Copper, fjords, reindeer and controversy: inside Norway’s new arctic mine

Molly Lempriere 13 May 2019 (Last Updated May 10th, 2019 16:45)

In February, the Norwegian Government approved construction of a controversial copper mine in Kvalsund, Finnmark, more than 400km above the Arctic Circle, despite years of opposition from indigenous Sami herders and fishermen. We look at the potential and consider the impact on the environment and local communities.

Copper, fjords, reindeer and controversy: inside Norway’s new arctic mine
A point causing major concern is the mines tailings, which will be dumped in the Repparfjord.

In February 2019, the Norwegian Government officially gave the green light to the construction of a copper mine within the Arctic Circle, close to Norway’s northerly point. The mine, owned by Norwegian company Nussir ASA will be the largest copper mine in the country once it is completed, with estimated reserves of 72 million tonnes of copper ore, as well as gold and silver by-products.

“The mining project will strengthen the industrial base in the north,” Norwegian Trade and Industry Minister, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said in a statement. “It will contribute positively to the local community, with new jobs and skills.”

Demand for copper is surging as electrification, particularly of the motor transport industry, becomes increasing important. As such, Norway believes pursing the green metal is essential to achieving sustainability goals. The site will cost 1 billion crowns ($115.8m) and is set to become the world’s first wholly electric mine, further adding to its green credentials.

But while the government hopes the project will create jobs in the area and boost the Norwegian mineral industry, it has been plagued by protests. The Saami people, an indigenous group who inhabit areas of northern Norway and Sweden, Finland and the Murmansk Oblast of Russia, have been particularly vocal, arguing that the mine will disturb reindeer herders and damage the local environment, in particular polluting the fjord in which the tailings will be deposited.

The project

The Nussir company was created in 2005, specifically to develop the copper deposit of the same name, which was first discovered in the late 1970s. The site lies in Kvalsund, a municipality in the county of Finnmark, located in northern Norway.

“The copper deposit has been developed and drilled by a different company since the1980’s; it was then picked up by our company and financed in around 2006,” says Nussir CEO Øystein Rushfeldt. “Since then we have been taking the project from a classical exploration project to an industrial project ready to start construction.”

Market conditions are wildly different now than they were in the 1980s, making the development of the mine feasible. Demand for copper has risen significantly in recent years and is expected to continue to grow from 23.6mnt in 2018 to 29.8mnt by 2027. This is primarily driven by the need for copper for use in electric infrastructure and technology.

The past decade has predominantly been spent acquiring the many operating licenses and permits needed to development if the site. These included the County Manager of Finnmark announcing their support of Nussir’s zoning plan application in 2012, the tailings permit approved from Environmental Directorate in 2016 and the pre-feasibility study being completed by Golder Associates in 2017.

“We’ve spent ten years on drilling, environmental and social studies, and technical preparations,” explains Rushfeldt. “So we had a scoping study, a pre-feasibility study and we are currently doing a full feasibility study.”

The company is now building on these studies ahead of beginning production at the site. But Nussir still has a few challenges to overcome before the sites potential can be realised.

“The challenge we have now is to finalise the feasibility study, which is more work than it is a challenge,” says Rushfeldt. “It’s just a lot of engineering work. Then we will need to finance the construction, which is also quite some work. How much of a challenge it will be is difficult to say, I think that it will be very dependent on copper prices, the value of the dollar and the general conditions in capital markets. So during the year, if there are positive developments we will see construction financing coming on board. If there is negative development in the world markets, or prices, it might be a challenge.”

The site sits more than 400km above the Arctic Circle, but Rushfeldt says this is unlikely to create many problems when developing the site.

“We who live in the north of Norway never realised that we were living in the Arctic,” he jokes. “It’s never seen as the arctic to us, because northern Norway is similar to most northern European countries and it’s typically warmer than large parts of Sweden, Finland and Canada because of the Gulf Stream. So even if we are far north, we don’t have ice in the fjords in the wintertime.

“So for us, it’s ordinary, like everywhere else in Norway we have airports we have cities we have highways, we have all the things that everyone else has, so we never thought about us being arctic or not arctic.”

The protests

Since its conception the project has faced opposition, groups such as the Saami Parliament, the Saami Council, Friends of the Earth Norway, and Nature and Youth have voiced their concerns or actively protested.

