Greenpeace Finland is bearing witness and taking samples at a toxic spill that began on Sunday in the north of the country. The Talvivaara metal mine, owned and operated by Talvivaara Mining Company plc, has been leaking water containing high concentrations of nickel and uranium at a rate of between 5000-6000 cubic metres an hour. It is believed that the leak took place when the mine’s waste-water pool was breached on Sunday.
At first, Talvivaara mine was like a dream. A new beginning. A source of employment and tax money for Northern Finland.
This was the level of excitement when the new mine opened in Kainuu, some 550 kilometers from Helsinki. Pekka Perä, an ex-employee of the Finnish mining company Outokumpu had bought the site from his former employer for the price of one Euro.
The site had been considered unprofitable but Mr Perä was convinced it could become a showcase of a “mining renessaince.” He had a brand-new "bioleaching method" that would allow him to extract tiny concentrations of materials.
The dream didn’t last long and the wake-up call was harsh.
The mine started operations in October 2008 and the first problems started appearing the next summer. Tourist businesses around the mine complained that the mine reeked of rotten egg, repelling customers.
While the company was still struggling against the awkward smell, much worse problems began to surface. The waste-water pool started leaking for the first time in 2008. The next leak was detected in 2010. The lakes next to the mine turned salty. Measurements near the mine showed concentrations of cadmium and nickel far exceeding the official safety limits. And in March of this year, a mine worker failed to use protective gear and died of breathing hydrogen sulfide, the source of the "rotten egg" smell.
Everybody knew about this and yet the supervising authority, Kainuu Center for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment did nothing to the unbelievable irresponsible mining company. Now they say they couldn’t because they never had the resources nor the skills to do it.
Finally, on Sunday the situation got totally out of control. All the waste in the mine site ends up in huge waste-water pools containing heavy metals, dangerous chemicals and uranium. The bottom of this pool ripped and the heavily contaminated water started spewing out at a rate of thousands of cubic meters every hour. Now the dream has turned into a total nightmare. Greenpeace activists are taking samples of the leaking wastewater. So does the Finnish Nuclear Safety Authority and the Finnish Environment Institute. Nobody can tell yet exactly how bad the situation is. All we know is that it is bad.
Contaminated water has flowed already many kilometers downstream. Nearby creeks and lakes are contaminated by toxic nickel.
The beautiful lakes, rivers and creeks – clean freshwater - are the most valuable asset Finns have. You wouldn’t think that we would let somebody poison them. But it happened. The people downstream feel themselves totally powerless, and fear their own drinking water. Now it is up to us to stop the mine and get the Finnish adminstrators to tell us how they intend to guarantee that this will not happen again.
And you, my dear readers, please, take a lesson: be alert when somebody says there's big money to be made exploiting nature. Be prepared to fight. Make sure that your authorities fulfil their real duty and defend our future. These are usually hard fights but they are essential. You will avoid the nightmares we're experiencing now in Talvivaara.