A – what I would like to call a historical – decision was taken by the Supreme Administrative Court in Sweden at the end of February this year (source: The Supreme Administrative Court (SAC), case 2047-14). It is a decision made in a mining case concerning extraction of minerals in mid-Sweden, and since the decision was made in a Supreme Court will it have effects on the mining industry in all of Sweden.
The Norra Kärr – North Swamp – case
The case concerns the Canadian mining company Tasman Metals Ltd. that wanted to prospect for rare minerals close to the big (inland) lake Vättern in mid-Sweden at an area called Norra Kärr. Tasman Metals is prospecting for rare earth element and zirconium mineralization, that are primarily used in mobilephones. The mining company present the area as “mixed farming and forestry land, well serviced by power, roads and water allowing all year round access, plus the benefit of a skilled and well equipped community”. The Mining Inspectorate of Sweden – Bergsstaten – had granted Tasman Metals a concession license. That decision was appealed by different interests, and was therefore sent over to the Parliament. The (now running) Social Democratic Government decided that Tasman Metals should have the concession license that the company had been granted by The Mining Inspectorate of Sweden. A short summery of this process can be read in the newspaper article “The Government Opens For Mine” in Jönköpingsposten 6th of March 2015 (also see picture above). A concession license gives a mining or prospecting company the right to run mine(s) or hold permission to open mine(s) according to valid license(s).
But the mine prospecting site at Norra Kärr is close to the big lake Vättern that is a water supply for the inhabitants in the area, and also a place for rare birds, as well as close to a Nature 2000 area, that is a type of area that is under special laws and can be seen as one that is on the step before the level of being a national park. So another appeal was sent to the Supreme Administrative Court, by five local groups belonging to the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation – Naturskyddsföreningen – and Nature and Youth Sweden – Fältbiologerna – plus Visingsörådet and several private persons (SAC, case 2047-14, p.3, 4).
The Supreme Administrative Court decided that Tasman Metals had not presented any plan for land use for working plants – such as stone storage, sand magasins, clearing ponds and so on. The Supreme Administrative Court supported The County Administrative Board’s in Jönköping decision that the working plants will have a big effect on the surrounding environment at least 1 kilometer around the plants. And since Tasman Metals had not presented any survey about any milieu consequences caused by working plants what so ever, the Court decided to withdraw the company’s concession license (SAC, case 2047-14, p. 10). This mean that, at this point, Tasman Metals can for now not prospect for minerals at Norra Kärr.
Norra Kärr Case In Relation to the Kallak case
This decision taken by the Supreme Administrative Court might mean that, for instance, the mining prospect in Kallak outside of Jokkmokk in the north of Sweden, on the grounds of Sámi villages Jåhkkågaska Tjiellde and Sirges in the very north of Sweden, can be inquired against the Tasman Metals case. This means that Jokkmokk Iron Mines AB (JIMAB) – and the headquarters Beowulf Mining in England – that has prospected for ore at Kallak, must present a plan for all the activities for a mine in full-scale at Kallak. This means that not only the mine – as the pit in the ground – must be part of an activity plan, but also all of the working plants must be presented such as ponds, stone storage and so on, as well as the consequences for both the mine and the working plants in relation to the milieu in the area. For a longer survey over the Kallak case, and extractive industries in Canada and impacts on reindeer herding and hunting, see a summary here at an earlier blog post of mine.
An observant reader has already detected that I wrote “might mean” in the first sentence in the former paragraph, and that is because it says in the verdict 2047-14 that land use for working plants within extractive industries such as mining, must be part of an application for exploitation concession. This means that if a company has a plan for both mine and working plants and their consequences for the surrounding environment at the stage for a concession license, this verdict can not be used.
In the Kallak case Beowulf Mining wants to send their application for exploit concession back to the Mining Inspectorate of Sweden.
An exploitation concession is often also called concession license, and it gives the holder permission to start a mine. But the Kallak case is now handled by the Parliament after appeal. Beowulf Mining also wants to co-operate with Luleå University in order to “build a sustainable mine” as the director in Sweden for Beowulf Mining, Kurt Bugde put it when being interviewed by a local newspaper (see picture to the right).
