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Risking fjords for profit? Norway’s dirty mining story

Indigenous Peoples

The beauty of Repparfjord is under threat. © Helene Lind Jensen, Young Friends of the Earth Norway.

The mineral industry is growing in northern Europe, where countries like Sweden, Finland and Norway are all looking to forage into a new mineral era. Proposed mining projects have been met with strong protests from local environmental groups, marine researchers and indigenous rights groups, who oppose the massive destruction of nature and ecosystems linked to tailing deposits and potential spills. The Norwegian government is currently assessing two mining projects, both involving the controversial waste management practice of submarine tailings disposal.

The use of submarine tailings disposal is not a common practice across the world. In fact, Norway is one of only five countries worldwide to use this method for waste disposal, and there is a growing consensus that this is not the best way to dispose of waste: several countries are considering banning the practice, which is not on the EU’s ‘best available technology’ list.    

In the Repparfjord, situated in Finnmark, in the extreme northeastern part of Norway, mining company Nussir ASA is planning a copper mine. The tailings from the mine will be deposited in the fjord, a total of 30 million tonnes of toxic mining tailings over a period of 20 years. Locals and environmental groups are worried, and with good reason: several research institutes with marine research as their main field, including the Institute of Marine Research, have condemned the plans as environmentally irresponsible.

In Førdefjorden, Nordic Mining plans to open a rutile ore mine and dispose of the tailings in the fjord. Like Repparfjord, Førdefjorden is classified as a ‘national salmon fjord’ for wild salmon, and should in theory be protected by law. In other words, an ecosystem deemed too valuable to allow salmon farming is about to be opened for mining.  

This is despite the fact that former experiences with submarine tailing deposits negatively impacted ecosystems and local economies. Forty years ago, mining company Folldal Verk ran an open-pit mine dumping tailings in the Repparfjord, and the effects hit the local fishing industry particularly hard: healthy fish nearly disappeared. The quality of water in the fjord has only recently recovered to an acceptable level, but is at risk of a new drop if new tailing deposits are allowed.

Both Repparfjord and Førdefjorden have strong underwater currents, and scientists from the Institute of Marine Research fear the fine particles from the deposit will spread far away from the deposit site. If this happens, toxins will be taken up by the fish, cause severe damage to the food chain, and harm the vulnerable ecosystem in the fjord.   

The initial decision to allow deposits was based on reports that have since been heavily criticized for not considering the strong currents in the fjords. The report by Akvaplan Niva, on which the decision to allow the project in Repparfjord was based, has since been countered by two independent investigations by Sintef and Det Norske Veritas (DNV). Akvaplan Nita did not account for the tidal patterns in their models, and have since been criticized for sloppiness and inadequacy.1 Despite this, the government has not changed its decision for either of the licences.

In addition, the size of the projects has grown beyond the initial plans. This week, Nussir announced that it has found double the amount of copper ore stated in its original application, or more than 66 million tonnes to be extracted over a period of 30 to 40 years. Nordic Mining plan to extract up to 250 million tonnes of minerals from the Engebø mountain. These numbers only include the pure extractable mineral, not the waste they create in the process. In the Engebø mountain, estimates have found that only about five per cent of the mountain can be classified as pure mineral, while the rest will be dumped in the fjord as waste.

The environmental movement has rightly questioned the sustainability of such a practice, and is scaling up its protests to prevent the projects from happening. Protests in the Repparfjord area are also coming from the indigenous Sami population. The Sami claim that the mining will interfere with their traditional Sami culture, as their reindeer stocks depend on the areas for grazing. As indigenous people, the Sami have protected rights to activities like hunting, fishing and reindeer herding, and mining development threatens the land they have a protected right to use.

Neither local protesters nor the environmental movement are against mines in principle, but raise alarm on these projects as best available knowledge and independent reports speak against them taking place. Dumping millions upon millions of tonnes of toxic waste in fjords, through the disposal of the submarine tailings, is neither reasonable nor sustainable. Other solutions are available. They may be more costly in financial terms, but that is a small price to pay when the alternative is to damage vulnerable ecosystems for short-term exploitation of a finite resource.

Tina Andersen, Young Friends of the Earth Norway (with Ragnhild Freng Dale, PhD candidate at Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge)

1. See critiques (in Norwegian): Sintef and DNV; Reaction from IMR to Nordic Mining application; Reaction from IMR to Nussir's application.

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