EXTRACTIVE INDUSTRIES

Mining waste disposal in fjord could resume under new ownership at Sydvaranger iron mine in northern Norway

Norway’s Environment Directorate said existing fjord disposal permits cover four million tonnes per year of finely ground rock and process chemicals, which the CEO of a company set to acquire the mine described as “inert.”

The fishing vessel ARKHANGELSK (АРХАНГЕЛЬСК) in Kirkenes harbour, near the century-old Sydvaranger iron mine, on 8 March 2017. DPA Picture Alliance / Alamy.

by Jay Richardson
Thursday 27 July 2023

Grängesberg Exploration, the prospective owner of the Sydvaranger iron ore mine in northern Norway, will not rule out disposing of its waste in Bøkfjorden, a protected National Salmon Fjord on the Barents Sea coast. The operation could use permits based on research roundly criticised by marine scientists as inadequate.

Speaking to the sonification, Christer Lindqvist, CEO at Grängesberg Exploration (Grangex), which has entered negotiations to buy the mine for USD 33 million, said while the company would “look at all the prospects” for waste disposal, “the current plan is with sea tailings.” Lindqvist said Grangex would “provide the green angle” by minimising the mine’s carbon footprint.

Sydvaranger Gruve, the mine’s present owner, deposited over 13 million tonnes of waste in the fjord between 2009 and 2015, when it ceased operations and laid off over 400 workers.

The Sámi Parliament, which represents indigenous people in the north of Norway, has raised concerns over the impact of fjord waste disposal on fishing for Atlantic salmon and king crab, and has said information about potential consequences on wild salmon migration and long-term chemical contamination is lacking. Salmon use their sense of smell to migrate back to the rivers where they spawned.

The Sámi people of coastal northeastern Norway hold constitutionally protected fishing rights in the region. Just two years after waste disposal last started in 2009, marine biologists said the ecological community at the fjord floor had been “eradicated.” The noise, dust, and vibration the mine generates also affect grazing sites and migration routes for Sámi reindeer herders.

Norwegian government continues allowing “harmful and hazardous” waste disposal method

Bøkfjord already contains vast quantities of mining waste from the Sydvaranger mine, whose operators have practised fjord disposal on and off for decades—but with the increasing pace of extraction, the waste’s ecological impact has grown. The Norwegian Environment Agency says disposal under state ownership between 1971 and 1997 amounted to about 56 million tonnes, and a 1988 report by the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA) found mining waste had spread to the mouth of the Barents Sea, 13 km from the mine.

Martine Bjørnhaug, a senior advisor at the Norwegian Environment Agency, confirmed that the pollution permit for four million tonnes per year of mining waste, first awarded to a subsidiary of Sydvaranger Gruve in 2008, still applies. “In the event of a change of ownership, the new responsible entity will be able to continue operating under the same permit,” wrote Bjørnhaug.

Nikolina Nina Grcic, a Senior Engineer at the Norwegian Directorate of Mining, said Sydvaranger Gruve’s active extraction permit was upheld by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisheries in 2019 after complaints against the Directorate’s original approval.

Grangex CEO Christer Lindqvist said the four-million-tonne limit would be “the nominating factor for any optimisation of the process to increase the output of product.”

“Bøkfjorden is an important fjord for coastal fishing, and supports livelihood and recreation for both the local population in general, and for traditional Sámi cultural fishing rights.”

