European agency will publish findings on mining waste disposal within months

In a close examination of the implications EU regulation for mining waste in Norway, the EFTA surveillance authority is expected to report on the legality of submarine tailings disposal under EEA law.

EFTA House in Brussels
The Brussels office of the European Free Trade Association Surveillance Authority, which monitors compliance with European Economic Area (EEA) rules in Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway.

by Jay Richardson
15 February 2023

The European agency investigating mining waste in Norwegian waters has said it hopes to publish interim findings in a matter of months. Its highly anticipated investigation was announced last year amid growing controversy over submarine tailings disposal (STD), an environmentally destructive practice for which Norway is now the only European country to issue new permits.

The upcoming report by ESA, which oversees compliance with European Economic Area (EEA) law by Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, could have profound consequences for Nordic Mining’s Engebø mine. The project has licenses to deposit up to 250 million tonnes of tailings in a fjord in western Norway over its projected 39-year lifespan, but is still under construction and not yet fully funded. It would also affect plans to dispose of tailings from a copper mine in Repparfjord, along with existing projects that deposit in Frænfjord, Ranfjord, and Stjernsundet.

If ESA finds that submarine tailings disposal breaches EU water standards, it will send a formal notice to Norway; were the two sides to then fail to reach an agreement, the case could ultimately be brought before the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) Court. The interim findings now seem likely to coincide with a highly anticipated overhaul of the Norwegian government’s minerals strategy, which was initially due in 2022 and is now delayed until Spring 2023.

ESA spokesperson Jarle Hetland told the sonification the agency is now reviewing responses to its Call for Information, which ran in February and March 2022. Its Internal Market Affairs Directorate is considering whether STD breaches EU water standards and “related EEA law,” in what could become a reconsidered approach to EU mining waste regulation in Norway.

The prospect of a forced policy change or EFTA enforcement action would likely shake confidence in the long-term viability of Norwegian mining projects that rely on fjord disposal, which is up to $25m cheaper per year than disposal on land. Mounting uncertainty also comes from a joint lawsuit announced in July last year by Naturvernforbundet (Friends of the Earth Norway) and Natur og Ungdom (Young Friends of the Earth Norway) over the Norwegian government’s approval of licenses for Nordic Mining’s project. º


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