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State mine owner Terrafame gets temporary environmental permit to discharge waste water

The Vaasa Administrative Court has amended an environmental permit that allows the now state-owned Terrafame nickel mine in Sotkamo, eastern Finland to discharge waste water into the Nuasjärvi lake in northeast Finland. The court has made the permit temporary, valid only until the end of 2018, and has tightened conditions relating to operating the discharge pipeline.

Terrafamen purkuputken ympäristöä Sotkamossa.
Image: Kalle Heikkinen / Yle

The Vaasa Administrative Court has converted an environmental permit for the Sotkamo nickel mine into a temporary order. The ruling means that the mine, formerly operated by Talvivaara Mining and now owned by the state-owned company Terrafame, now has permission to use its discharge pipeline to run off waste water from its mining operations until the end of 2018. At the same time the mining company will have to apply for a new permit by the end of August 2017 to continue with the discharge operation.

The Court said that it could not grant an indefinite permit because there are still many uncertain factors linked to the operation. It cited problems with bioleaching, water treatment and water management, and noted that there had been known water problems at the Sotkamo mine since 2008. It added that the mine had still not been able to get on top of the situation.

Permit granted under strict conditions

The Administrative Court imposed several restrictions on the company when it granted the temporary permit. For example, it capped the permitted amount of sulphate in run-off water at 16,300 tons per year. It is more than a previous interim limit of 12,000 tons annually, but less than a ceiling of 24,000 tons a year recommended in a permit granted by the local regional administrative authority.

The Court admitted that the cap on sulphate quantities meant that water from the mining operation will not be efficiently reduced if Terrafame is not able to remove more sulphate from the waste water than it currently does. However the court declared that the waterway into which the run-off will flow will not be able to withstand more than the current recommended quantity of sulphate.

The Administrative Court also struck down a previous decision by the regional administrative authority to allow the mine to use a mixing zone in Nuasjärvi lake. That means that there must be no nickel, cadmium or mercury in the discharged water beyond normal environmental levels, even downstream of the discharge pipeline. This means that Terrafame will have to step up efforts to treat its discharge.

Talvivaara, Terrafame assessing court decision

The Court declared that overall, waste water from the immediate vicinity of the discharge pipeline would not destroy fish populations, but would mostly cause fish to flee from the area. Nickel, cadmium and mercury are all metals that accumulate in organ tissue, so waste water with high concentrations of these metals have detrimental long term effects.

The regional administrative authority had previously granted permission to use the discharge pipeline in a manner that would involve mixing the effluent with water from Nuasjärvi lake before allowing it to run off into the waterway. However the Administrative Court said that the procedure could risk increasing the rate of the discharge and possible mixing of contaminated ground layers in the lake.

In a statement issued Thursday, Talvivaara said that along with Terrafame, it could continue to assess the impact of the latest decision on arrangements relating to the ongoing sale of Talvivaara’s Sotkamo assets to Terrafame.

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