Mine tailings / New images reveal massive scale of Førdefjord’s potential hypersedimentation

Førdefjord at sunrise, with Engebøfjellet at centre.
Førdefjord at sunrise, with Engebø, the mining site, at centre.

3D models of the 250 million tonne underwater waste deposit approved by Nordic Mining’s environmental permits show that, transposed over London, the discarded tailings would cover an area from Farringdon to Waterloo.

Our knowledge of the dangers we pose to salmon is now half a century old; our knowledge has ultimately made little difference.”

Richard White, The Organic Machine (1990:90), on the destruction of the Columbia River salmon runs.

New visual modelling produced by the sonification shows how Nordic Mining’s planned Engebø project waste, set to be deposited in the ecologically protected Førdefjord in Western Norway, could smother a deep water habitat comparable in size to some of the world’s major metropolitan areas.

The project is licensed to deposit up to 250 million tonnes of finely crushed rock and process chemicals, which would gradually cover up to 4.4km2 of the fjord floor over its projected 39-year lifespan. After processing, pumps would send the finely ground waste rock to an outlet 50 metres above the fjord bed. Modelling conducted by the Norwegian Institute for Water Research in 2009 for Nordic Mining estimated that, were the entire permitted quantity of ground rock to be discharged from a single point, the resulting waste cone would reach up to 150 metres high.

Nordic Mining reduced its projections for the outflow of both products and waste in its latest operational plan in 2020. It remains licensed to dispose of the 4 million tonnes of waste per year approved in its original 2015 discharge permit.

“The original plans indicated a cone with a maximum height of 150 meters above the sea floor,” said Norwegian Environment Agency (Miljødirektoratet) adviser Glenn Storbråten in a response to the sonification. “Current plans imply six cones with a maximum height of 65 metres, but this solution will be re-evaluated based on surveillance throughout the project.

“Over the lifespan of the mining project an estimated total of 51.4 million tonnes of tailings will be produced, or 1.3 million tonnes per year. The original estimates that were the basis for the permit were 250 million tonnes (140 million m3).” The agency confirmed it had not adjusted Nordic Mining’s permit to reflect the reduced estimate, and said it had reached “no conclusions” on doing so in the future.

The full 250 million tonne deposit, superimposed onto satellite imagery of London, extends north-south from Farringdon Station to St George’s Circus and east-west from London Bridge to Embankment (a ten-minute journey by Underground), and easily tops the height of the London Eye.

In New York City, the approved tailings area would cover much of Lower Manhattan and extend across the East River to Brooklyn. The same shape mapped onto Oslo comfortably covers the city’s tallest buildings.

Fishing associations remain worried about the waste deposit’s regulation, and have repeatedly asked the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Fisheries to clarify environmental monitoring and enforcement plans. In 2020 the Norwegian Seafood Federation (Sjømat Norge) and the Norwegian Fishermen’s Association (Norges Fiskarlag) wrote to the Ministry to raise concerns over an alleged “lack of adequate investigation of risk associated with food safety.” It named sodium isobutyl xanthate (SIBX) and is breakdown product carbon disulfide (CS2) as “particularly toxic,” and repeated an earlier request that “measures should be taken if/when the conditions given in the emission permit are broken.”

A deposit building up on the 300-metre-deep fjord bed, no matter how wide, would likely be invisible from the surface—except in its devastation of wildlife, from prowling skates to the miniscule copepods that feed on sediments and give fish their most important food source. Norway’s Institute of Marine Research has led multiple studies on deep sea sponges, which “grow abundantly on the vertical faces of the walls in Norwegian fjords,” sometimes forming biomass aggregations several kilometres in length. They are regarded as essential ecosystem components, and feed by filtering bacteria and other nutrients from the water. Sponges exposed to simulated mine tailings showed permanent drops in respiration and metabolism.

The deep sea sponge Geodia barretti, photographed by Erling Svensen.

A skate (sea floor habitat) and a dogfish (not sea floor) from Førdefjord.

A sea urchin from Førdefjord. Sea urchins have been found at depths of 1,200 metres in northern Norway.

Visual models provide a way through the crisis of visibility by transposing the fjord’s vastness onto a familiar scale. It’s difficult to imagine what 250 million tonnes of waste looks like. If Nordic Mining deposits the maximum amount of waste that its permit allows, the result will be geographically equivalent to smothering a major part of one of the world’s large cities. It would make that city unrecognisable, and change the quality of life for everyone and everything else in its vicinity for generations. And yet that is what marine disposal is set to do, for Førdefjord’s marine metropolis.

“If something goes wrong with an STD [Submarine Tailings Disposal] system,” wrote MiningWatch in a 2002 review of the practice, “there is little the company, or anyone else, can do. The public may not even discover a problem, because it is out of sight under the sea.” The models might soon become very real. º

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