More than 200 young environmental activists and some top politicians gathered along the scenic Førde Fjord in the mountains of western Norway earlier this week, in a fervent effort to keep it that way. They joined local residents who firmly oppose a mining company’s plans to use the fjord as a dump for 250 tons of tailings and chemical waste.
“It’s almost unbelievable that we have to fight the government to keep our fjords clean and waste-free,” said Arnstein Vestre, leader of Natur og Ungdom, the youth group of the Norwegian chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbund). He’s far from the first to voice opposition: Local salmon farmers and other skeptical residents fear the mining operation and its waste will pollute the fjord and cause irreparable environmental damage.
“We’ll have to move our production,” salmon farmer Ingvar Osland told newspaper Aftenposten last spring, after the government’s Ministry of Climate and Environment (Klima- og Miljøverndepartementet) approved the plans by Nordic Mining ASA to cut into the top of the local mountain known as Engebøfjellet. The company had been waiting for approval to extract valuable minerals since 2008, and it also won approval for its plan to dump the resulting loose mass of dirt, rocks and chemicals used during the extraction process into the fjord.
Tine Sundtoft, Norway’s environmental minister from the Conservative Party, claimed she had listened to the recommendation of the state environmental protection agency Miljødirektoratet. “Permission is given with the strictest environmental conditions ever attached to mining activity with disposal in the sea,” Sundtoft stated. She also noted that Nordic Mining’s application had been subject to a lengthy hearing process and that the ministry had evaluated both its advantages and disadvantages. The ministry concluded that the probability for serious damage was small, and Sundtoft insisted the waters of the fjord will be “continually monitored so that we can closely follow any possible impact on biological diversity and nearby rivers. Seafood safety is also an important concern.”
Osland contends nonetheless that he’ll no longer be able to raise salmon in the waters of the now-pristine fjord. He doesn’t think anyone will want to buy his fish when the mine’s dump lies so close to his fish farm. “It’s a risk I’m not willing to take,” he told Aftenposten.
The mining project has deeply split local residents. Aftenposten noted that the local government approved the project by a solid majority four years ago because of the economic development and jobs Nordic Mining can bring to the area. On April 17, the state government approved both the extraction of titan and the planned dump in the Førde Fjord. While local officials celebrated with cake at the community hub of Naustdal, Aftenposten reported that flags were lowered to half-mast elsewhere along the fjord.
Few argue the mining plans will have major consequences for life along the fjord, and that’s what drew the roughly 250 young activists to the protest camp in the local village of Vevring. Audun Lysbakken, leader of the environmentally oriented Socialist Left party (SV) and a former government minister himself, joined them, calling the plans an “environmental scandal” allowed by authorities who should know better.
“Dumping waste into clean fjords is something we should have been finished with many decades ago,” Lysbakken declared. He claimed that researchers warn against it “and this can have huge consequences for the environment and business in and around the fjord.”
Forcing Labour’s hand
The program for the so-called “People’s Party for the Førde Fjord” held at Vevring, which also featured concerts by bands opposing the dump, included a panel with Lysbakken and the leaders from the Liberal and the Greens parties debating with politicians who support the project because of its economic benefits. The Liberal Party (Venstre) has a support agreement with the government but also has opposed the approval given for the mine tailing dump in the fjord, and vowed to take the issue up in Parliament. That will force the Labour Party to take a stand on the issue at a national level, and decide what’s most important, jobs or the environment. A local Labour Party politician, Naustdal Mayor Håkon Myrvang, supports the mining project and its fjord dump, though, so it’s likely his party colleagues will support him: “You can get the impression that the entire fjord will be killed off by this,” he told Aftenposten in May. But the dump, he stressed, “will only cover three square kilometers, 5 percent of the fjord bottom. I feel confident this will be good.”
The battle isn’t over yet, though, raising hopes of opponents including fish farming operations far away from the Førde Fjord. They’re concerned about the precedent that the approval for Nordic Mining’s operation may set. Another company is seeking permission to dump waste from a copper mine in the Reppar Fjord in Finnmark in Northern Norway and the mining industry in general is keen to extract hundreds of billions of kroner worth of minerals and metals embedded in Norwegian mountains and ground. Fish farmers, who make up Norway’s second-largest export industry after oil, fear they’ll find themselves uprooted by new mining operations that win permission to use the sea as their dumping grounds.
Mining as a source of diversification
Norway’s ruling Conservative Party has stated in its platform that it wants to boost mining in Norway, to generate more economic activity and employment in outlying areas. As the price of oil keeps falling, the government is constantly looking for new sources of income to diversify Norway’s oil-fueled economy. There’s money in metals and minerals, but the young environmental activists who gathered along the Førde Fjord this summer are willing to resort to civil disobedience to block the fjord dump.
“We have 1,700 people on our action lists against waste dumping, willing to participate in actions to save the fjord,” Vestre of Natur og Ungdom said. “The politicians are stuck with old-fashioned methods, so the young people have to stand up for the future of our nature.”