It will be a matter for the courts how the verdict can be used in practice by the courts, but the verdict also sets pressure on the agencies involved in the mining application process, as to what type of presented plans from prospecting and mining companies that can be accepted. And the verdict is very important seen in the light of bankrupt and abandoned mines in Sweden.
Nature Devastation Caused by Abandoned Open-Cast Mines
Despite some question marks raised here against what impact the decision in the Norra Kärr case taken by The Supreme Administrative Court really will have, is it still extremely important, seen in the light of the problems with environmental pollutions and problems – from ‘small’ to catastrophic dimensioned as to nature devastations. Problems with ‘smaller’ pollution hazards and negative environmental consequences have been detected at the bankrupt Tapuli mine in Kaunisvaara in the county of Pajala owned by Northland Resources, and environmental catastrophic-like problems have been caused by abandoned mines in the county of Västerbotten because ot the Blaiken Mine and the Svärtträsk Mine.
The Tapuli Mine in Kaunisvaara outside Pajala in Sweden
In 2012-2015 has the level of the groundwater changed dramatically in the area around the Tapuli mine in Kaunisvaara outside of Pajala.
Northland Resources was, after a survey made by the County Administrative Board (CAB), already in February 2015 forced to deal with the problem of decreasing water levels and the drainage of the swamp Kokkovuoma that holds highly important environmental values. CAB suggested that Northland Resources should put down screens in the ground around the mine pit in order to limit the water leakage from the pit (Source: CAB, injunction, 2015-06-30, case number 555-2932-15 2521 116, p. 1,3).
If was also detected on a photo taken from an airplane that Northland Resources had dugged a 1,5 kilometer long drain outside the very mining area – that is, on ground that the company was not allowed to use. It was also storage waste from the the 1,5 kilometer long drain packed by the clearing pond, and outside the area of the very mine (Source: CAB, injunction, 2015-06-30, case number 555-8018-15 2521 116, p. 2).
Northland Resources was charged for several crimes in connection to these issues, but the attorney Aino Alhem dismissed the cases, arguing that no one could show that Northland Resources was NOT allowed to build a clearing pond outside the mining area. Alhem also dismissed the case because the period of limitation for the 1,5 long trench had passed. Finally Alhem meant that she must proof that the increase in the level in the groundwater had occurred after Northland Resources had been notified of the lowering water level, and that she could not (NSD, “Fler åtal mot Northland konkursbo läggs ned” [“Several Charges Against Northland’s Bankruptcy Estate are Dismissed”], 16th of March 2016 (in Swedish)). Within two years – from summer of 2014 till summer of 2016 – had the water level increased 16 meters. Northland Resources had estimated a few decimeters decrease. Still Alhem dismissed the charge against Northland Resources even though the mining company was obliged by CAB in February 2015 to deal with the problems with sinking levels of the groundwater.
In this messy process did even the county governor of the county of Norrbotten, Sven-Erik Österberg, step in and decided that every decision concerning the Tapuli mine should go through him, and not the County Administrative Board as the normal way of procedure is. Österberg argued that he had taken that decision in order to make a quick handling of the case easier (NSD, “Misstänkta miljöbrott i gruvan anmäldes inte” [“Suspected Environmental Crimes in the Mine was Not Reported”], 13th of March 2015).
Besides this there are now issues with the clearing pond at the Tapuli mine. The County Administrative Board is worried that the pond is too small for the amount of water it holds, and that it might start to leak water into the Muonio river (source: Norrbottens-Kuriren, “Konkursboet vill ta av miljonerna på banken” [The Bankruptcy Estate Wants to Take From the Millions in the Bank”], 11th of April 2016, see picture below).
