Greenland set to restore uranium mining ban

Mariane Paviasen, Inuit Ataqatigiit MP and anti-uranium mining activist. Photo: Inuit Ataqatigiit Facebook page

Within weeks, Greenland's parliament, the Inatsisartut, is expected to pass a bill reinstating a ban on uranium mining that was lifted in 2013 following pressure from mining companies.

“The Greenlandic minister with responsibility for minerals has publicly stated that a ban on uranium mining will put an end to all future uranium mining, full stop,” Mariane Paviasen, a Greenland MP and leading activist in the anti-uranium mining movement, Urani? Naamik (Uranium? No), told Green Left.

Paviasen was elected to the Inatsisartut as a candidate of the Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community for the People) party (IA). IA explicitly campaigned on a platform opposing a giant open-cut mine proposed for Kvanefjeld (Kuannersuit in Greenlandic) by controversial Australian company Greenland Minerals Ltd (GML).

According to Danish environmentalists, GML was instrumental in overturning Greenland’s uranium mining ban. It promoted the uranium mine as one of the biggest in the world, back in 2007, but now promotes Kvanefjeld as a Rare Earths mine, which will produce uranium as a by-product. It plans to dump uranium-rich mine waste in Lake Taseq, above the small township of Narsaq, where Paviasen lives.

According to NOAH (Danish Friends of the Earth) campaigner Niels Henrik Hooge, this has been GML´s strategy for almost a decade and that of Greenland´s former government.

“It has no credibility with the public, considering that the recent general elections more or less were a referendum on Kvanefjeld and perceived as a ‘uranium election’,” Hooge told GL.

The uranium deposit in Kvanefjeld is considered by GML to be the second largest in the world, surpassed only by Australia’s Olympic Dam uranium mine. While uranium prices have fallen dramatically since the Fukushima reactor disaster, moves to push nuclear energy as a “solution” to global warming may be already pushing the price up.

Furthermore, if GML imagines that presenting its Rare Earths mining project somehow makes it more “green”, this is false. According to GML’s own estimates, the mine would raise Greenland’s carbon dioxide emissions by .

Radioactive waste

NOAH and Renewable Energy, another Danish NGO, many serious environmental costs if the Kvanefjeld mine is allowed to proceed. There are huge risks from air pollution during open-cut mining, and even greater risks associated with dumping radioactive waste in Lake Taseq.

In addition to uranium, the radioactive waste would include thorium. Thorium tailings are 3‒10 times more radiaoctive than uranium, the two NGOs pointed out in their September 12 submission, responding to the mine’s latest Environmental Impact Statement.

The tailings will cause health problems, even if the built-in dams behave as planned. The risk increases over time, primarily after the mine has been shut down and when monitoring and maintenance have been completed.

In addition to the planned discharges, there will be unintentional spills via leaks and accidents. In the long run, large areas around the mine will be contaminated with radioactive elements and non-radioactive substances, many of which are highly toxic.

“The people living in the polluted areas will be permanently exposed to radioactive and other toxic substances via drinking water, food and air. Seafood is also becoming polluted due to the massive discharges of waste, including wastewater, along the coast. Bioaccumulation of radionuclides and non-radioactive chemicals can become a serious problem.

“All this means that uranium mining in Kuannersuit in addition to significant chemical pollution will leave millions of tons of tailings containing some of the most toxic known radioactive substances, such as radium, thorium, radon and polonium, and this waste remains radioactive at a dangerous level for hundreds of thousands of years.

“In addition, the Arctic environment is particularly vulnerable to pollution because it is rebuilding very slowly, and the long-term consequences of uranium mining could be extensive radioactive pollution, which, due to the health hazard, may make it necessary to ban agriculture, fishing, trapping and livestock farming.”

Company tactics

GML argued vigorously for the uranium mine in the lead up to the April elections. The company ran daily advertisements claiming that the mine would generate US$245 million in taxes and royalties for the country’s economy each year and create 330 local jobs.

