Nordic Mining case closed

By Kasia Patel
Published: Thursday, 23 February 2017

The ESA closed three complaint cases against Norway’s decision to permit mineral sands junior Nordic Mining to dispose of rutile tailings in the Ford Fjord. Nordic Mining spoke to Kasia Patel, North American Editor, about its processing plans and safeguards for sustainable tailings disposal.

Nordic Mining argues that recolonisation of marine life on the sea
floor is faster than with onshore tailings disposal. (Source: Arild Finne Nybo via Flickr)

At the end of January, The EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA) closed three complaint cases against Norway’s decision to allow for the disposal of tailings from Nordic Mining ASA’s mineral sands operations into the Forde Fjord.

The ESA, which monitors compliance with the Agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA Agreement) in Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, received three complaints in 2015 over the permitting of tailings disposal for the Engebø rutile project in Norway. The complaints accused Norwegian authorities of breaching the Water Framework Directive in the EEA Agreement in allowing for the disposal of tailings in the Fjord.

Norway, meanwhile, has argued that it had taken all practical steps to mitigate the negative impact of the mine dumps and that monitoring of water quality would take place on an ongoing basis.

According to Nordic Mining’s CEO, Ivar Fossum, one of the biggest challenges with the development of the Engebø rutile project has been the permitting of the deposit, particularly the permitting of the sea disposal of tailings.

"We are extremely pleased that we’ve had the endurance to stay through the permitting period, which has now ended successfully on our part," he told IM.

He explained that he sees Nordic Mining and its strategy as a response in part to the initiatives driven by the European Union (EU) to encourage the development of mineral deposits in Europe, for companies to be more transparent about where their raw materials are coming from and for the production of minerals in a more sustainable manner.

"The clarification [by the ESA] underpins the assessment and use of sea disposal as a viable and environmentally safe solution for the project," he added.

Nordic Mining established plans for the open pit and underground mine operations at Engebø in November last year. The previous quarter, the company almost tripled the measured and indicated resource at the site following a drilling programme. Total estimated resources in the measured and indicated categories were reported at 93m tonnes rutile with a 3% cut off grade, up from 32m tonnes reported in 2008. The average titanium dioxide (TiO2) grade at the resource was increased to 3.89%, while the garnet grade is around 44%.

Production at Engebø will be largely through traditional rutile processing routes, Fossum told IM.

"Nothing is particularly new, but we need to find the optimal route," he said. "We’re looking at a package of well-known processing technologies for  these kinds of minerals. It could be that we need to carry on with flotation on a smaller part of the volume and there will be different processing routes for rutile and garnet."

The minerals will be liberated upfront through a fairly advanced crushing and milling system which will determine the specifications, Fossum explained. 

"60% of the tailings will be in the sand fraction, and the remaining part will be slightly finer, with about 10% on the finer side. All of these tailings will be a lot coarser than the huge volume of natural sediments already on the sea floor," Fossum added.

The anticipated facility: There are only a handful of countries in a natural position to allow for the fjord depositing of tailings, Norway included, owing to the proximity of mines to fjords. (Source: Nordic Mining) 

Fjord disposal 

The ESA’s decision to close the complaints against Nordic Mining were subject to limitations, as the authority noted its review was limited to assessing whether the decision-making process was conducted within the requirements set out in the directive, and not to evaluate the merits of the project.

"It is not ESA’s role to decide whether the project as such is good policy. Rather, ESA has assessed the Norwegian decision-making process on the basis on EEA law, and there we have found no breach of Norway´s commitments," ESA’s president, Sven Erik Svedman, said in a statement.

However, Nordic Mining is not the first to use processing methods requiring seabed disposal in Norway. According to the company there are only a handful of countries in a natural position to allow for the fjord depositing of tailings, Norway included, owing to the proximity of mines to fjords.

Currently the country has six operating fjord tailings deposits where the tailings material is transported as a slurry in a pipeline to the fjord bottom. The material then settles on the sea bottom. The fjords themselves contain natural depressions and sills that form barriers for the transportation of sediment, in addition to already receiving a large amount of natural sediment from rives and surrounding landscape. This environment also prevents the tailings from migrating over large areas, allowing Nordic Mining to limit its disposal footprint. 

Fossum pointed to the precedent set by existing fjord disposal sites and argued that the method is preferable to risky and difficult land disposal sites, where dam walls and other safeguards are required.

"We have some unfortunate experiences in Norway with land and beach disposals, even river tailings disposals with sulphide minerals. We will have a controllable sea disposal that will reduce the risk over time – and we have seen from data that recolonisation of life on the sea floor goes extremely fast once you stop disposing, which is the opposite of what is seen on land," he told IM.

While Nordic Mining conceded that bottom dwelling species will be negatively impacted, the company emphasises its limited disposal area and points to studies showing that marine life will return to normal within 2 to 10 years, taking the example of Titania’s former disposal at Dyngadjupet and from tailings disposal in the Bokfjorden. 

Working with the opposition

However, environmentalists and the Norwegian Fisherman’s Association have criticised the project on the basis that cadmium could be released into the fjord and damage fish stocks. Opponents have also expressed concern that fine waste particles could spread further from the fjord and pollute the food chain and ecosystem. 

Nordic Mining has meanwhile cited studies showing that wild salmon will not be affected if tailings are deposited through a pipe system in a controlled manner at a depth of around 300 metres. In contrast, the company noted that wild salmon usually do not venture below a 30-metre depth. 

"Even in the last years of the deposition [of the 50-year mine life] there will be a particle-free zone of more than 100 metres between the disposal area and the normal depth for salmon," the company outlines in its mine plans.

Additionally, Fossum said that the tailings will cover a bottom area of around 4km2, or 5% of the total Forde fjord seafloor.

Nordic Mining also plans to closely and independently monitor the disposal of tailings, using advanced techniques already developed by the offshore oil and gas industry.

"What has been a recent standard in Norway is to establish a cross stakeholder resource group where we have various stakeholders represented in a broad resource group, which will be responsible for the monitoring of the environmental impact," he told IM. "They will jointly file environmental data to the authorities and it will be a sophisticated monitoring programme installed."

Developing new tailings options

The company has noted the future possibility of finding a use for around 20% of the tailings for the coverage of contaminated seabed sediments, or for use in shore line protection, the building of new land area, and as a raw material for concrete.

"Nordic Mining will have a substantial commercial incentive to find ways to utlise the tailings – this work will have high priority," the company said. 

Rutile and garnet production is expected to start in 2020 or early 2021 according to current schedules and the project is ideally located to target a deficit of titanium dioxide (TiO2) feedstock production in Europe.

"It’s a win-win situation to supply pigment plants located in Europe from the west coast of Norway," Fossum said. "Europe produces in the area of 5% of titanium feedstock supply and they are consuming around 20-25% of the overall consumption of feedstocks, so there is a significant deficit and huge imports of feedstock from overseas suppliers."

Now that the case against its permit has been closed, Nordic Mining is in the process of carrying out a prefeasibility study (PFS) for the Engebø project, which is set to be completed in the second quarter of 2017.