Spanish coal miners work last shifts before mines shuttered

VILLABLINO, Spain, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Coal miners in Spain are working their last shifts before all unprofitable mines shut down under a European Union directive in which deposits that no longer make money and receive public funds must stop production by Jan. 1, 2019.

Spain announced in 2016 a 2.13 billion euro ($2.44 billion)plan, backed by Brussels, to ease the closure of 26 uncompetitive coal mines by the end of this year. Mines must return funds if they do not close by the end of 2018.

Coal accounts for under 10 percent of Spain’s energy needs, and the majority used in Spain is imported.

High extraction costs have led to the gradual closure of mines in Spain, mostly concentrated in the northern regions of Asturias, Castile and Leon and Aragon. The industry employed around 100,000 people in the 1950s but this has since dwindled to around 2,000.

“La Escondida” is the only functioning coal mine left in the northwestern province of Leon, employs 70 workers and produces 7,000 tonnes of coal per month, owner Grupo Lamelas Viloria said by email.

The group is fighting against closure, saying that it has presented a project to exploit adjoining concessions that are not receiving state aid, it said, estimating there were reserves of several million tonnes in the deposit.

At the deep-shaft “Santiago” mine in Caborara in Asturias, workers dressed in overalls and white helments, their faces smeared with coal dust, pour out of the mining complex after their shift.

Spain’s Socialist government agreed a deal in October with unions to smooth workers’ access to benefits such as early retirement and earmarked a 250 million euro fund for aiding business ventures and re-purposing disused mines.

The government expects around 60 percent of workers to opt for early retirement.

The closure of coal mines is a thorny issue for the minority Socialist government as it has made environmental issues a keystone of its administration, creating a ministry to oversee the transition to more environmentally-friendly policies.

However, the coal mining communities most affected by these closures are traditionally Socialist voters. ($1 = 0.8740 euros) (Writing by Sonya Dowsett, editing by Louise Heavens)