MAC: Mines and Communities

Finland: London mining company accused of "serious environmental crime"

Published by MAC on 2012-11-12
Source: Uutiset, Greenpeace (2012-11-09)

Just as one British mining company announces its intention to exploit a huge iron ore deposit in Greenland, another London listed outfit is accused of causing a major toxic spill at its mine in eastern Finland.

The Kainuu mine, situated just below the Arctic Circle, is managed by Talvivaara  Mining Co. plc and produces nickel and cobalt, with uranium as a by-product.

Back in May this year, nickel discharges from the mine were widely condemned, forcing the company to promise to make amends. See: Finnish Mining Boom Prompts Regulation Backlash on Polluters

Nearly six months later, on 4 November 2012, according to Greenpeace Finland, between 5000-6000 cubic metres of nickel and uranium-laced waste water began leaking hourly into a gypsum waste pond.

The company claims it "plugged the leak" last Thursday. But, according to the national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat almost immediately afterwards the discharges re-commenced.

Finland's Environment minister, who visited the minesite that day, described this latest "leak" as a "serious environmental crime".

Talvivaara waste water leak plugged?

Uutiset

9 November 2012

On Thursday morning, the CEO of the Talvivaara mining company said a leak at its gypsum pond had been blocked. However by late morning Helsingin Sanomat reported that there was renewed leakage.

Repair work underway at the Talvivaara pond on Thursday
Repair work underway at the Talvivaara pond on
Thursday. Image: Kimmo Rauatmaa / Lehtikuva

The leak, which allowed water containing nickel and uranium to seep into the environment of the Kainuu mine, was thought to be sealed up after efforts that went on throughout Thursday night.

It is estimated that over 10,000 kilos of nickel as well as unknown amounts of uranium may have leaked into the mine's surroundings.

Talvivaara CEO Harri Natunen said he had received information that the leak had indeed been plugged.

"Now we will minimise leakages from overflow pools [surrounding the gypsum pond]. Any leaks will also be neutralised so that metals cannot contaminate nature," Natunen said.

The Talvivaara CEO admitted that the back-up pools were rather full, but he maintained these should hold up.

"We are now quickly constructing a safety dam that will contain everything. We are in a race with time," Natunen added.

The Kainuu Employment and Economic Development Centre said on Thursday evening that the gypsum pond should not have been used for storing waste water, and that no special permit had been granted for this.

"We had a really rainy summer. We observe our drainage permit, which allows us to drain 1.3 million cubic meters of water into the environment annually. However, we reached this limit already in November, which is why we had to keep all the waste water in our pools," Natunen explained.

Busy days for Ville Niinistö

Environment minister Ville Niinistö visited the crisis-hit mine on Thursday, calling the latest leak a 'serious environmental crime'.

Later in the day the opposition grilled the cabinet over what it saw as dodging responsibility in the environmental disaster. Niinistö promised that the mining company would be brought to justice over breaches of environmental permits, and encouraged people in the Talvivaara area to seek damages for the pollution.

Natunen says everyone has a right to do so, and that Talvivaara would pay the compensations it was responsible for. The mining CEO was unable to estimate the total sum run up by such compensations.

Speaking on Yle TV on Friday morning, Niinistö also blamed ministers of the previous government, and the legislation and administrative reforms carried out during their term.

Niinistö is setting up a working group to probe the leak as well as officials' involvement in the matter.

Sources: Yle, Helsingin Sanomat


Finland's biggest chemical catastrophe in history

Brian Fitzgerald

Greenpeace International Blogpost

9 November  2012

Greenpeace Finland is bearing witness and taking samples at a toxic spill that began on Sunday in the north of the country. The Talvivaara metal mine, owned and operated by Talvivaara Mining Company plc, has been leaking water containing high concentrations of nickel and uranium at a rate of between 5000-6000 cubic metres an hour. It is believed that the leak took place when the mine's waste-water pool was breached on Sunday.

A friend in Finland writes:

At first, Talvivaara mine was like a dream. A new beginning. A source of employment and tax money for Northern Finland.

This was the level of excitement when the new mine opened in Kainuu, some 550 kilometers from Helsinki. Pekka Perä, an ex-employee of the Finnish mining company Outokumpu had bought the site from his former employer for the price of one Euro.

The site had been considered unprofitable but Mr Perä was convinced it could become a showcase of a "mining renessaince." He had a brand-new "bioleaching method" that would allow him to extract tiny concentrations of materials.

The dream didn't last long and the wake-up call was harsh.

The mine started operations in October 2008 and the first problems started appearing the next summer. Tourist businesses around the mine complained that the mine reeked of rotten egg, repelling customers.

While the company was still struggling against the awkward smell, much worse problems began to surface. The waste-water pool started leaking for the first time in 2008. The next leak was detected in 2010. The lakes next to the mine turned salty. Measurements near the mine showed concentrations of cadmium and nickel far exceeding the official safety limits. And in March of this year, a mine worker failed to use protective gear and died of breathing hydrogen sulfide, the source of the "rotten egg" smell.

Everybody knew about this and yet the supervising authority, Kainuu Center for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment did nothing to the unbelievable irresponsible mining company. Now they say they couldn't because they never had the resources nor the skills to do it.

Finally, on Sunday the situation got totally out of control. All the waste in the mine site ends up in huge waste-water pools containing heavy metals, dangerous chemicals and uranium. The bottom of this pool ripped and the heavily contaminated water started spewing out at a rate of thousands of cubic meters every hour. Now the dream has turned into a total nightmare. Greenpeace activists are taking samples of the leaking wastewater. So does the Finnish Nuclear Safety Authority and the Finnish Environment Institute. Nobody can tell yet exactly how bad the situation is. All we know is that it is bad.

Contaminated water has flowed already many kilometers downstream. Nearby creeks and lakes are contaminated by toxic nickel.

The beautiful lakes, rivers and creeks - clean freshwater - are the most valuable asset Finns have. You wouldn't think that we would let somebody poison them. But it happened. The people downstream feel themselves totally powerless, and fear their own drinking water. Now it is up to us to stop the mine and get the Finnish adminstrators to tell us how they intend to guarantee that this will not happen again.

And you, my dear readers, please, take a lesson: be alert when somebody says there's big money to be made exploiting nature. Be prepared to fight. Make sure that your authorities fulfil their real duty and defend our future. These are usually hard fights but they are essential. You will avoid the nightmares we're experiencing now in Talvivaara.

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