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11/02/2012 10:42 AM

Klondike in Lapland

Mining Companies Swarm to Finland's Far North

By Renate Nimtz-Köster

Mining companies are flocking to northern Finland as new deposits of gold, nickel and other minerals promise vast profits. But the area's fragile wetland ecosystem is paying the price. Conservationists are so far fighting a losing battle.

Riikka Karppinen used to catch pike as long as her arm here. She and her brother would spend days exploring the marshy wilderness. It was eight years ago, when Riikka was just 10 years old, that she saw the first red sticks stuck into the ground. To begin with, there were only a few but before long there were hundreds. "No one cared much back then," Riikka Karppinen recalls.

In the mean time, though, the red markers have given way to the machines. "You can hear the noise of the drills day and night," says Karppinen. Anglo American (AA), one of the world's biggest mining companies, went treasure hunting in Finnish Lapland, 120 kilometers north of the Polar Circle. And deep below the marshlands of Viiankiaapa are nickel deposits that AA has hailed as the find of the century.

Karppinen's childhood paradise has now become a symbol of the rush for precious metals and minerals that has overcome the entire country. Foreign mining companies are flocking to Finland to mine its treasures. Here, in some of the oldest rock formations in Europe, lie reserves of valuable raw materials, with geologists describing the ore deposits as among the richest in the world.

Hoping for new jobs and investment, the Finnish government is welcoming prospectors, identifying and mapping the deposits and generously granting data and mining rights at cheap prices, even in sensitive areas. Gold, nickel and uranium hunters are even reaching into tourist and conservation areas in the country.

Some 40 companies are now carrying out hundreds of exploration projects across the country. The town of Sodankylä in Lapland is essentially surrounded by mining claims with several mines already in operation -- and their tailings seeping toxins into surrounding lakes and rivers.

Growing Resistance

Long-suffering as Finns may be, resistance is growing. Fifty-three companies in the tourist sector are protesting against a huge gold mine in Kuusamo in north-eastern Finland, where Australian company Dragon Mining is conducting test drilling in full view of a popular ski resort. Containing 4.9 grams per ton of rock, the gold content is high, but so is the uranium content. Much of the radioactive element would likely end up in nearby lakes during processing. Moreover, vast quantities of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide are released when the ground's peat layers are dug up during drilling.

"The cost to the environment will exceed the profits from the gold mines," warns the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation.

"The extent of the mining operations is gigantic and pollution is inevitable," says geologist Matti Saarnisto, pointing out that Lapland's waters are in danger of being contaminated with toxic elements such as arsenic, uranium as well as sulfates, cyanides and phosphates. Saarnisto and economics professor Olli Tahvonen are also critical of the sell-out of mining rights and are calling for a mining tax on the exploitation of raw materials. Their demand recently found spiritual support, with the Lutheran Church agreeing at its meeting of bishops that Northern Finland should not be reduced to a "colony," whose natural riches are plundered by international companies, with no regard for the environment.

Finland was an enthusiastic participant in the "Natura 2000," an ecological network of protected areas founded by the European Union. It includes 66 square kilometers of Viiankiaapa, a region home to exceptional biodiversity, including 90 bird species ranging from the delicate red-necked phalarope to the mighty wood grouse. Twenty-one endangered birds and nine endangered plant types can be found among the wide variety of the marshy reserve's flora and fauna.

"How can a mine have been allowed to open in a nature reserve like this one?" asks Riikka Karppinen. "We will never be able to recover what's being destroyed." She was a 17-year-old schoolgirl when she began her campaign against Anglo American -- which Lapland's leading newspaper Lapin Kansa compared to David's battle with Goliath. Karppinen enlisted the support of newspaper editors and politicians and made the 12-hour train trip to Helsinki 13 times. Since she was always top of the class, her teachers didn't mind giving her permission to miss school. Her parents were also on her side, even her father Juha, who himself works in a gold mine.