Lindqvist claimed the existing mine tailings, which were most recently discharged from a pipe 20-30 metres below the water’s surface, are “inert,” pose “no contamination issues at all,” and are “actually silt, which also comes from the rivers into the fjords, and this is just adding to it,” characterising their contents as “just silica.” He added Grangex would otherwise “have concerns” about submarine disposal. Two historic waste deposit sites have grown so large they are now visible from the surface, and the area has its own name, ‘slambanken,’ which roughly translates to “the sludge bank.” An image published by the Barents Observer in 2016 shows the fjord remains navigable only on its northwestern side.
Langfjord, in the inner part of Bøkfjord, with the town of Kirkenes at image right, Kirkenes airport at left, ‘slambanken’ areas (circled) at centre, and the approximate location of the post-1974 underwater waste discharge point (dot) at top right. Image from Sentinel Hub, © MapTiler, © OpenStreetMap contributors, © Sentinel Hub.
The open-pit Sydvaranger mine, about 25 km south of the Barents Sea. Image from Sentinel Hub, © MapTiler, © OpenStreetMap contributors, © Sentinel Hub.
Far from “just silica,” Norway’s Institute of Marine Research (IMR) has described the tailings as a mix containing chemicals with a “plastic-like structure.” Current permits allow for 72 tonnes of Magnafloc 10 and Magnafloc LT38, which respectively contain polyacrylamide and polydiallyldimethylammonium chloride (polyDADMAC), to be deposited annually in the fjord. PolyDADMAC is used in wastewater treatment and as a biocide.

Conflicts delay environmental permit revision

In October 2020, the Norwegian Environment Agency announced a “complete revision” of the permit which originally allowed operations to restart in 2009. “The permit has not been revised for more than ten years, and we have therefore started a process of revising the conditions. Usually, we will issue an updated permit within one year,” wrote Senior Advisor Martine Bjørnhaug.

Asked why the agency had now considered the case for more than two and a half years without issuing a decision, Bjørnhaug added: “The one-year estimate is a general rule. However, some of the mining permits have been extremely complex and time consuming. [They involve] many conflicting interests, thorough environmental investigations and so on.”

The Directorate of Fisheries and the NGO Norwegian Salmon Rivers opposed the reopening of submarine tailings disposal in their consultation responses in 2020, and the Norwegian Food Safety Authority raised concerns about the impact on shrimp fishing in the fjord.

Norway’s Institute of Marine Research produced a damning 18-page report in response to environmental impact assessments carried out on behalf of Sydvaranger Gruve, calling the work “on a par with something that could have been done in 1985.”

Asked how Grangex would consider sea disposal, Lindqvist said: “It’s a matter of financing, really, as well as being a good citizen. But at the same time, the importance of bringing more ultra-high-grade iron ore to the market for the green transition.”

Open pit mining with fjord disposal costs significantly less than its alternative, a practice known as ‘backfilling,’ in which mine operators fill underground excavation tunnels with waste. In 1996, the Ministry for Industry—then led by Jens Stoltenberg, who later became Prime Minister of Norway and is now NATO Secretary General—refused to award further funding for a planned underground operation at the Sydvaranger mine, which closed shortly afterwards. Lindqvist said Grangex will backfill all tailings from the Dannemora iron mine in southeastern Sweden, which it plans to open by early 2025.

Coastal fishing threatened as Norwegian Atlantic salmon faces “critical situation”

Friends of the Earth Norway spokesperson Gunnar Reinholdtsen told the sonification submarine tailings disposal is “harmful and hazardous to fjord areas.”

“The Norwegian stock of Atlantic salmon is currently in a critical situation, and management of the species is a national responsibility for Norway. Bøkfjorden is also an important fjord for coastal fishing, and supports livelihood and recreation for both the local population in general, and for traditional Sámi cultural fishing rights,” said Reinholdtsen. Finnish authorities have raised concerns over salmon migration in the river Näätämö, which crosses the Nowegian-Finnish border 30 km from the mining site and flows into Bøkfjorden.

Reinholdtsen said ecology in the fjord is “not close to the living fjord that existed before pollution started.” While Sydvaranger Gruve has reported signs that marine wildlife is returning to ‘recolonise’ the waste deposit, IMR’s consultation response says there is too little evidence to draw conclusions from the mining company’s “very unsystematic” surveys.