After the election, GML chairperson Anthony Ho suggested to shareholders at the company’s May 26 Annual General Meeting in Perth that the company would be able to weaken the opposition to the Kvanefjeld mine among the new generation of MPs who were elected:

“Now that they are in power they now have to deal with governing a country rather than rah, rah, rah campaigning — ‘Vote for me, I'm going to make you all millionaires and you're all going to have beautiful sunshine and fresh air’,” Ho said, according to a published by environmental NGOs.

Ho said GML could “help them to evolve their policies”.

“How are we going to assist them to achieve their aspirations of no uranium mining in Greenland without damaging [our] shareholders’ interests and shareholders’ value in the company and our project?”

The answer, Ho suggested, was to treat the Kvanefjeld mine as an exception, even if the uranium ban passed.

“If you look at the situation in Australia, when Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister, he said no uranium mining. But then the mines department said to him, ‘You can’t stop Jabiluka because it is already going on’. So ‘alright’, he said, ‘Yep, no uranium mining from now on, and Jabiluka can carry on’. So there’s a lot of things that you need to work with government and help them achieve their goals and what they say during the election, without damaging the country or damaging the shareholders interests.”

GML managing director John Mair noted cockily at the AGM that, as the new IA-led government was a coalition, things could “change in a heartbeat”. He also joked about how many Greenlanders welcome global warming and that if the country did not warm enough, then “when the mine does get going and they're earning good wages, they can pop down to Spain and get thawed out and come back for another fortnight.”

GML shareholders laughed at this.

Questions

The political aggressiveness of GML may have something to do with its roots.

Sydney- based independent journalist, author and filmmaker Antony Loewenstein has been following this case since 2014. At the time, he wrote an for the Guardian outlining the political record of GML, then called Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd (GMEL), and its alleged control by a mysterious businessman, Mihran Shemesian, also known as "Mick Many Names".

“In 2009, Fairfax media claimed that Shemesian controlled more than 20% of GMEL stock. Range Resources, another company tied to Shemesian, had earlier been accused of paying the disputed government of the Puntland State of Somalia, linked to Somali rebels, more than US$6m (A$9.3m) for resource rights to the region,” Loewenstein wrote.

When Loewenstein asked Mair about Shemesian, he was told he isn't “registered as a shareholder”. However, Mair would not guarantee that Shemesian has no involvement with GMEL.

“Years ago I found troubling transparency questions around the Australian firm GMEL [now GML] and it should be treated with caution,” Loewenstein told GL.

“This issue has received barely any coverage in Australia and it begs the question; what's a relatively unknown Western Australian company trying to do in Greenland and what are its real motives? Uranium mining in pristine territory should be rejected outright."

GML should stop pushing a mining project that clearly doesn't have a social license to operate, he added.

Dr Lian Sinclair, who observed GML’s last AGM on behalf of mining monitoring group, the Minerals Policy Institute, told GL: “GML refused to rule out litigation over any potential ban on uranium and said they are committed to 'quiet-diplomacy'. It is most concerning … that an Australian company would potentially engage in litigation or back-room deals away from public scrutiny to overturn the democratic mandate of a small country.”

Over-reach?

GML may have seriously politically over-reached this time.

Greg Barnes, a Perth-based geologist who owns another mining company operating near Kvanesfjeld — and who supposedly inspired former United States president Donald Trump’s two year ago that he might “buy Greenland” — interrupted Mair at GML’s AGM:

“Mate, you stink in Greenland. Your advertising campaign in the election probably did more to get IA elected than anybody else.”

He added that the company's political intervention had "killed the project".

It seems that Barnes could be right.

Paviasen, who chairs the Inatsisartut's Committee for Trade, Commerce, Mineral and Oil Resources, was adamant that the IA-led government and the Greenland parliament would hold firm on the uranium mining ban and on the Kvanefjeld mine.

“There will be no exceptions made,” she told GL.

“Currently GML holds an exploration license, but a ban will make it impossible to obtain an exploitation license containing uranium mining, unless the resource is below the threshold of 100 parts per million, which is unlikely.

“Also, keep in mind that GML already has a special term in their exploration license stating that the Greenlandic government can reject an application for uranium mining due to political reasons. This has been in effect since 2011 and stayed on through several coalition governments of different politics.”