The illusion of clean mining waste

Multiple sources over several decades have described the Sydvaranger iron mine’s waste products, most of which end up in a nearby fjord, as ‘clean sand,’ a definition it increasingly doesn’t fit. So why does it keep resurfacing?

The sludge bank, or ‘slambanken,’ in Langfjorden, in the inner part of Bøkfjorden. Northeast Norway, August 2023. A/S Sydvaranger deposited mining waste here between the 1960s and the mid-1970s, stopping only when the sediment level threatened navigation through the fjord. Photo: Rolf Randa.
Jay Richardson

by Jay Richardson

18 September 2023

On 6th April 1995, the mayor of Sør-Varanger, a large municipality on Norway’s northeastern border with Russia, was asked to comment on a recently discovered spate of toxic air pollution from a local iron ore processing plant. Alfon Jerijärvi told Sør-Varanger Avis that choosing the best way to end the release of carcinogenic dioxins by A/S Sydvaranger would be “a question of cost.” Given that the company was preparing to shut, said Jerijärvi, “the municipality strongly hopes that this boring emissions case will not cause any further danger to jobs.”

17 years earlier, on 15th August 1978, the company’s plant operations director Robert Hermansen had told the same paper A/S Sydvaranger’s mining waste deposit in the nearby Bøkfjord was “pure sand” and contained “no poison.” The description would age quickly: in 1981, the company began discharging the process chemical Lilaflot D817M into the fjord. It released around 639 metric tons before the mine closed in 1997. Lilaflot is acutely toxic to marine organisms and breaks down extremely slowly: it was still present in fjord sediments in 2009.

What subtext did Hermansen and Jerijärvi create when they called the pollution “boring” and “clean”? The language lends mining waste an idealised form, as predictable and contained as a steel bar. In their narrative, it’s an inert mass that relinquishes useful products and then sinks or evaporates without a trace.

Aerial photo of a fjord showing a large ground rock deposit on the right hand side.
Bøkfjord from southwest, with mining waste and Kirkenes harbour (behind) at centre. Photo: Rolf Randa.

Except it doesn’t. And the unsettling similarities between their statements and the claims a Swedish mining CEO made 45 years later suggest a specific, shared illusion.

Earlier this year, I spoke with Christer Lindqvist, CEO at Grangex, which plans to acquire the Sydvaranger mine. Lindqvist claimed the tailings pose “no contamination issues at all,” are “actually silt, which also comes from the rivers into the fjords,” and that the choice of future tailings disposal methods would be “a matter of financing, really, as well as being a good citizen.” Hermansen’s “pure sand” and Jerijärvi’s “question of cost” might as well have been standing in the next room.

Other contemporary sources took the issue far more seriously: when A/S Sydvaranger published its dioxin test results, the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority instructed the company to come up with an immediate plan to reduce the emissions to safe levels. Dioxins interfere with reproductive, hormonal, developmental, and immune functions, accumulate easily in animal fat, and persist in the environment for decades. At Kirkenes, chlorine in the seawater the plant used for iron processing, heated with iron concentrate, produced a dioxin vapour that spread over the city, falling on homes, kindergartens, and lakes, where government food safety inspectors discouraged fishing for several years as a consequence. The 50 grams per year estimated at Kirkenes in 1994 matched all known dioxin emissions from the rest of the country combined, and set a new record for the highest single source ever recorded in Norway. Gunnar Reinholdtsen, a local environmental activist at Friends of the Earth Norway, told me there’s still fish in the fjord beyond the tailings deposit, but it’s “sea trout and even salmon in small quantities, [where] there used to be king crab as well, and a lot of ducks.”

Alfon Jerijärvi died in 2018, and Robert Hermansen did not offer comment for this story. After A/S Sydvaranger, Hermansen held senior positions at the state-owned coal mining company Store Norske, the Swedish state-owned mining company LKAB, and the West Norwegian smelter Odda Smeltverk.

The gaps between claims about mining waste’s cleanliness and the realities of managing it reveal what archeologist Anatolijs Venovcevs has called its “perpetual spill.” Mining waste deposits rarely stay where they’re supposed to be—particles from the Sydvaranger deposit have been found up to 13 km away, at the mouth of the Barents Sea—and they transform chemically with age. As a landscape feature, their properties are variable and hard to predict, their quantities excessive, and they defy attempts at containment, neat characterisation, and management: Venovcevs calls Sør-Varanger “imperfectly deindustrialized.” Local journalist and photographer Rolf Randa told me decades of deposits in Bøkfjord have made it almost unnavigable by boat at low tides.

Mining waste casts shadows that wither ecological communities, remake topographies, and alter the course of people’s lives. They cast carcinogenic clouds across cities and eject toxic nanoparticles tens of kilometres into watercourses. The shadows span decades, and they’re still with us. º


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