Gällivare – the Mining Capital of Europe

For a number of years, the Ethical Council has been focusing its attention on the extractive industry, since such operations have a great impact both on the environment and surrounding communities. During its dialogues with foreign mining companies, the Council has discussed the environmental aspects of waste management and respect for human rights when establishing a mining operation, among other things.

Although every mine is unique depending on its geographical location, the ore type which is mined, and the appearance of the ore body, all companies need to manage their impact on the environment and surrounding communities. In order to broaden its knowledge base and benefit from the expertise of Swedish companies in the area, the Ethical Council travelled to Gällivare – the Mining Capital of Europe – in October 2010, visiting the Boliden Copper Mine, Aitik, and LKAB’s underground mine in Malmberget.

Waste management – a challenge

At 3 km in length, 1.1 km in width, and 400 m in depth, Aitik is Scandinavia’s largest open pit mine. It is truly impressive to behold this gigantic ‘hole’ and the enormous excavators shovelling the ore onto giant lorries, which then transport it to the coarse-crusher before it is eventually taken to the concentrator to be processed into copper. A short distance beyond the open pit mine there is a new concentrator (opened in August 2010) with the capacity to handle 36 million tonnes of ore per year.

When the ore enters the site, it is ground in two enormous mills, and then mixed with water and a chemical substance that causes the copper to accumulate and float to the surface. At this stage, the ore can be gathered. The ore has a copper content of 0.27 percent, and, through the concentration process, a concentrate comprising 30 percent copper is produced. The copper concentrate is then transported by train to Boliden’s smelting plant in Rönnskär, where it is transformed into pure copper.

Naturally, waste management is a crucial issue for these kinds of operations, as more than 99 percent of the raw material becomes ‘waste’. Tailings (waste produced by the concentrator) are taken to a tailings disposal facility – a large dam – where the waste particles sink to the bottom. The water that has become clear is then channelled to a reservoir, from which the concentrator draws the majority of its process water. The tailings disposal facility takes up an area five times that of the open pit mine. Sections of blasted rock containing insufficient copper content are stored on the site, creating a series of large rock piles. It is vital for the surrounding habitat that inspections are carried out ensuring that metal emissions into the surrounding area are kept within the thresholds established by the authorities. The greatest local challenge for the Aitik Mine is to manage dust from roads and the production process which is transported by the wind to the surroundings. Swedish law, through the Environmental Code, contains clear restrictions regarding permitted levels of noise and emissions. Both Boliden and LKAB perform regular measurements of noise and vibration caused by mining operations in surrounding areas, as well as of emissions to air and water. The results are reported to the authorities.

Communities in transition

A considerable social challenge faced by LKAB is the fact that both Kiruna and Malmberget are built on ore deposits. As a result, each time the mine is expanded, sections of the towns are affected. Successfully managing the transitions caused to these communities is a vital issue for LKAB, demanding sound planning and effective communication with municipalities and individuals. As part of its efforts to communicate with local residents, LKAB has held open information meetings, where the company has explained its future mining plans and how they will impact upon the community. LKAB is working towards highlighting this process as an opportunity for the municipalities to develop.

Approximately 15 million tonnes of iron ore are extracted in Malmberget every year. The ore, with an iron content of roughly 60 percent, comes from approximately ten different ore bodies, and the present main level lies at a depth of 1,000 metres. During 2011, there are plans to begin ore extraction at a depth of 1,250 metres.

Underground Society

Following examination of both operations, including observation of how LKAB handles the challenges of transforming and relocating towns while retaining control over environmental impact, it is time for us to visit the mine. Before entering the mine, we are fitted with a compulsory electronic tag, in addition to standard protection equipment, which allows LKAB to keep track of how many people are in the mine and where they are situated. It is difficult to understand that you are so far underground. The roads, which run to a depth of 1 000 metres, are wide, and a speed limit of 50 km/h applies. We cannot help but be surprised by this vast underground community. We stop to observe workshops, control rooms in which operators remotely control the boring machines, large crushers and conveyor belts. The ore is transported in two gigantic lifts which, in just above one minute, are able to transfer loads of 26 tonnes from 1000 meters up to the surface. Waste rock, that is to say, rock with insufficient iron content, is transported out of the mine by lorry. In Kiruna, where there is only one large ore body, trains are used instead of lorries to remove the waste rock. Once the ore reaches the surface, it is processed into pellets, on site, before being shipped on to customers – the majority of which are steel plants around Europe.

Spending time at both an open pit and underground mine, and holding discussions with experts at Boliden and LKAB gave us an invaluable insight into how two Swedish mining companies handle the challenges of environmental impact and the impact of the mines on the local community. We can now apply this knowledge during our dialogues with mining companies overseas.

The Ethical Councils report impacts of the mining industry

To gain a better understanding of the environmental impacts of the mining industry, in 2008 the Ethical Council drew up a report on and visited a mine in Guatemala. The Ethical Council works with other institutional investors to address individual companies and entire sectors.