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Europe's Largest Zinc Mine Lies Deep Under Ireland's Countryside

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's go overseas. Here is one more reason for Ireland's economic growth. It's a giant mine beneath the rolling countryside. It's the largest zinc mine in Europe. That's big business. NPR's Ari Shapiro went down to have a look.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Manufacturing jobs come and go, factories can move overseas, but a mine stays put. The Tara zinc mine opened here outside of Dublin in 1977. It now has third-generation employees and people like Paddy White, who's worked here for 35 years.

PADDY WHITE: So I was 19 when I started here.

SHAPIRO: Was there ever a time when you found it difficult not to see the sun during the day?

WHITE: No. But if I'm out of here for any length of time, I get nervous. I see a lot of the sun though, I get nervous.

SHAPIRO: Zinc runs in his blood. Well, technically, the mineral runs in every human's blood, but especially his. He even tracks the global commodities markets.

How's it doing nowadays?

WHITE: Very good, very good - 126 today.

SHAPIRO: You know exactly the price of zinc today?

WHITE: I do because that's - when it's all you have, you know it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DVD)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Welcome to Tara Mines. The following DVD is our guidelines for visitors underground.

SHAPIRO: Mine disasters get a lot of attention around the world. But when you're half a mile underground, much less dramatic incidents can be huge problems. So safety is crucial. Just think, if someone in a factory has a heart attack, they can be at a hospital in minutes. Where we're going, it takes half an hour driving underground just to get to the workplace.

Down here, there is no weather. There are no weeds growing in the cracks. There is no color but gray. The left and right turns all look the same. Workers give these tunnels tongue-in-cheek street names - JFK, the Chairman Trench...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Abyss.

SHAPIRO: More than 600 people work in this mine. It is so big that we hardly see any of them on our drive through the tunnels. Finally, we arrive at what they call the crusher, half a mile below the surface.

This is this sort of massive underground cavern with lights shining down into the center of it. And we're on a little mesh walkway standing over the largest of five crushers, where huge, huge boulders of ore are just being crushed up into almost, like, gravel-sized chunks. Then they'll be carried back up to the surface.

The crusher is run from a laptop. We return to the surface exactly the same, plus a thin layer of dust. Even after just an hour underground, the sunlight is blinding. Our guide says that shocking sight of sky is what every miner looks for. Ari Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.