A particular point of concern is that the mine site sits within District 22, land used by reindeer herders, and may disrupt the 8,000 reindeer that travel through the area every year.

“The area is on the way through the summer pasture and is also in the middle of the land where the calves are born in spring and where the female reindeer raise and protect their calves,” says Christina Henriksen, vice-president of the Saami Council. “So, the mine will interrupt the calving process and the raising of the calves.”

[PQ: The long-lasting, sustainable employment of the reindeer husbandry seems to have to lose to the short-term employment of a mine.]

The Saami Council fears the short term gain the mine offers means that the government is overlooking the reindeer herders.

“Reindeer husbandry is not a very high-income industry, and that maybe is part of the problem because you don’t see any big cash coming from the reindeer husbandry, whereas you can imagine the cash coming from the mining industry,” says Henriksen. “So the long-lasting, sustainable employment of the reindeer husbandry seems to have to lose to the short-term employment of a mine that will, best case scenario last for maybe ten years.”

Nussir say that the mines operations will have a minimal effect on the reindeer, and that where possible concessions have been made.

“We have made quite important adaptions,” says Rushfeldt. “The key is that we’re using an area that is already industrialised for the plant, and we are having an underground mine that will be operated from that existed area. We’re not taking any new land from the reindeer herders.

“There is a tunnel to one of the two deposits; this tunnel has an access road of 400m. This access road will be closed during parts of the year when the reindeers are passing or during the calving season. So that’s part of the concession which is something that we will have to adapt to and we think that it’s strong evidence of taking care of the reindeer husbandry needs.”

 The fjord

Another point causing major concerns is the mines tailings, which will be dumped in the Repparfjord. The fjord is listed as specially protected to conserve the wild salmon that populate it, along with stocks of cod, pollock, Atlantic herring, haddock, halibut and flatfish.

“Although there are lots of lovely words from the government about how they’re going to make sure that the poison and the toxic waste remains in one spot in the fjord we don’t really buy that,” says Henriksen. “People are living off the fisheries; they’re living off the sea, so if there are no fish and no ecosystem left in the fjord they have nothing to live from.”

Friends of the Earth Norway, claim that two million tonnes of waste will be dumped into the fjord annually. This is the equivalent to 17 lorry loads every hour that the mine is in production.

“This is one of the most environmentally damaging industrial projects in Norwegian history,” said Silje Ask Lundberg, leader of Friends of the Earth Norway.

Rushfeldt says that concerns for the fisheries are ill-founded however, as there area does not support a fishing industry. “The reality is that there are not any large fisheries in the Repparfjord area. It’s very marginal as a fishing area, so there might be some people saying otherwise but it is very easy to check the reality, and it’s not an important area for fishing.”

The company also claims that the waste will sit within a very small area, just a kilometre squared. “Nussir wishes to use a technology which introduces sea water in the tailings before it is pumped out to the exact exit location of the tailings,” the company states on its website. “The mixing in of sea water makes the tailings fall to the bottom instead of rising up and mixing with the sea. This limits the spread of fine particles and also the spread of the deposit itself.”

The perks and pressures

Nussir claims that the mine will bring numerous benefits to the area, which has long struggled from a dwindling and aging population. Between 1950 and 2004 the population dropped by 43%, meaning there are now only a little more than 1,000 inhabitants of the area.

The area already spends 40% of its income caring for the elderly, and as young people continue to move away to find jobs, it is likely to struggle to look after those left. The mine will provide 150 new jobs helping to attract more people to the area.

The Saami people are distrustful of such assertions though, and have little faith that the project will truly benefit the area.

“The last experiences from mining up north in Norway were not positive, the last mine lasted five years, people were promised jobs for 20 years but after five years the foreign investors couldn’t keep it running, and they left,” says Henriksen.

The Saami Council, along with others, will continue to protest the mines development. “The decision has come from the government, but still again the Saami organisations will contest investors and support organisations who protest this,” says Henriksen. “We will bring it to international bodies such as the UN, and also to backup those who are directly affected by the mine, that is the reindeer herding districts and the fishermen and women. We stand side-by-side with the Saami Parliament and the Saami communities.”

For the Saami, this is just the most recent example of the Norwegian Government pursing industrialisation in the north with little concern for its effect upon the indigenous people. The mine will help Norway pursue electrification, helping it to lower its COemissions, as well as bringing investment and employment opportunities to an area where it is greatly needed. But will the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term losses?