Vast network of rivers, lakes and mountains in Finland, Sweden and Norway at risk from being exploited for rare earth and other minerals
theguardian.com, Wednesday 3 September 2014 06.00 BST
Photograph: Pierre-henry Deshayes/AFP/Getty Images
Great stretches of Europe’s last wildernesses risk being damaged and polluted as the international mining industry gears up to develop northern Finland, Sweden, and Norway in search of uranium, iron ore, nickel, phosphorus, and valuable rare earth minerals, according to environmentalists.
The prize for British, Australian, Canadian and other companies is billion-dollar mega mines in Lapland, a region which covers all three countries and Russia, able to supply burgeoning industry in Asia.
But conservationists say the rush could bring permanent damage to the vast network of rivers, lakes and mountains which are home to many of Europe’s largest mammals, such as the lynx, wolf, bear and wolverine.
In addition, human rights groups argue that Lapland and Sami indigenous commuities who live by reindeer herding and fishing will be hit, along with the region’s tourist industry, which depends on pristine nature.
The polar mining boom, which mirrors the oil industry’s search for oil and gas, is heating up as climate change makes new areas and sea routes accessible and world prices of iron ore continue to soar.
So far in 2014, 349 applications for mining permits have been made, of which 243 have been for Finland. Over one-eighth of Finland, an area twice the size of Wales, has now been designated for mining and hundreds of applications for exploration licenses have been received by the government.
According to some studies, the Arctic holds over a fifth of the world’s untapped, recoverable oil and gas resources, as well as major reserves of rare earth, coal, uranium, gold, diamonds, zinc, platinum, nickel and iron ore.
Some of the biggest developments could be in sparsely populated Finnish Lapland where government is encouraging industrial development with tax breaks and state help. If, as expected, Finland contributes £200m to a railway linking the mining region with northern Norway and the the Barents Sea, dozens of giant mines are expected to open in one of Europe’s most ecologically fragile regions. Many would be close to skiing areas, national parks and wilderness areas.
Norwegian fertiliser company Yara International plans a massive 40-60 sq km open-cast phosphorus mine near Sokli in eastern Lapland between the Urho Kekkonen national park and the Värriö nature park. Billions of gallons of polluted waste water would have to be be drained, via pristine lakes and rivers, and millions of tonnes of waste would be created every year.
“Lapland has a very vulnerable Arctic nature. Mining will cause damage which would last at least thousands of years or not fixed at least until next ice age,” says Finnish biochemist Jari Natunen.
“Small mines would produce from a few to tens of millions tons of waste materials, and larger ones even more. Heavy metal waste will typically leak out for hundreds of years … Typically, open pits are left empty to be filled with contaminated water which would flow over to surface water and contaminate ground water.”
Photograph: Kimmo Rauatmaa/AFP/Getty Images
Mining in Finland is governed by EU pollution laws but conservationists warn that supervision and control of the industry is poor and government has often failed to monitor or act because the industry and the authorities are closely and intimately linked.
Existing mines have been found to be contaminating the feeding grounds of reindeer, with heavy metals such as antimony, copper, cobalt, nickel and chromium in dust measured in moss.
“Mining companies know that the authorities provide licences for exploration and mining very easily. Our authorities are understaffed and underfunded and tend to to ignore both environmental and social impact assessments,” said Tero Mustonen, lead author in the Finnish government’s Arctic Biodiversity Assessment and president of the Snowchange Co-operative in North Karelia, Finland.
“The number of mining permits in Lapland is now so big that we are approaching a tipping point, a point of no return,” he said. “If and when the current mining exploration and development plans lead to actual mines we will be in a situation where most of the fragile, sub-Arctic catchment areas, animal and plantlife and terrestrial ecosystems, adapted to the Arctic conditions, cannot withstand the impacts.”
“The Sokli mine is seen as only the first among many planned massive opencast mines in Finnish Lapland, including highly protected conservation areas,” said Finnish MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen. “This region does not need a gold rush. The unique nature of Lapland is a precondition for the future of tourism industry and reindeer herding.”
Further west, work to relocate Sweden’s most northerly town Kiruna to make way for what will be one of the world’s biggest underground iron ore mines is expected to start next year. All 23,000 people, 3,000 buildings, schools, churches and hospitals will be moved a few miles east but already the company LKAB has said it wants to make the mine bigger.
Last year the Swedish government said it planned to treble the number of mines in the country.
Australian, American and other mining giants have descended on the Kiruna region where several mega mines are planned. One, by British mining company Boewulf, hopes to mine 10m tonnes of iron ore a year for 25 years, providing hundreds of jobs.
Photograph: Casper Hedberg/Getty Images
Opinions are polarised, with Sami communities protesting strongly, and others saying the region urgently needs investment. “The [Boewulf] mine and its infrastructure threatens to devastate the conditions for reindeer herding in the area, says Jonas Vannar, a spokesman for the Sami community. “This project endangers our entire existence.”
“It’s better for the company to abandon this project immediately in order to avoid additional costs and stress among the reindeer herders,” said Mattias Åhrén, head lawyer, human rights unit, Sami Council.
Northern Norway, which has over 40 working mines, expects to have nearly 70 within a few years. However, handling their waste is proving controversial.
Marine scientists, environmental groups, fishermen and reindeer herders all complained strongly when Norway earlier this year allowed one mining company to dump millions of tonnes of waste a year from a copper mine into the Arctic fjord of Repparfjord where fish stocks spawn.
“Norway is one of only four countries in the world where the mining industry is still allowed to use submarine tailings, the cheapest available and environmentally harmful technology of waste handling,” says Lars Haltbrekken, chair of Friends of the Earth, Norway. “The others are Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Turkey. Both PNG and Indonesia are discussing if they should end this harmful practice.”