No Answers

Karppinen initially found her meetings with parliamentarians and ministers exciting, but that soon gave way to frustration. "No one really gave me any answers," she says. Even Paula Lehtomäki from the Center Party, who was environment minister at the time, did nothing but try to mollify her.

Later, Lehtomäki came under fire when her family bought hundreds of thousands of euros worth of shares in the Talvivaara mining company, Europe's largest nickel mining business, shortly after it applied for a permit to begin extracting uranium. To this day, a connection between Lehtomäki and the purchase has never been proven.

A referendum recently put a temporary stop to the plans to extract uranium. Opened in 2008, Talvivaara is one of the few mines that is largely Finnish-owned, but it has turned from a showcase project into a disaster. First it emerged that the building permit was granted before the mine's environmental sustainability had been established. Then the concentration of sulphates and manganese in nearby lake water was discovered to be several hundred times higher than permissible. The water couldn't even be used in saunas, holidaymakers complained about the foul stench and dead birds and fish were found floating on the water's surface. Earlier this year, a mine worker died from hydrogen sulfide poisoning.

The mine also failed to create the number of jobs expected, with only 130 locals finding work in Talvivaara. Some 500 people in the region, meanwhile, are employed in the tourism sector.

Soot-Black Crater

For the time being, these problems still lie ahead of Viiankiaapa. But a glimpse of the wetland's potential fate can be had at the Kevitsa nickel mine, 40 kilometers further north-east: a devastated, soot-black crater landscape where every year enormous trucks and cranes dig up some 5.5 million tones of rock which then gets crushed, separated and treated with chemicals. The tailings end up hidden behind vast dams.

Kevitsa is operated by the Canadian mining company First Quantum. Concern is etched on the face of mine director Andrew Reid, who sent the first load of nickel and copper to Canada for smelting in August: at a record high early last year, the price of nickel has since dropped dramatically and markets are looking volatile, with supply having far outstripped demand for some time now. Reid no longer rules out closure.

But the mood at Sodankylä's city hall remains euphoric. Twenty mining companies are now operating in the area. "A new application arrives almost every day," says local politician Veikko Virtanen. "We can't produce maps fast enough." He's confident that there's enough room in Lapland for tourism and mines to exist side-by-side. According to his calculations, the area could develop much like Dawson City in Klondike, with the population swelling from its current size of 1,680 to over 20,000 by 2020. A new kindergarten has already opened and a skating rink is currently under construction.

Opposite city hall, it's hard to find the Anglo American sign. For now the team's offices are still modest. But offices, laboratories and storerooms are currently under construction. According to project leader Bo Långbacka, exploration into depths of up to one kilometer will take another three to four years. In mining, he says, one needs to be patient.

Långbacka explains that rock samples, extracted with diamond drills from depths of 500 meters, have a nickel content of 4 percent. A new drilling method helps protect the environment, including the water, he stresses.

A Top Priority

His boss is Jim Coppard, who is in charge of the whole Arctic region at AA. He describes the project as the "apex of my career." The two men like to joke that ore has seniority rights: it formed about 2 billion years ago whereas the marshland "only" came into being 7,000 years ago. The EU's Natura 2000 project is only 15 years old. But Coppard is quick to point out that of course, working together with locals is a top priority.

Those locals are not making life easy for AA at the moment, protesting that the company has breached agreements. Officially, they are only allowed to drill when there is frost and snow so that the ground is not damaged by the heavy machines. But Karppinen has film footage of toppled trees and vehicle tracks indicating that AA was also working in fall. "Moreover, the drilling permit approved by the government ran out on August 17," she says. "But no one in Helsinki is doing anything."

In a Sodankylä café, she talks about her plans for the future. When she finishes school in early December, she's hoping to run as a Green party candidate and reinvigorate city hall. Then she'll be heading to Helsinki to do voluntary military service.

An elderly woman approaches Karppinen's table. She shakes her hand. "It's wonderful what you're doing for us," she says. "You have my support."

Translated from the German by Jane Paulick

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