The safety violation marks the start of a multi-decade mining project that plans to deposit toxic waste in a protected salmon fjord.
On the evening of Thursday 5th May, in western Norway’s pristine Sunnfjord district, Nordic Mining demolished a barn with an asbestos roof. Inspectors stopped the work on Friday afternoon, citing an “imminent danger of spreading asbestos dust”. The same day, Norway’s Ministry of Trade and Industry dismissed complaints from 12 stakeholders and formally licensed Nordic Mining’s widely contested Engebø titanium dioxide and garnet silicate open pit mining project.
Witnesses today confirmed that the crew has continued working 50 metres away from the barn, while the carcinogen remains on the now fenced-off demolition site. Asbestos dust can linger in the air for up to 72 hours once disturbed, and even a slight breeze can re-disperse the fibres. On the morning of Thursday 12th May, 29 activists chained themselves to machinery on the site, with approximately 50 others gathered around the perimeter.
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Nordic Mining’s carelessness with asbestos matters because these fibres are lethal. Asbestos is the world’s most notorious industrial carcinogen and causes lung disease and cancer, including mesothelioma, which is almost always fatal. The WHO estimates that asbestos kills about 107,000 people every year. The material has been outlawed in most European countries, including Norway, since the late 1980s. According to activists on the ground, both the demolition contractor and project management gave assurances that all relevant licenses for the work had been issued, before being ordered to stop work by the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority later that day due to a lack of “necessary measures in place.”
Nordic Mining’s controversial 50-year mining plans
Engebø’s open pit mine will literally take the top off the mountain. Over its lifetime, the project will pipe some 250 million tonnes of toxic waste slurry to the bottom of the 300-metre-deep fjord. That habitat is home to a rich variety of bottom-dwelling fauna, as well as several red-listed and protected species, coastal coral, sea eagles, and orca pods. It is also one of Norway’s designated National Wild Salmon Fjords. The European Free Trade Association’s surveillance authority is now reviewing whether the plans would breach the EU Water Framework Directive; 2019 documentation states that the waste slurry will contain sodium isobutyl xanathate (SIBX), which is extremely toxic to aquatic life. Natur og Ungdom (Nature and Youth) and Naturvernforbundet (the Norwegian Society for Nature Conservation) have announced a joint lawsuit against the government over their approval of the project. The original purchaser of the garnet silicate product, Barton Group, pulled out of its agreement with Nordic Mining in February 2020.
The plan at Førdefjord has drawn fierce opposition ever since it was announced. Norway and Papua New Guinea are the only two countries that still allow new projects to dump mining waste directly into the ocean, and the practice is now widely considered environmentally disastrous as well as physically unpredictable. Nordic Mining insists it will maintain “high environmental standards” throughout the project, but claims that marine disposal is the only viable option (it also happens to be by far the cheapest). The company is also pursuing licenses for seabed mining.
Nordic Mining’s mishandling of asbestos has cemented local opposition to its waste disposal plans. Nordic claims that the waste slurry will remain on the fjord bed without seeping into the water, but scientists generally dispute that toxins deposited in marine environments will stay contained. “I don’t trust Nordic Mining and their entrepreneurs to follow up on these environmental safeguarding measures, seeing how they have proceeded so far,” said an activist who has today been fined by police for peaceful civil disobedience at the site. “They are not acting professionally and they know it. I don’t understand how investors and politicians still have faith in the company and its partners.”
Alongside a groundswell of international opposition to the project, some four thousand people have pledged to participate in civil disobedience through Young Friends of the Earth. On 12th May the country’s largest youth-led environment group, Nature and Youth, ended a direct action campaign that impeded work for two weeks and saw more than 60 activists arrested; others are petitioning the project’s purchasing partner for titanium ore to cancel its agreement with Nordic Mining. Local fishing groups have also come out strongly in opposition to the project, including the Norwegian Coastal Fishermen’s Union, the Norwegian Biodiversity Network, Norwegian Salmon Rivers, the Norwegian Association of Hunters and Anglers, and the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research.
Finally, most Norwegians oppose ocean dumping. According to a December 2021 Norstat survey, 80 percent disapprove of mining companies being allowed to deposit waste materials in the sea, as Nordic Mining plans to do in the Førdefjord and the Repparfjord. Only 9 percent support the projects.
Silent fjord: what’s at stake
It’s already clear from footage of the last few days’ construction work that the landscape will change, perhaps beyond recognition. In this pristine fjord, the diggers look otherworldly, ungainly, bright, like they distort everything around them visually and make it grim and functional—which, of course, they literally do.
The new fjord soundscape is equally disorientating. Gone are the wide open spaces, the gentle silences, the intangible energy that insects have in quiet places where they make everything vibrate just a little bit. Gone are the shimmering echoes that you can hear across lakes and valleys, when every rustle of leaves goes floating over the surface, and the water itself whispers something indistinguishable to you. Between the crackling gravel under giant truck tyres, the clanging rocks, and the straining, grating engines, the heavy machinery sounds like some kind of biblical landslide.
After the mine reaches the end of its lifespan sometime in the 2060s, its real cost will not be noise. Removing the top of Engebø will destroy a wild mountain habitat, kill and displace its birds and insects, and undo its waterfalls. Coating the floor of the fjord in crushed rock and heavy metals is less certain—its outcome will depend on Nordic Mining’s engineering abilities, which are not substantial if the past week is anything to go by. But it will almost certainly increase toxicity within the ecosystem. Its price will be silence.
Such is the level of opposition, however, that the project will now have to face down monumental national and international opprobrium. That will be uncomfortable and commercially and politically unsustainable for shareholders, customers, suppliers, agencies that enable it and a government that stands by and allows it to happen. For now, it will be confronted by the prospect of legal action and continued civil disobedience.
Nordic Mining and Barton Group have been approached for comment.
This article was updated on 4th November 2022 to protect the privacy of some activists.
by Jay Richardson and Sally Raudon
Thursday 12th May 2022