“Gross underestimation of the particle dispersion”

IMR is around 40% government-funded and one of the largest marine research institutions in Europe. It produced a damning 18-page report in response to environmental impact assessments carried out by the consulting firm Rambøll for Sydvaranger Gruve in preparation for the 2020 permit revision process, calling the work “on a par with something that could have been done in 1985.”

The report said “significant methodological shortcomings” in Rambøll’s assessment studies revealed “a weak understanding of what drives currents in Norwegian fjords” by failing to account for wind and water movement due to temperature, as well as microplastic discharge from pipelines and explosives, the breakdown of process chemicals, water movement in the Barents Sea, the movement of the waste mass itself, and effects on spawning and rearing areas for marine wildlife. IMR said the studies used an unreferenced and untested particle dispersion model, showed “a complete lack of documentation of particle size,” and presented a “gross underestimation of the particle dispersion.” Rambøll modelled only five days of dispersion and used only estimates for current speed, rather than available real-world data.

Asked for a response to IMR’s report, Grangex CEO Lindqvist wrote: “We will be in a position to comment when the acquisition is completed later this year.”

An unpublished 2020 study by Rambøll reportedly found that more than 6% of a sample of waste particles discharged by Sydvaranger Gruve were under 2 micrometres in diameter, or less than a tenth of the width of a human hair, with some particles as small as 400 nanometres. IMR said it is “possible” that the waste deposit meets the EU definition of nanomaterial, and that the grinding process which helps separate minerals from waste rock would have produced sub-400 nm particles.

Particles this small have unique biophysical properties which can make them toxic. They sink extremely slowly in water, if at all, and have been found attached to cod and haddock eggs, causing them to sink. Copepods, a group of tiny crustaceans which provide a major food source for juvenile fish, are known to eat microscopic mineral particles, raising fears of accumulation in the animals that eat them in turn.

Illegal chemical discharges and corruption allegations: Sydvaranger Gruve’s ill-fated restart

Sydvaranger Gruve suffered a series of political controversies at its outset over alleged malpractice surrounding environmental permits.

In 2009, NRK revealed the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority, which has now been merged into the Environment Agency, had not consulted the Institute of Marine Research on the fjord tailings disposal plans. The mining company’s billionaire owner, Felix Tschudi, is a close personal friend of Jonas Støre, then Foreign Minister and now Prime Minister. A year later, Finnmarken reported that Sydvaranger Gruve had circulated confidential bids for an environmental monitoring contract to one of the competitors, NIVA, a month before NIVA submitted its own winning bid.

Tensions had already run high over political pressure to disregard the fjord’s ecology since 2007, when the Pollution Control Authority allowed the Tschudi Shipping Company to transship gas condensate in the fjord, reportedly under pressure from Støre’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs—which Støre denied—and from the Office of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, having originally refused the application twice.

Grangex plans to wholly acquire Sydvaranger Gruve, which was itself widely accused of environmental mismanagement during its 2009-2015 operations. In June 2010, government inspectors ordered a halt to the disposal of the process chemical Magnafloc LT37 after an unannounced inspection found the company had “imported more than 100 kg” and started discharging it into Bøkfjord without a permit, and without studying its toxicity on marine life. Per Helge Høgaas, technical director at Sydvaranger Gruve, confirmed to Dagbladet the mine had also dumped 18 tonnes of nitric acid into the fjord.

The inspection found the plant’s windows contained carcinogenic chemicals that were banned in Norway in 1980, and it lacked oil separators to prevent spillages. Inspectors described the groundwater beneath one of the main ore deposits as “somewhat contaminated by nitrogen compounds from explosives.”

“It’s not nowhere, in some remote location,” said Grangex CEO Lindqvist. “It’s Norway, with high environmental standards, and that is a proven tailings disposal method. So [that’s] a major benefit for Sydvaranger.” º

This article was updated on 28 July to clarify that three separate tailings disposal sites exist in the Langfjord and Bøkfjordto clarify their location, and to add satellite imagery of the mine itself.

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