, coal (called black gold at the time) was found and commercial mining started. As a result of this lucrative industry, the population grew rapidly and wealth spread. Profits were mainly re-invested in the expansion of infrastructure. As a result, the city got a modern touch in addition to the many historic building.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Gradually, continued mining  became a nightmare for many people.

During World War II Bytom was a strategically important town for Germany and as a sad result, many buildings were destroyed before and during the liberation by the Russian Red Army. After the war, the People's Republic of Poland did focus again on the mining industry, as this was an important milestone of the  energy policy of the government.
With none or very limited attention for potential safety problems, mines were re-opened at full speed. Especially new mining exploration below the city created problems ( before WWII there was no mining directly below the city).

Mining induced earthquakes are now a daily occurrence. Small shocks (~ Magnitude 2) are being felt almost twice a week. 81 earthquakes were felt from November 2012 to September 2013 (this is more than in Tokyo and Mexico City!)
These minor earthquakes are generating often minor damage. Locals say "each shaking = a new crack in a wall !
Larger earthquakes (>Magnitude 4) occur not that often, but if they happen, they are damaging a lot of houses (In 1982 hundreds of houses were damaged). The last quake of this size occurred in 2011 when a number of miners were injured and about 600 people had to be evacuated from their houses.

In the center of Bytom the ground partially sinked by up to 25 meters in the last 10 years!, which is shown on the linked map below.

Click on the map to be linked to the original map in full format

Click on the map to be linked to the original map in full format

Historic parishes were ruined. Even "modern" houses could not resist the constant shaking of small mining quakes. Many people have been evacuated in the meantime.
The mining companies made only a minimum number of repairs as is mentioned by insiders. Damage to some walls has been repaired with new stones and plaster as can be seen on the images below. Visually still unattractive and of course decreasing the value of the houses.

Damage Bytom Damage Bytom repair
Mining damage in Bytom, before (left) and after (right) repair

The economy of the city has of course also been hampered by the mining. Since nobody knows exactly where the underground tunnels are being excavated, the whole town is at risk. Each house can be the following victim of the mining business (earthquakes or sinking ground levels).  It sounds very logic that house owners will not invest a lot of money to make the houses and other buildings better as the return on their investment is very uncertain.

Since a couple of years, many mines in the greater Bytom area were closed and accordingly thousands of people lost their jobs. Those workers, who could not find another job in a mining operation or other business, got some money from the government to compensate the loss of their wage for the next few years hoping that, after learning new skills, they would get hired by non-mining companies or start small companies to revive the economic tissue of the region.
Unfortunately, a lot of them are still without a job.

To survive the economic crisis, Bytom made partnerships with cities like Recklinghausen (Germany) and Butte (Montana, USA). These cities have also a strong mining history and have successfully reformed the economy from mining into manufacturing and services. Bytom is now trying to follow the same path. Such big changes need a lot of investments and those are hard to find in these economic times. So far only a new shopping center was built and a few buildings have been renovated. A new big effort is being planned for this autumn, according to Recklinghausen mayor, Wolfgang Pantförder who is following the Bytom reform from close by.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

And the shaking is continuing in the meanwhile ....
Abandoned heavily damaged houses and bad renovations alternate with fallow areas of subsidence are common in the city. As the anger of the citizens increases with every new shock, also the cracks in the houses are gradually increasing. Renovations and new buildings may not be recognizable anymore in near future. Many people are afraid for their belongings . Others are simply angry about the fate of their city.
To offer people an alternative, new neighborhoods were built outside the city center. New houses were built to provide affordable and visually appealing living conditions to as many families as possible. But the faith of these new settlements cannot be guaranteed as the mining is still going on. Nobody knows  exactly where the mining shafts are located, so people fear that subsidence is also possible in the areas were new houses have been build. Some new houses are already leaning and others will probably follow. Luckily, new houses have been build with strong earthquake standards in mind.  A strong earthquake can quickly lead to new cracks in cases were ground sinking has been noticed.

The mining industry shows no signs of ceasing activities. The Polish government says that the mining revenues are essential for the economy of the country and on top of that at least 10,000 people are still working in the mining companies, making a complete halt of mining an almost unthinkable scenario for the Bytom region.

Some of the 174,000 inhabitants of the city have already given up hope and see no way to escape the downward spiral.

Can the earthquakes and the sinking be stopped ?
As mining is possible in other regions of the world without too much problems, it should be possible in Poland too.
Filling up former collieries in Bytom would prevent cave-ins and related subsidence ? Also a better mapping of the shafts would certainly facilitate building on less risky grounds and should give mining companies and residents quieter nights. Until this happens, everybody in Bytom has to fear a sudden waking up by an earthquake !

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In cooperation with Pawel P. living in Bytom