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Mine dispute intensifies in Arctic Sweden

Jonas Vannar, a Sami reindeer herder, surveys a proposed mining site in the Jokkmokk region of northern Sweden.
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JOKKMOKK: Sami reindeer herders and mining companies have coexisted uneasily in the forests of northern Sweden since 1890, when the region’s first modern mine opened in the town of Kiruna, a few dozen miles north of the Arctic Circle.

In the contest for natural resources that followed, both sides kept up with the times. The Kiruna complex grew into the world’s largest iron ore mine, and the indigenous Sami – who have lived in the area for more than 4,000 years – now use snowmobiles and helicopters to herd their reindeer.

But despite their best efforts Sami herders are losing ground, and now face their biggest challenge yet from a British company seeking to build a mine on a remote peninsula an hour’s drive from the municipal seat in Jokkmokk.

The project, known as the Kallak mine, has turned into a Swedish version of the Keystone XL Pipeline: a symbolic battle over environmental policy with implications for the country’s resource-rich Arctic wilderness.

“We Sami have always had to fight for our rights,” said Henrik Blind, a local Sami politician who helped lead a series of protests last summer that drew international attention to the issue. “But this is about much more than Kallak. It’s about what’s happening all over the Nordic region.”

Beowulf Mining, the company behind the project, says the site’s two mineral deposits contain approximately 133 million tons of iron ore. The estimate is based on an assessment carried out by the Geological Survey of Sweden, the state agency credited with discovering the deposit in 1947.

The project is currently winding its way through the state’s regulatory system. Final approval could take “at least three more years,” Asa Persson, Sweden’s chief mine inspector, said in an interview.

“It’s always a long process,” said Persson, who oversees the Mining Inspectorate, which is in charge of administering mining licenses.

Kallak will cost roughly $900 million to build and generate around $2.9 billion in revenue over its 15-year lifespan, according to company records.

The costs include the construction of a tailings facility, new roads and, potentially, a railroad spur connecting the site to an existing rail line that would carry the ore to ports on the Baltic Sea and Norwegian coast, where it would be shipped to steel plants in northern Europe and used in the production of everything from cars and ships to electronics and paper clips.

Sami herders insist the new infrastructure and mining activity would block two routes used by reindeer to migrate from summer pastures in the mountains north of Kallak to winter grazing land in the forested valley south of Jokkmokk.

The annual migration is more than a cultural pastime for the Sami individuals who still engage in reindeer herding: the animals are sold each fall to slaughterhouses that pay more than $1,000 for a large, 200-pound bull. (Reindeer is a staple source of protein in northern Scandinavia and is eaten regularly by indigenous and non-indigenous people alike).

There are few full-time herders left. But thousands of Sami remain partially dependent on income from the reindeer industry, and it is widely viewed – and marketed to tourists – as the defining aspect of Sami society. 

“My herd is my fortune,” said Jonas Vannar, an opponent of the mine and lifelong reindeer herder who sits on the board of the Sirgus community, one of the five Sami groups in the region.

Vannar spent parts of his childhood herding reindeer, and entered the business as an adult after receiving a degree in biology from the University of Gothenberg. He spends several months each year watching over his herd as it moves through national parks inside the Laponian Area, a vast UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“We need access to all of our land,” said Vannar. If the Kallak mine is built, he said, “The way we live and the way we work will be taken away from us.”

Reindeer herders like Vannar aren’t alone. Environmental groups also oppose the plan, which they say could lead to the contamination of a river next to the proposed mine site.

Mines produce waste rock that can contain sulfur, phosphorous and other toxins. Abandoned mine tailings oxidize in the open air, forming sulfuric acid that is often released into the atmosphere and surrounding waterways.

The consequences can be devastating – and very expensive. In the 1990s, the Kristineberg iron mine in a town not far from Kallak underwent the largest and most complex decommissioning process in Swedish history after it was discovered that groundwater around the mine was heavily polluted.

