Life in the galleries
The first attempt in enriching pyrites of Cassandra is dated back in 1907. At that year, French corporation Societe Ottomane des Mines de Cassandra operated the first hydromechanics wash facility near Stratoni bay. New perspectives for the village were created with the operation of the enrichment plant in Stratoni.
Despoina Stylianidou states in her book Despoina of Stratoni: "Our village was shining! It was the only one that had electricity provided by the company’s diesel machines, where my father also used to work. The other villagers envied us and we used to call our village “Little Paris”. You see, it was a French company in the old days and that must have been the basis for that name".
From this same book, more information is found for the conditions and life of the miners. "Most of the region’s residents used to work in the terrible Madem Lakko, with its hundreds of meters long, deep underground galleries. It was a miserable place, without any natural beauty, deep into the mountains. This was not a place to work but a place of suffering for hundreds of workers instead, who entered the galleries in the wee hours of the morning and came out at sunset as “living-dead”. No timetable, no healthcare, no holidays, just one Sunday…".
Extraction of ore from the depths of the earth is by definition a very tricky thing. As in most strenuous jobs, conditions and expertise improved in time with difficulty. During the period of ancient times, miners were slaves and were characterized as “pouch carrying slaves”, with the extraction, taking place under the light of ceramic oil lamps, and the miners lying on their side or back in the galleries for ten hours.
Initially, in the modern era, during the process of opening the galleries for accessing and extraction of the deposits, large hand drills were used. The dust generated by their use was not ordinary. A part of it consisted of silicon dioxide (quartz). In other words, glass. Human body can discard and filter many kinds of particles. But if the size of the glass particle matched the size of the lung cells it stuck there. In time, many particles gathered there and the person’s breathing capability decreased. Apart from this, the area of the lung clogged deadened. The destruction of the organ came as a result.
At the time, a miner could not work more than a year and half because of panting. He then retired on the grounds of pneumoconiosis, an occupational disease called miners’ disease. Some of them lived for three to five years, ten at the most and never more. This happened during the 1950’s. Until then, they were not aware of why this happened. As soon as they found out they began the method of always drilling with water. At present day, every drilling site has plenty of flowing water, which prevents glass particles from being inhaled.
Next they filled the holes with explosives. Approximately 18 to 20 holes were made in each front and the explosives were ignited by a “mitsa” (ie fuse) due to the fact that they had yet to discover electric ignition. Next they triggered it with a cigarette. The person dynamiting had to smoke. Light cigarette was the most reliable means of triggering. There were always two of them. They light up their –usually twisted- cigarettes and ignited all the fuses, simultaneously.
Explosions took place at specific time twice a day. This happened for safety reasons, so everyone would know when to leave and for the galleries to be properly ventilated for the next shift. The first one took place between 13:00-13:15 and the second between 21:00-21:15.
In the old days a third one in the morning also took place. Since the Greek Gold SA company took over, and for reasons regarding the non disturbance of Stratoniki’s residents, the third shift’s explosions have been abolished. Miners equipped with axes and baskets, loaded the ores in the wagons just after the explosion. Considering the basket’s capacity of 10 to 12 liters of water and that the specific weight of the ore was almost seven times of that of water’s, then a half-full basket would weight 35 to 40 kilos. The heat and unbearable humidity were added to that…
Ioannis Drapaniotis, a third generation miner, literally grown up in mines having a degree as Mining Engineer states: "Imagine how hard this job was when this had to happen all day long. Their job was very strenuous. When they came out you couldn’t see their faces. Only their eyes sparkled. Very difficult conditions. I remember when the mine still used to produce pyrite. A strange thing occurred in rich deposit fronts. The wind travelling inside the gallery oxidized the pyrite very fast. The oxidation of pyrite phenomenon can be quite fast, almost as the one of burning. The chemical reaction with the air made the ore so hot that you couldn’t even touch it with your bare hands. After the burn of sulfur apart from temperature increase, the gas created was suffocating. Your lungs were burnt and you started coughing. You could withstand filling up only one wagon and then you had to go out and drink some water to put yourself together again".
Ventilation was the next big problem. In some galleries oxygen levels decreased below life supporting level and there were cases of people suffocating to death. In 1990 someone lost his life because of that. By law, everyone has to walk at least in pairs. Fainting was common but forestalled. This person was alone and it was already too late when found.
Another problem was the dangers coming from the method of precipitating the roof, which resulted in the creation of gaps after collecting the ore. As the extraction process went on, more gaps were created in the ground. In time, this resulted in surface cracks and subsidence. In fact, some houses in Stratoniki have sustained severe damage. This, in addition to the impact on the environment, was the reason that divided the local community about the operation of the mine, in the past.
At present day, the method of alternating cuts and backfill is applied by which a gallery is refilled when its deposit is depleted. The material used consists of a mixture of cement and a useless material produced by the process of enrichment. So the ground integrity stays intact due to the fact that a large portion of the mine’s sterile materials are returned to the old galleries, therefore not affecting the external environment.
The enrichment plant or “washing machine” as they call it, is the process of dividing the useful from the useless material. The ore mined is in a non commercial small concentration percentage from 5% to 9% for lead and 7% to 10% for zinc. After crushing-grinding and addition of reactants (powerful chemicals), the ore undergoes a differential flotation where the useful metallic minerals of galena and sphalerite are separated as concentrates. Galena is lead sulfide and sphalerite is zinc sulfide.
After being condensed and filtrated the concentrates produced (mineral), are deposited in a special configured, roofed square in the facilities of the loading ladder. Next, they are loaded to cargo ships and are exported to metallurgical factories abroad, since Greece doesn’t have any.
Regarding the sterile materials produced, the management system separates the coarse fraction used by the mines as a backfil material after being mixed with cement and water.
The remaining material is transfered to the solid waste repository in solid dry form, after being processed through the filter press. Up until 1978 the solid material used to be desposed off in the sea. The huge beach in front of Stratoni is created by those thousands of tons of solid material. The coastline expanded by almost 10 to 20 meters. It then caused a serious environmental issue but now it’s just a large beach.
The miner’s work has now been improved. In modern galleries you can even drive! Specific machinery load the ore and dig the holes for the placement of explosives. Ventilation is supported by powerful fans. Explosives are electronically triggered so those dynamiting don’t have to… smoke! Nevertheless, the job is still hard enough. Technology advances, but the smell of the air, the total darkness, the dead silence, the heat, the moisture and finally the art and perception of everything working properly will never change.
Ancient Greeks believed that “strength and prosperity are hidden in the depths of the earth”. Legendary Alexis Zorbas of Nikos Kazantzakis worked, favorite poet of sailors Nikos Kavvadias fell in love, Alexander the Great funded his campaigns with gold all of them here in Cassandra’s mines that even today an erotic relationship between people and land is observed. Many times being self-destructive…