Local government officials in Sunnfjord, on Norway’s West coast, are actively monitoring an accidental sediment discharge at the construction site of a highly controversial mining project. The protective silt curtain around the site, designed to hold back material disturbed by drilling and earthworks, developed a fault on Thursday evening, spreading a large cloud of rock and clay particulates into the ecologically protected Førdefjord. Sediment runoff also flowed into a nearby river. The research vessel G.O. Sars, jointly owned by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research and the University of Bergen, was present on Friday afternoon and has collected water samples.
“The municipality of Sunnfjord took action as soon as possible after we got knowledge of the incident,” said Terje Heggheim, Director of Sunnfjord Municipality, in a statement to the sonification on Monday 10th October. “The environment department has been in daily contact with Nordic Mining. We and the company are monitoring the situation continuously.”
The incident marks the second time in six months that a health and safety issue has halted preparatory works. On the project’s first day of operations in May, construction was interrupted by the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority after contractors demolished a barn with asbestos roofing without sufficient licensing and protective equipment. Both last week’s sediment spill and the asbestos control incident in May were reported to the authorities by Friends of the Earth Norway.
A statement to the sonification by Kenneth Nakken, the company’s Operations Director for the Engebø project, reads simply: “We are working in dialogue with the local authorities to resolve and document the deviation.”
Fortunately, October is not fish-spawning season in the fjord: if a similar sediment leak were to happen in four to six months’ time, suspended limestone and clay sediments would likely adhere to cod and other pelagic fish eggs, causing them to sink and dramatically lowering their survival rates. It is, however, spawning season for sea trout in rivers such as Grytaelva. High sedimentation levels reduce the flow of clean, cold water to eggs buried in the riverbed and have been shown to reduce survival rates in brook trout and other salmonids.
High levels of suspended sediments are also known to affect foraging and gill health in juvenile fish, especially those adapted to clearer waters. Juvenile Norwegian coastal cod have been found in large numbers in the relatively sheltered seagrass meadows in the bays at Redalsvika and Liavika, approximately 2 km from the spill site. The Gryta River, or Grytaelva, which flows into the spawning grounds and rearing areas in Redalsvika, has also taken sediment runoff. High silt levels left over in the Grytaelva after the deposit of sediments would affect silver eel migration, which typically occurs from early August to late November.
In an email on Friday evening, Mr Nakken admitted that efforts to fix the silt curtain had instead led to “somewhat increased leakage,” but insisted that a temporary solution had reduced the spill rate and that a permanent solution would eventually be found. “The executive contractor has been in contact with the Sunnfjord Fire Service this afternoon based on information that they may have equipment that could help to seal the leak … Attempts have been made throughout the day to get in touch with a diving company for support and investigations have been carried out to see if there are available silt curtains in the area without success,” he wrote.
The incident paints a shambolic picture of the project at a time when Nordic Mining is under intense pressure to attract investors. In June, it announced an offtake agreement with Japan’s Iwatani Corporation subject to securing full project financing by 31st March 2023. Nordic Mining’s share price has declined by just over 40% to date since reaching a five-year high in January. In September, it sold its stake in the Finnish lithium company Keliber to Sibanye-Stillwater, amidst skyrocketing lithium demand, to raise funds for the Engebø project. Shortly afterwards, Nordea Bank, which had been the second-largest shareholder in Nordic Mining just months earlier, sold its entire holding citing sustainability concerns. The U.S.-based Barton Group cancelled its offtake agreement for garnet minerals from the project in February 2020 and did not reply to a request for comment.
The contractors responsible for the leak are installing infrastructure for Nordic Mining’s planned open pit rutile and garnet mine on the shores of the Førdefjord, one of Norway’s protected National Salmon Fjords. The project has met with fierce opposition for its proposal to deposit toxic mining waste on the fjord floor. In 2016 the Norwegian Environment Agency granted permission for the disposal of four million tonnes of waste per year in the fjord, or some 250 million tonnes over the mine’s lifetime.
The Agency’s permit has not been re-evaluated since a new plan of operations was published in 2020, adding sodium isobutyl xanathate (SIBX) as a process chemical amongst other modifications. Both SIBX and its breakdown product, CS2, are highly toxic to aquatic organisms. Friends of the Earth Norway and Young Friends of the Earth Norway have announced a joint lawsuit against the Norwegian government over its approval of the operating permits.
