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Engelsk bildetekst. FOTO: Christopher Engås

"People think we fight a lot, but we don't"

Anne Lise Klungseth Sandvik can't sleep because she worries about the future of coal mining on Svalbard. Her own son-in-law wants to shut it down.



Not exactly a mother-in-law's dream

Anne Lise Klungseth Sandvik lies awake because she is afraid for the future of coal mining and now has a daughter marrying "the enemy." But domestic tranquility is preserving.

"It has become so fashionable to say that 'coal is black, coal is dangerous.' It's a natural damn product!"

"Yeah, just like nicotine and marijuana."

Anne Lise Klungseth Sandvik, 66, has lived in Svalbard "almost forever" and is a powerful voice in local debates. She lies awake at night, writing concerned letters to the editor about the future of coal mining on Spitsbergen.

Soon-to-be son-in-law Espen Rotevatn, 32, is an academic and relatively new in town. But worse: He is the local leader of the Green Party (MDG) and advocates an end to the coal industry.

"The times are changing, Anne Lise! You have so much common sense when it comes to other issues, but … Rotevatn says in frustration as he pounds his hands on the kitchen table and gets interrupted.

"Which one of us lacks common sense? That is something we can discuss!" Anne Lise, his future "monster-in-law", retorts.

Time of crisis
The full scope of the coal crisis became apparent last November. Store Norske ended the year with a net loss of more than half a billion kroner, the worst ever.

Rotten coal prices meant 100 employees had to go, and the company is requesting a government loan of 450 million kroner. In anticipation of better times, the company plans to halve its operations during the next 18 months.

Rotevatn doesn't understand why anyone should insist on continuing an industry that’s in it's death throws.

"Where does this commitment to coal mining on Svalbard come from?" he says. "Why not use the half billion on something more sensible? Coal is horrible source to pollution and and a major player in climate change."

"We have to double tourism and research to stay on the same level of activity, if the coal industry disappears.

"That would mean a dramatic increase in the number of flights and accommodations. Wouldn't that have a negative impact on the climate as well? Why is no one interested in talking about that?" she sais.

"Hey, I am interested in talking about that," the future son-in-law objects.

"Then you're the first one. Nice to meet you," she replies, stretching out her hand and the fiery mood dissolves into laughter.

Letters to the editor
The laughter is loose, but both of their commitments are intense and sincere.

Sandvik, an institution in town, has seen all of the restructuring and changes in the community since 1973 with her own eyes. Rotevatn moved up in 2011 and formed his first thoughts about coal mining while he had a summer job in Svea.

He introduced his controversial thoughts to his future mother-in-law through a letter published in Svalbardposten, titled "A life after coal?"

"It was good I had a heart attack before I read it, so you couldn't be blamed," Sandvik laughs.

A few preliminary questions is all it takes to create 90 minutes of intense debate. Not just about coal mining, but also avalanche warnings, the local democracy, Russians, whaling and drunk drivers.

Preserving peace
"Is it always like this when you meet?"

"No, we speak very little about this," Anne Lise says. "I do not think we've discussed it as thoroughly as we've done now."

"We tend to talk about pleasant things."

"My daughter, Maria, said some years ago that if people in town got a glimpse into the house, they would b surprised about the quietness," Sandvik says.

"People think we fight a lot, but we don't."

Her daughter ventures into the kitchen with her youngest son, Felix, five months old, in her arm.

"Are they as quiet as they claim?"

"Yes, they are, in fact. They haven't destroyed christmas or any other family happening yet", she says.

"We're actually very similar. We both have strong opinions, says Anne Lise.

"We agree on the objective, but not which road we have to follow to meet it. What we both want is a good world for our children and grandchildren.

Wedding toast
Anne Lise jokes "it's not too late" to get rid of her daughters future husband. On March 14 is the wedding that formalizes the link between mother- and son-in-law.

"I wondered whether I should start my speech by saying that 'finally I can say anything, know that Anne Lise can't reply,'" Rotevatn says.

"But then she'll probably interrupt and say 'sure I can!'"

Anne Lise disagrees.

"Nope, I'll let you speak uninterrupted, but when it's my turn to give a speech, it's my turn!"


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