The problem is commonplace at mining sites from China to the United States, where an ongoing federal cleanup of the famously toxic Iron Mountain Mine in California is expected to take 30 years and cost $200 million.

“Iron ore [and other] heavy metals can have an adverse effect,” said Therese Jacobson, Greenpeace Sweden’s ecotoxicology expert for the Arctic region. “You can have problems with reproduction, immune systems, neurology – anything you can think of.”

In the case of Kallak, however, supporters and some independent experts have backed Beowulf Mining’s claim that the project would be safe for the environment.

They point to drilling tests at the site that have produced silicate-based iron oxide with sulfur levels of just 0.6 percent, and similarly low background levels of titanium and phosphorous.

“With sulfidic ores you have to be very, very careful. But this is a non-sulfur deposit and so it’s not toxic at all,” said PärWeihed, a prominent Swedish ore geologist who teaches at the Luleå University of Technology.

In an email, Clive Sinclair-Poulton, Beowulf’s chairman, said the company plans to conduct further environmental studies before opening the mine in approximately five years.

Beowulf has an exploration license for the site but is waiting for a mining permit that would allow it to start production. A state environmental court must also sign off on the plan.

Sinclair-Poulton dismissed claims that Kallak would cause environmental damages or significantly impact reindeer herders in the area. He said he has offered to meet personally with Sami leaders, and pointed out that the project would create up to 750 jobs in an undeveloped part of the country.

“We want closer contact with the Sami so that they can see we are not a threat to their traditional ways,” Sinclair-Poulton said. “We very strongly believe that both can exist side-by-side. It is not a case of either-or.”

Sweden’s powerful mining industry agrees. There is a lot riding on the approval of Kallak and similar projects, especially now. Demand for natural resources from countries like China and high global minerals prices have led to a recent mining boom in Sweden, which already produces 90 percent of Europe’s iron ore.

Since 2008, the Mining Inspectorate has received an average of 227 applications for mining exploration permits each year. Most of the permits are aimed at reopening old mines, but companies are starting to turn their attention to the country’s Arctic region, which has vast quantities of untapped mineral resources.

Iron ore production, in particular, is poised for expansion. Sweden produced 25 million tons in 2010. By 2025, that figure is expected to rise to 90 million tons, according to Per Ahl, the head of the Swedish Association of Mines, Mineral and Metal Producers, the country’s leading mining industry group.

“The situation for mining in Sweden is quite good right now,” Ahl said.

That’s exactly what Sami reindeer herders and environmentalists fear most – and why the Kallak mine has become a flashpoint in the growing debate over Sweden’s future minerals policy.

“Kallak symbolizes the mining boom in Sweden at the moment,” said Erik Blomqvist, the co-chair of Friends of the Earth Sweden. “If Kallak is approved it will send a signal to the international mining community that Sweden is an open door.”

Members of Blomqvist’s group participated in the protests that began in July and went on for nearly two months. Sami herders, environmentalists and activists from across Sweden camped out in front of the entrance to the Kallak site, at the end of a quiet dirt road.

The forest clearing was transformed into a mini-Occupy scene, with campfires and a makeshift media tent made of tarps and wood. Protesters built a tower in the center of the road, to block mining company trucks from entering the site to collect the latest round of ore samples.

The blockade worked, for a while. But eventually law enforcement authorities broke it up – there were accusations of police brutality – so that the trucks could get through. The protesters dispersed soon afterwards.

On a recent visit there with Jonas Vannar, the reindeer herder, few signs of the siege remained. Deeper in the woods, Vannar found one of the drilling sites. The area was littered with detonation wire and discarded rocks.

As he surveyed the landscape, one of his two reindeer dogs, a grey puppy named Mira, disappeared into the trees. She emerged carrying a reindeer shoulder blade in her mouth, and Vannar smiled approvingly.

“It’s hard not to get emotional when you see it,” Vannar said of the blast site, before walking back to his car. “You realize how easy it is to destroy something that my people for generations have been trying to preserve. You realize how fragile your world is.”