GB No. 9, autumn 1992
"The salt mine in Wieliczka boasts by no means a lesser splendour than the Egyptian pyramids, whilst being by far the more useful."
- Le Laboureur
17th century French traveller
Wieliczka, a small town surrounded by rolling hills, east of Cracow, in fact just outside the city limit, is dominated by a tall smoke-stack, proudly marking the location of the salt mine - the place already much esteemed by the first dynasty of the Polish sovereigns - the Piasts.
The very first ones to discover and appreciate the value of the salty treasure were the tribes of the flint stone period - some 3.500 years B.C. The first written entry on the Wieliczka salt deposits dates back to 1124, whilst the actual mining commenced in the late 13th century.
Owing to the specific geological conditions inside the mine a number of ancient chambers, galleries and passageways have retained their original look. The same goes for the magnificent underground chapels - sculpted out in salt face; the oldest of them all - St.Anthony's - was chiselled out as early as 17th c.
Whilst the first underground mass was said in 1698. Throughout the next three centuries another 40 chapels were chiselled out in the salt face. The largest and by far the most famous of them all is the Chapel of Kinga; generations of artists and carvers kept on enriching its overall design by adding more and more refinement to the salt ornaments from 1895 up till 1963.
The magnificent, vaulted chambers, richly ornamented chapels and the ancient mining machinery soon proved an irresistible attraction for all sorts of visitors. At first the privilege was granted to the eminent guests of the Polish sovereigns, later on, when the Austrians opened up the first underground tourist route, visiting the Wieliczka salt mine became very popular indeed, though only after World War II did it reach its present celebrity status amongst the tourist attractions of the region. Every year between 500 and 600 thousand visitors come down to the mine, one third of them foreigners.
The first ones to discover the treasure of Wieliczka were the flint stone men, the last "discovery" of major significance took place in 1978, when the salt mine in Wieliczka was officially declared a Monument of the World Natural and Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.
On the night of 13th/14th of April, 1992, everything was proceeding as usual down in the salt mine. Special engineering teams were running a routine check on all 250 active water leaks and seepages, their volume remaining between a few drops and around 50 litres per minute - all of them assessed as stable and thus not dangerous to the mine. On Level IV a team of miners was finishing off the refurbishment work on one of the partitioning walls in an old chamber. On 10 p.m. a torrent of slime and muddy water suddenly burst on them engulfing the place completely, quickly flooding the the adjacent galleries and soon cascading onto the lower levels,its volume measured in thousands of liters per minute.
The pumps and a bit of luck put the elements back under control after a few days of strenuous efforts. The water was suddenly gone, nearly as fast as it had first appeared. It proved to be a short lived victory for the miners, though. For the next few days the engineers managed to stay a step ahead of the elements somehow, although the attendant mud flood was quite extensive, if predictable.
The treacherous torrent burst out again on September 13. This time the volume exceeded 10.000 liters per minute, rendering both the costly dams and the pumps completely useless. On the surface there was a considerable subsidence and the walls surrounding the historic Franciscan monastery partially caved in. Both inside the monastery itself and around it, huge cracks appeared on the walls of the buildings, making some of the sites structurally unsafe. In October the surface subsidence in the wake of the successive flooding was as deep as 0,5 m.
The extensive engineering works designed to control the flooding, despite the use of modern technologies and equipment, proved at best ineffective in the struggle with the underground torrents,although the costs of running the whole operation are quite substantial. Until the middle of november the engineering teams were still very much in retreat.Only recently did the introduction of the new sealing agent and the precise location of the main source of the flooding bring the desired effects. Nobody can tell, however, if the elements have been put back under human control for good.
The efforts of the engineers working underground have been most often met with criticism in regard to the efficacy of the technological measures actually employed to control the flooding. The refurbishment of the partitioning wall "Mina" is thought to have been highly contributive in creating the dangerous tensions within the geological strata surrounding the mined out chambers. The fact of drilling so numerous access shafts for the sole purpose of faster introduction of the sealing agent underground was also met with scepticism, let alone the conspicuous lack of detailed geological survey maps. Should the Management bear the blame for all this?
The engineers are quick to defend themselves. The refurbishment of the partition wall was a totally routine operation as nothing indicated the potential danger of flooding at the time - the leak had been a minor one indeed. As to the access shafts, all was done in consultation with the geological experts from outside the mine itself. The lack of survey maps can simply be put down to the inadequate funding - geological surveys are rather expensive.
A few doubts would still remain, although it would be rather difficult to find any blunders in the way this complex operation has been run so far.
The existing underground tourist routes are in serious jeopardy. Although only one historic chamber is situated directly on Level IV, the cracks have appeared on the walls along the most often visited passageways. The experts claim, that the current flooding constitutes in fact only 1/20 of the problem facing the mine as a whole. The water may burst out again at any time and there is no telling how strong it might be the next time. To prevent effectively any more flooding, billions of zlotys yet have to be pumped down into the mine. Is the Polish government up for the difficult task of saving the historic mine for posterity? This would require a huge injections of cash on a regular basis, which just does not seem very likely at the moment...
The jeopardised salt mine in Wieliczka has already prompted many a ministerial and parliamentary intervention, all of them, however, of a rather interventionist character, with no specific action or complex enquiry as a follow-up. That a tangible change in this respect might be in the offing, has recently transpired from the draft of a parliamentary bill introduced by the Cracow's MP, Mr Kazimierz Barczyk, on the "Particular Public Significance of the State Salt mine Enterprise in Wieliczka - A Monument of National Heritage".
The draft of the project envisages that "SALT MINE WIELICZKA" would assume the overall control over all matters pertaining to both property and finance of the mine and "would also take over the maintenance of both underground and surface facilities that constitute the Museum of Salt mining in Wieliczka. It would endeavour to safeguard the collection of historical mining tools and machinery assembled underground, provide for the appropriate safety measures designed to preserve the historical value of the site as a whole, and would adopt effective methods of utilization of the existing leaks and seepages of salty water underground."
The project, to be shortly put under the parliamentary debate, also recommends that "SALT MINE WIELICZKA" take up the manufacture of flavoured table salt, parapharmeceuticals, and groceries with natural salt as the main additive. According to the authors of the project, the mining of the salt face should be discontinued altogether, to preserve the historic character of the whole site, whilst the use of the existing health facilities should be further enhanced.
The Board of Directors of the proposed enterprise should comprise the Minister of Trade and Industry, the Minister of Culture and the Fine Arts and the Minister of Environment.
The budget should be made up of the income generated by the "SALT MINE WIELICZKA" itself, a state subsidy and private donations. The special status of the enterprise would also entail full exemption from all tax and excise duties.
Would this project really save the salt mine in Wieliczka? Hard to say really as it might take quite some time before the project is implemented in its entirety, provided it does not encounter any obstruction in parliament. The very concept is obviously beneficial for the salt mine in the long run, as it would thus grant it a totally exceptional legal status, which in conjunction with the full exemption from any tax and excise duties would provide for a safer future. The authors of the project have most certainly meant well for the salt mine, but whether their intentions stand any real chance of prompt implementation is a totally different matter altogether...
transl. by Sigillum Ltd.