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Talvivaara waste water under scrutiny for uranium

Environmental officials have already detected increased nickel levels in water courses near the waste water leak at the Talvivaara metals mine in Kainuu. The levels currently do not pose any environmental hazard, but the Finnish Environmental Administration Syke said that growing metal content in local waterways could cause fish kills.

Talvivaaran kaivoksen vuotava sakka-allas 5. marraskuuta. Image: Kimmo Rauatmaa / Lehtikuva

Talvivaara has the Cabinet's permission to mine uranium, though the permit is currently under appeal. According to the Finnish Environmental Administration Syke, the local Employment and Economic Development Centre (Ely-keskus) plans to study the waste water leaking from a ruptured gypsum pond to determine its uranium content. The waste water currently pouring out of the pond contains sulphates and metals, particularly nickel.

“Nickel has been detected in increased levels in the nearby water courses. There may also be other metals such as iron, manganese, perhaps copper and also zinc,” said Syke project manager Timo Jouttijärvi.

The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority of Finland (STUK) has also sent an investigator to Talvivaara to look into the uranium content of any waste water discharges.

Possible danger to aquatic life

Nickel belongs a group of harmful substances for which environmental quality standards have been set. Nickel can be detrimental to aquatic organisms if it exceeds a particular limit. According to Jouttijärvi, in regular emissions that end up in the environment, the nickel content could be as much as five times the environmental standard. However once released, the metal becomes attenuated.

”It hardly exceeds the environmental quality standard at the moment. The concentration that the Kainuu Ely-keskus reported yesterday was at 108 micrograms per litre. If it reaches the environment in streams between Salminen and Kalliojärvi, then that can already be seen as being mildly toxic to aquatic life,” Jouttijärvi said.

Environmental authorities want to determine how the leak could impact the surroundings over the short as well as the long term. The situation is most critical in local water systems. The environmental specialist said that currently the discharges are not large enough to cause a significant environmental impact. However he said that officials should be prepared in the event that the situation deteriorates, in which case the discharges could affect Oulunjärvi and the Vuoksi River.

Jouttijärvi said that the existing backup ponds are not enough to contain the entire contents of the gypsum pool, but he noted that Talvivaara is constructing emergency reservoirs for the eventuality that the leak cannot be plugged.

According to Jouttijärvi, the discharge of waste water directly into  the environment has been limited, though not stopped entirely.

Talvivaara's Head of Communications Olli-Pekka Nissinen said that the company was pumping waste water that had escaped the mining area to the north into backup reservoirs, and the other main leak was contained within the existing backup system.