Mr Nakken’s email continues: “We have asked DNV [Det Norske Veritas] to carry out surveys and measurements in order to better document the incident and gather more information from the measurement buoys … They will be in place tomorrow. The executive contractor will assist DNV with the investigations and be present to ensure that any changes in the leakage from the silt curtain are caught and the necessary further measures are taken.”
Det Norske Veritas was tasked by Nordic Mining in 2014 with preparing a water turbidity study of the Førdefjord in response to a request for further information on the project by the Ministry of Climate and Environment. DNV’s results at the time were disputed by the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research (IMR), which found serious errors and conducted its own modelling which found that “particles [of mining waste] will spread far out in the fjord.” IMR found that DNV had used incomplete or inaccurate data for atmospheric conditions, current velocity (which it underestimated by a factor of two), temperature, salinity, and particle size, failed to account for “turbidity collapse” or slope failure along the sides of the waste deposit, and failed to detect several ecologically important and endangered species by using inappropriate fishing and observation methods. Turbidity collapse has been observed in underwater tailings deposits at Ranfjorden, about halfway up Norway’s coastline, where areas with “almost no benthic [seabed-dwelling] fauna” can now be found 19 km from the waste discharge point. The phenomenon has also been documented at Bøkfjorden, near the border with Russia.
A consortium of environmental groups filed a complaint to the European Free Trade Agreement Surveillance Authority (EFTA ESA) in November 2020, citing IMR’s research along with the proposed use of non-electric detonators, which produce microplastic pollution. The EFTA ESA opened an ‘own-initiative’ case in December 2021, citing “the gravity of the allegations” made against both Nordic Mining and Nussir AS in a separate case at Repparfjorden, to conduct a “general assessment of Norway’s compliance with the WFD [Water Framework Directive] when it comes to the disposal of mining waste into fjords.”
A 2022 report by IMR raises further questions over the potential impact of land reclamation on the site of the current sediment leak, especially during periods of elevated rainfall, and cautions that “no calculations have been presented on the expected run-off from the catchment area which the landfill adds … No information is given on how erosion from these masses is to be prevented.”
Heavy—but not unprecedented—rain
High rainfall last week contributed to water-saturated conditions and increased sediment runoff from the site, but the conditions are by no means unprecedented: heavy rain occurs often on western Norway’s Atlantic coast. Normal October rains in Bergen, 150 km to the south of Engebø, fall at around 8.7 mm per day but reached 20.7 mm per day in October last year.
On Wednesday last week, 35.9 mm of rainfall was registered at Lavik, about 50 km from the construction site, and the rain continued to fall through to Sunday at a 24-hour average of 28.12 mm.
Deforestation to make way for a new road at the site has increased the likelihood of soil erosion, as have major preparatory earthworks that started in May. A yellow-level landslide warning is in place for much of southwestern Norway from Wednesday 5th October to Tuesday 11th October.
An underwater recording by Kjetil Høidal from Vevring, about 3 km to the west of Engebø, reveals fish grunts along with engine noise from a salmon farm on the other side of the fjord.
The silt curtain incident will not reassure investors, locals, or government officials of the company’s ability to handle the complex operations involved in extracting and processing ore. Literature released on Nordic Mining’s website claims that “it is expected that there will be little incidental effect in the fjord” and promises to maintain “high environmental and social standards”. If the project’s operators cannot contain organic sediments behind a solid curtain at times of slightly elevated rainfall, there is little hope that they’ll be able to safely deposit 250 million tonnes of mineral waste at the bottom of a pristine fjord. ◼️
Nordic Mining admitted that it had no backup silt curtain and had so far failed to fix the leak in a leaked email on Friday evening. The incident puts further pressure on the company after a major investor sold its stake over environmental concerns.
by Jay Richardson
Tuesday 11th October 2022
This article was updated at 15:00 on Tuesday 11th October to emphasise that the research vessel G.O. Sars happened to be in the area of the incident on Friday and was not called out with the specific purpose of taking samples. It was also updated to clarify that the incident was reported to the authorities by Anne-Line Thingnes Førsund and not by Nordic Mining.
The article was updated on Wednesday 12th October at 16:00 to add further information about the impact of sedimentation on sea trout spawning in the Grytaelva.
It was updated again on Thursday 13th October at 14:30 to clarify that the final photograph shows a surface water drainage ditch.