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Terrafame admits more widespread groundwater contamination, fights stricter environmental rules

The Terrafame mining company, formerly known as Talvivaara, has rejected the terms imposed on it for a new waste storage facility in Sotkamo – just as details emerge suggesting that its previous leaks have had a bigger impact on local groundwater than previously confirmed.

Terrafame's northern pit in Spring 2016. When mining is over, rainwater gathered there could threaten to pollute the water table. Terrafame's mining activities have contaminated groundwater across a wider area than previously thought. Image: Pasi Peiponen / Yle

The Terrafame mine in Sotkamo, eastern Finland, threatens to pollute groundwater in a larger area of the surrounding nature, the company's own reports reveal. The struggling nickel mine, formerly known as Talvivaara, was taken over by the state after years of serious environmental and financial problems.

Levels of contamination of many metals including nickel, uranium, cobalt, cadmium, chrome, copper and aluminium in surrounding groundwater range from above-average to high.

The company says it suspects the contamination is due to the Kortelampi reservoir and leaks from the mine's bioleaching facility.

The information is included in two groundwater reports released by Terrafame in recent months.

Groundwater around the mine has been studied since 2008. However previous reports have only included results for the Kortelampi area following a 2012 leak from the mine's gypsum waste pond.

The latest data show the clearest impact from the mine's operations within the grounds of the mine as well as west of it. According to the latest report, the groundwater around Kortelampi can be considered to be contaminated. It blames this on the 2012 leak.

No impact on household water

The mining company emphasises that no impact from the mine has been found in household water wells in the area.

"Despite this we consider it important that the state of the groundwater be monitored continuously and that the impact of the mining operations on nature be kept as low as possible in all ways," the firm said in a statement to Yle.

Yle requested an interview to discuss the groundwater issue, but the company declined.

The Kainuu Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY Centre) downplays the risk of water contamination.

"There are no groundwater areas in or near the mine that are important from a societal standpoint," says Sari Myllyoja, head of the environmental responsibility unit at the Kainuu ELY.

She says that inspections of groundwater in the area have been beefed up, though.

Environment Ministry worried

Hannele Pokka, Permanent Secretary at the Environment Ministry, is however worried.

"We're talking about contamination that is now gradually happening and beginning to affect a larger area," said Pokka, a former justice minister and governor of Lapland. She says that Terrafame must improve its protection of groundwater.

The Finnish Association of Nature Conservation (FANC) is also concerned.  Antti Lankinen, who monitors mining activities in the Kainuu district for the NGO, notes that groundwater contamination indicates soil contamination, which can only be contained by soil removal.

"We face Finland's biggest earthmoving operation, in order to normalise the situation and stop the current progression of events. We can't just assume that there'll be a mine there for 20 years, and then we'll clean it up. We should get to work immediately," says Lankinen, who is also chaplain of the Sotkamo Lutheran Parish.

Terrafame: Dump restrictions unnecessary

Meanwhile Terrafame is refusing to accept restrictions placed on its environmental permit for a dump in Sotkamo. According to the terms of the permit, dregs from the mine – totalling some 800,000 cubic metres – must be disposed of at a waste site that is underpinned by a base isolating it from the surrounding soil.

According to a 2015 study, this would cost nearly 20 million euros.

The taxpayer-owned firm argues that such an elaborate facility is unnecessary. It says it would be sufficient if the dump site is covered and its seepage water is collected.

"From the standpoint of groundwater, this solution is completely unacceptable," says Lankinen.

Pokka is also firm.

"The company must carry out these environmental improvement measures if it intends to carry on with its operations and improve its image," she says.

Last autumn, Terrafame was embroiled in a scandal involving Prime Minister Juha Sipilä after his cabinet approved an additional injection of 100 million euros in state funds for the cash-strapped firm. Soon after that, an engineering firm owned by Sipilä's relatives won a half-million-euro deal from Terrafame. The premier has however been cleared of any wrongdoing in the case.

The picture caption has been updated 12.5. at 13.55 to reflect the specific excavations depicted in it. The original picture caption read "Terrafame's waste water discharges have polluted groundwater across a wider area than previously thought".