In all such ponds heavy particles sink to the very bottom. But much of such heavy particles are heavy metals since the water that has been pumped up of the mines contains of heavy metal. Because when extracting minerals or stone from the ground, many other metals and minerals follow along. If the pond at the Tapuli mine starts to leak heavy metal, that will go directly into the Muonio River. The mine has permission to let some water – so called process, mine and drain water – from the pond seep over to the Muoino River (source: CAB, injunction 2015-06-30, case number 555-8022-15 2521 116, p. 1). But the hazard lies in, as just mentioned, that the mine starts to leak heavy metal that probably is part of the heavy sediment on the bottom of the pond – and then that leakage will most certainly go directly into the Muonio river. And the Muonio river runs into the Torne river that runs out into the Gulf of Botnia. The Kanuisvaara village has a their water catchment in Kanuisvaara.
What can be the consequences of a mine leaking heavy metal can be seen in the hazardous environmental consequences of Blaiken mine and Svärtträsk mine in Sweden.
Riksrevisionen – Swedish National Audit Office (NAO) – also tried to force the Swedish Parliament to straighten up the legislation around mine waste as in a suggestion that mining companies from the very start should in their financial plans include costs for waste management. NAO did that with references to the Tapuli mine in Kaunisvaara outside Pajala, as well as Blaiken mine and Svärtträsk mine in the county of Västerbotten. The Parliament said no. This was revealed in the small article “Gruvavfall ska inte granskas” – “Mine Waste Shall Not be Examined” – in the newspaper Norrbottens-Kuriren on the 16th of April this year (see picture to the right). The Parliament’s reluctance to straighten up the legislation shows, according to me, that the Parliament is more prone to support the mining business in Sweden rather than thinking in long terms of the environment. The life length of a mine can be 15 years. A sustainable environment is a long term work, longer than 15 years. But the Parliament gave The Swedish Environmental Protection Agency – Naturvårdsverket – the assignment together with The Mining Inspectorate of Sweden to mold together a long term strategy for management of mine waste and to examine the Swedish State’s and the mining companies costs within mining industry and to evaluate the after-treatment of closed mines. But still no law paragraph that puts the responsibility for after-treatment of mine waste on the mining companies has been discussed. The Swedish National Audit Office, NAO, monitors the environment in Sweden.
Since NAO used Blaiken mine and Svärtträsk mine as examples in their suggestion to straighten up the legislation of responsibility for management of mine waste, let’s look what have happened in those two cases.
The Blaiken Mine and Svärtträsk Mine Cases in Sweden
A more disastrous example than Kallak – as it looks today – is the Blaiken mine, that in 2014 leaked heavy metal to a cost of 1 million SEK a month for clearing the toxic waste. See an earlier blog post by me on The Mining Situation in Sweden from an Environmental Perspective – a Few Examples. It was around that time estimated that 200 million SEK was needed to clean it up entirely – and the
Swedish tax payers are the ones that have to pay for that. ScanMining, that abandoned the Blaiken mine in 2007, had put aside only 3 million SEK for a clean-up of it. Lappland Goldminers bought Blaiken with the intention to turn it into a zinc mine, even though it was attended as a gold mine when it was started up. Lappland Goldminers’ attempt did not work out.
Last summer though, was a survey made by Environmental Sciences at University of Umeå presented – here summarized in an article from the Swedish State Television’s homepage – that estimated that Blaiken leaks led, copper and especially zinc – that is highly toxic – into the lake Storjuktan, to levels that have never been seen before in Sweden. 22 square kilometers of the bottom sediment of the lake is dead because of the heavy metal waste covering it. And now the costs for a clean-up of Blaiken has been estimated to 200 million SEK, according to The County Administrative Board in the county of Västerbotten , one of the two northernmost counties in Sweden.
Toxic leaking abandoned mines are also a known problem in North America, as the sad history of the giant mine shows, studied by our colleagues Arn Keeling and John Sandlos.
It is great that the historical decision in the Norra Kärr-case has been taken by the Supreme Administrative Court, since it will put a lot more pressure on mining companies that want to come and prospect as well as start mines in Sweden. Earlier was not full-scale milieu consequence descriptions a must for mining companies to present from the beginning. Instead such a plan could be presented much, much later in the prospecting process. But after Supreme Administrative Court’s decision in the Tasman Mental AB case such a description must be on the table from the very start.