Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Marble quarrying in Pinoso

We were still hunting for a house. Getting out of the car we thought the town looked nice enough until we gazed North. Monte Coto, a huge white gash in the hillside, towered over Algueña. It's the largest open cast quarrying operation in Europe. We decided the town wasn't for us. Administratively the hill is in Pinoso but the 250 hectare site is hardly visible from there. It's the Algueñeros who have the lorries rumbling through their town, breathe the dust and look up to the huge lights that illuminate the 24 hour workings.

Spain ranks quite highly in the league of stone quarrying countries. China, as usual nowadays, is number one but Spain is about the sixth largest. In Pinoso they've been quarrying from time immemorial but quarrying really took off when the town started to grow big-time in the mid 19th Century. Limestone and sandstone were dug out to make everything from millstones and drinking troughs to the grandest public buildings. The stone for Pinoso Parish Church and the Torre del Reloj for instance came from quarries on the Caballusa road. It wasn't until 1923 though that the ivory cream marble or Crema Marfil Monte Coto that forms the backbone of Pinoso's current economy began to be exploited.

When geologists talk about marble they are talking about a metamorphic rock usually formed from an original limestone. Limestones are sedimentary rocks which can be formed several ways but most are laid down just offshore in shallow sea water. It's an oversimplification but when rocks get squeezed and warmed up they become a bit runny and form new rocks. Any sort of rock can be metamorphosed. Unlike geologists stonemasons aren't pernickety and when they talk about marble they include unaltered limestones that take a nice polish. The Pinoso marble was laid down in reefs in the Eocene epoch some 56 million years ago. It has been reheated and recrystallised and has veins of white calcite running through it. The marble is hard wearing and has other qualities that make it good for ornamnental and building purposes

Back in the 1920s the marble was dug out with picks and hand tools. Hammers and wedges were used to split the rock. The marble was carted away by oxen. Later compressed air tools and braided steel cable made the job easier but the real advances came in the 1980s with diamond tipped cutters and motorised rock saws. I've seen different figures for the percentage of total Spanish marble production coming from Pinoso but it's between a third and a half.

Again the numbers vary according to the source but some eighteen to twenty firms have quarrying rights on Monte Coto the big one being Levantina stone. The companies currently pay the Town Hall in Pinoso about 23€ per cubic metre and in 2014 that translated into a budget estimates for earnings of around 6.7€ million. Back in 2007 Pinoso earned over 9€ million from the extraction levy but that plummeted to 4.5€ million in 2009. Mind you with just under 8,000 people in Pinoso that's still a fair amount per head.

The marble is exported all over the world with China being the single largest market followed by a cluster of Arab countries. So next time you're in a shopping centre walking across a nice ivory coloured veined marble take the time to wonder if it came from that huge quarry above Algueña.

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