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From the Roman age until today: the history of mining in Plombières

Dear readers,
My name is Srećko and this is my second solo blog post for the SULTAN project. If you want to know a bit more about me, read my first blog post “What are Critical Raw Materials?” and then go and read all of the other blog posts written by my colleagues because they are AMAZING. Having said that, let me introduce you to a lovely historical mining area in Plombières (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Former mining sites of Plombières (Service Public de Wallonie, 2019, geoportail.wallonie.be/walonmap)

Plombières is a small town in Eastern Belgium, close to the point where the borders of Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium intersect and situated along the Geul river. The area is best known for its mining actives at the end of the 19th century. In general, the process of extraction and treatment of the ore was a significantly important economic and social factor of the area. The first written documents on the exploration area stated that the processing of the ore started in the Middle Ages and lasted until 1922. Before World World II, Plombières was known under the German name Bleyberg/Bleiberg. In German “Blei” means lead and “berg” is a mountain/hill. Although, the name has changed since then, in many old documents the German variant is found.

Here is a short overview of the operations of the mine from the Middle Ages until its closure, and the current situation today.

As previously mentioned, the mining first started in the Middle Ages and lasted until 15 century (the exact end date is unknown). There is no documentation on the occurrence of mining or any kind of mining/processing activities during the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1825, the mine was investigated by the Cockerill brothers and the exploration started once again. 20 years later, the exploration of the ore body had increased significantly and the factory for processing and extraction was built.  With the expansion of the mine, the Geul river started to flood the mine. In 1862 the flooding was prevented by the displacement of the Geul river. The mining in the area had expanded so much, that even a railway was constructed to accommodate the expansion. Then, between 1882 and 1884, the mine was shut down completely due to the exhaustion of the easily accessible ores. Everything was dismantled and sold, except for the processing plant. In 1885, the site began processing imported ores from Greece and Spain, but suddenly the present flora and fauna were damaged. The imported samples were rich in toxic metals and the processing caused a lot of gases rich with these toxic metals to be released. After World War I, the operation resumed, with a low number of furnaces, and by 1922 the operation at the mine completely stopped.

Although the area is best known for its mining activities from the Middle Ages until the end of the 19th century, that doesn’t mean that the area wasn’t mined before. In 2008, a study was conducted on the pollution of Roman roads and how increased concentrations of Zn and Pb were found in the peat surrounding the road. This suggests that Zn-Pb ores were transported on the road. Lead (Pb) isotope analyses on the peat found next to the Roman road suggests that the ore is derived from the Zn-Pb ores from East Belgium. Knowing this, suggests that although there are no written documents, the mining in Plombières area most likely started sooner. In 1998 the mining area was classified as a natural reserve because of the specific flora and fauna that can be found there (examples coming soon).

Nowadays, if you go to Plombières, it is difficult to see that it was a mining area once upon a time. However, there are still some clues that can be found such as metallophyte flowers know as zinc violets (Figure 2) or a caterpillar that feeds on zinc violets and transforms into a butterfly called Queen of Spain fritillary. Recent studies on the Geul river have indicated that the river is contaminated, which is directly connected to the mining that was done in the past.

Figure 2. Zinc Violet

Nevertheless, the area itself is really nice to visit as a one-day trip and there is plenty of stuff to see, such as the former mine site of Plombières, the restored house of the mine site (now containing a museum), the calvary of Moresnet-Chapelle, a cemetery of American soldiers, the three-country border point is close and there are many walking paths to take and enjoy nature. Here is the link (https://tourism.plombieres.be/) to where you can find other activities to do there. I hope you enjoyed reading this blog post, learnt a bit about the history of mining in Plombières and are now interested in going there for a day trip .

Figure 3. Example of the natural landscape in the Plombières mine site