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Mining the Boreal North

Resource extraction decisions are not simply about wilderness preservation or development

Nancy Langston


Swedes had long suspected that the north contained some of the richest iron ore deposits in the world, but exploitation could not begin until the transportation problem was solved. In 1903, Sweden completed a railroad running from the Baltic port of Luleå, through the iron ore region of Kiruna, then down to the ice-free port of Narvik on the Norwegian coast. The mining boom at Kiruna was on.

Initially open-pit mines, the Kiruna mines transformed the landscape. Historic photos show that mountaintops were removed to reach the rich ore deposits, a precursor to today’s controversial mountain top removal in Appalachia. The work was dangerous, and pollution from the pit and tailings piles was notorious. Sulfates contributed to acidification both of local watersheds and larger regional watersheds. Acids leached toxic heavy metals from rocks where they had been safely locked up, into river systems where they contaminated food chains that eventually included people. Smoke from smelters contained heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, which were captured by lichen and then accumulated in reindeer and the people who ate them. Mine tailings were stacked in enormous terraces, and winds blew toxic dust over reindeer pastures. Sediments washed over spawning beds for anadromous fish.

In the 1960s, the Kiruna mines moved underground, safety records improved, and treatment facilities reduced emissions. Yet the toxic legacies persist. Today, according to Per-Ola Hoffsten and colleagues, “wastes from the Kiruna mine … [continue to] drain into the Kalix River. Mercury pollution causes problems locally in Lake Ala Lombolo in the Kiruna area that drains into the Torne River at Jukkasjarvi via Luossajoki stream. The impacts stem from previous pollution and still causes reduced invertebrate diversity and deformed mouthparts in larval midges living here.”

Global markets affect local conditions in Sápmi, remote as the region seems to many people. A global steel boom in recent years has increased Asian demand for iron, and LKAB (the Swedish-owned mining company that operates the Kiruna iron mine) has decided to expand the mine, which means Kiruna’s city center must be moved, an enormous logistical undertaking.

Local communities accept the need to move Kiruna, but new open-pit mining proposals in the Kalix River valley have met with more opposition. In 2010, an Australian mining company named Kiruna Iron proposed to create three new open-pit mines in the Kalix River valley. These mines would operate for 10 to 20 years, depending on steel prices; Sweden would agree to collect no royalties or taxes on the profits. The Swedish government approved the proposal, ignoring the fact that the proposed mines lie in the heart of two Sámi reindeer villages.

2013-03MargLangstonFD.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThe Sámi argued that the proposed mines would alter ecological relationships within their territories, making it impossible for reindeer herding to persist. The mines, for example, would likely consume 60 to 70 percent of the spring pasture area and substantial portions of fall pasture. Mining infrastructure would block critical migration routes, and dust from tailing piles would change succession patterns in spring pastures, allowing grass to overtake ground lichen. Autumn pastures would also be reduced, increasing reindeer vulnerability to harsh winter conditions. From the Sámi perspective, “how can 20 years of mining take priority over thousands of years of Sámi culture?”

The Swedish government contends that the Sámi have no rights to exclude competing uses from Sámi territories. From their perspective, industrial development is inevitable and the Sámi must make way for it. If the good ore happens to interrupt a migration route, then move the reindeer somewhere else. Put them in trucks if necessary. If tailings piles eliminate lichen, then feed the reindeer something else. In this view, domesticated reindeer are essentially cogs in a machine, not members of interconnected ecological systems. The logic assumes that sharp boundaries exist between wild and tamed nature. But reindeer disrupt these boundaries, for they are semi-domesticated creatures. The migration paths they choose are negotiations with the reindeer herders, not engineered decisions imposed by technical logic. The food they eat is neither purely natural nor domestic, and the pastures they need cannot simply be replaced.

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