'Acutely toxic' mine waste threatens the death of Norway's fjords

Sailing boat on Førdefjorden. Photo: Arild Nybø via Flickr.
Sailing boat on Førdefjorden. Photo: Arild Nybø via Flickr.
Two huge open pit mines in northern Norway are on the verge of approval, writes Tina Andersen Vågenes - even though they would dump hundreds of millions of tonnes of tailings in fjords where wild salmon spawn. Scientists are voicing serious concerns, and protests are growing, but government and mining companies appear determined to push the projects forward regardless.
The acutely toxic tailings will be dumped in a spawning area for wild salmon, blue ling and the endangered coastal cod.

In Scandinavia, the mining industry is looking for ways to expand business further north. Higher mineral prices have led to a surge in planned projects, many causing concern among environmentalists and locals.

Currently two large projects are under way in Norway, both using the controversial waste disposal method called submarine tailings disposal (STD).

The method is simple - mining tailings are finely ground, chemicals added, and the whole dumped under water. In most cases, this means at the bottom of a fjord or a lake.

STD is not commonly used in most countries. In fact, Norway is one of only five countries in the world that deploy it. The others are Turkey, Papua New-Guinea, Chile and Indonesia, nations with mostly poor environmental standards.

Many are now wondering why Norway is planning new projects using STD, when the country prides itself on its environmental standards and nature preservation.

Environmental approval is imminent

The two projects currently under consideration are a rutile ore mine in the Førdefjorden in Sogn og Fjordane, and a copper ore mine in the Repparfjord in Finnmark. Both are on the verge of being granted government approval.

In Førdefjorden, on the west coast, Nordic Mining is planning to open a rutile ore mine from the Engebø Mountain, and dump the tailings in the fjord. The sheer scale of waste is staggering - over 250 million tonnes of waste will be deposited at the bottom of the fjord, right in the middle of a spawning area for several fish species in what is called 'the cleanest fjord on the west coast'.

In Repparfjord, situated far north in Finnmark, Nussir ASA is planning a copper ore mine, where the tailings will be dumped, as in Førdefjorden, in a spawning area for wild salmon, blue ling and the endangered coastal cod, and a site where whales and porpoises gather.

The volume of the tailings is smaller than in Førdefjorden, but the tailings here will contain dangerous levels of heavy metals. Several marine researchers classify the waste as "acutely toxic" for organisms living in the fjord.

These plans have both met with massive resistance, from locals, environmentalists and marine researchers.

Several acclaimed research institutions, such as the Marine Research Institute, have been strongly critical. They have called the disposal plans in Førdefjorden, "the biggest planned pollution in Norway's modern history".

They point out how the tailings will traverse the fjord, spreading the impacts. These finely ground particles and chemicals will not only spread widely, but will also be taken up into the ecosystem, poisoning the fish.

A 'direct attack' on indigenous Sami culture

Nordic Mining themselves claim that the tailings will stay in the designated area, despite strong underwater currents. They seem to forget that if you dump 250 million tonnes into a fjord, it will both suffocate all life on the bottom and wreck the eco system. Dumping toxic waste of that size will not happen without consequences.

The acutely toxic tailings will be dumped in a spawning area for wild salmon, blue ling and the endangered coastal cod.

The project in Repparfjord is particularly sensitive, given its location. In the late 1970s, a mining company ran an open pit mine, where the tailings were dumped in the fjord. Decades later, local anglers still report deformed fish and poor water quality.

But it looks as if the government is set to overlook the consequences, which were so clear just 20 years ago, and make the same mistake all over again.

The area around the fjord is also important for the indigenous people, the Sami, who have a protected order which entitles them to use the land for rearing reindeer.

The mining area is planned in the reindeer district, Fietter-22, provoking a strong reaction in the Sami parliament where they fear for the reindeers grazing area, and feel it as a direct attack on their traditional culture.

Opposition against both projects is growing stronger by the day, causing international consternation. STD is rarely used, with many countries considering a ban. Norway is the only country out of the five using it that is planning to open new disposal sites.

Being the worst offender in such a lousy club should be embarrassing enough for the government, but many fear they will approve the projects nevertheless. The debate has come down to a total stand-off - where the mining companies deny any research that proves them wrong.

Marine biologists - what do they know?

The CEO of Nordic Mining was recently quoted in the Guardian as saying, "I'm not a marine biologist, but based on the studies we have done, the marine biologists are wrong." Such arrogance is both comic and frightening.

The company also insisted in recent letter to the environment ministry that the environment agency's conclusions regarding detoriation of the fjord's ecosystems were "based on undocumented estimates and uncertain information", and that only 6% of the total seafloor area would be buried in tailings.

But the final question is whether Norway is willing to risk fisheries and a clean environment in the pursuit of extracted mineral resources. For most people it is clear that dumping a hundred million tonnes of toxic waste in a fjord is a bad idea.

A decision is scheduled sometime during the spring, and the hope is that the government will listen to what we already know to be the case: dumping toxic waste in fjords will only create new problems, and is not a sustainable solution for the future.



Tina Andersen Vågenes is a member of the national board of Young Friends of the Earth Norway (Natur og Ungdom).

More: The Institute of Marine Research on the plans (in Norwegian)

This article was originally published by Open Democracy on a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

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