Green­land’s ura­nium dilemma

Is the in­come from an open-pit mine worth the risk to health and the en­vi­ron­ment?

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MICHAEL ONEAL

As prin­ci­pal of the pri­mary school in this once-pros­per­ous fish­ing town near the south­ern tip of Green­land, Ivalo Motzfeldt has a clear view of what un­em­ploy­ment and shrink­ing op­por­tu­nity can do to fam­i­lies: Chil­dren ar­riv­ing at school hun­gry and trau­ma­tized by do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. Re­cur­rent waves of sui­cides. Flag­ging mo­ti­va­tion and stub­bornly low rates of aca­demic ad­vance­ment.

Motzfeldt knows that break­ing this pat­tern is crit­i­cal to Narsaq’s fu­ture and to Green­land’s. But she pas­sion­ately op­poses the gov­ern­ment’s pro­posed so­lu­tion: an open­pit mine for rare-earth min­er­als and ura­nium near town fi­nanced by a pair of Aus­tralian and Chi­nese min­ing com­pa­nies. She fears that the mine will poi­son South Green­land’s pris­tine en­vi­ron­ment with ra­dioac­tive waste and open the tiny na­tion of 56,000 to for­eign med­dling. “We need money, but we can’t sac­ri­fice the land for money,” she said.

While the world fo­cuses on the po­ten­tially dis­as­trous ef­fects of Green­land’s melt­ing ice cap, Green- The Green­land town of Narsaq lies near a plateau where the ex­trac­tion of ura­nium and rare-earth min­er­als is planned. lan­ders them­selves are strug­gling to solve a very dif­fer­ent prob­lem: how to tap their wealth of nat­u­ral re­sources with­out invit­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal and po­lit­i­cal prob­lems that have dev­as­tated other de­vel­op­ing na­tions.

With a ter­ri­tory larger than Mex­ico and a pop­u­la­tion that could fit in­side a foot­ball sta­dium, Green­land badly needs new sources of in­come to pro­vide jobs and com­bat chronic so­cial ills. Its econ­omy leans heav­ily on one ma­jor ex­port — shrimp — and is propped up by an annual block grant of more than $500 mil­lion from Den­mark.

The ques­tion is what to do about it. Many in Green­land, in­clud­ing Prime Min­is­ter Kim Kielsen, view re­source devel­op­ment as the na­tion’s best chance for self-suf­fi­ciency. The is­sue is tightly in­ter­twined with Green­land’s fer­vent move­ment to win in­de­pen­dence from Den­mark, which be­gan col­o­niz­ing the sprawl­ing ter­ri­tory al­most 300 years ago. Green­land ne­go­ti­ated the right to self-rule in 1979 and has

since built the in­sti­tu­tions of a mod­ern demo­cratic so­ci­ety.

The next step, pro-devel­op­ment in­ter­ests think, is to launch large-scale min­ing projects to jump-start a di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion of the econ­omy. Op­po­nents counter that court­ing for­eign min­ing in­ter­ests amounts to swap­ping one form of de­pen­dency for an­other, with the added risk of en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion.

The pol­icy de­bate is play­ing out in Nuuk, Green­land’s cap­i­tal, but the strug­gle is more pal­pa­ble in Narsaq, where min­ing com­pa­nies pro­pose dig­ging into a tree­less moun­tain called Kvane­f­jeld that rises im­pos­ingly just out­side of town. The mine would pro­duce 3 mil­lion tons of ore per year when at full pro­duc­tion. It would be the world’s sec­ond-largest ra­reearth mine; its over­all foot­print, in­clud­ing dis­posal ar­eas and hous­ing for work­ers, would be close to five square miles.

From the top of Kvane­f­jeld, it’s easy to see what’s at stake. The view is spec­tac­u­lar — a patch­work of rugged mountains and aqua­ma­rine fjords stud­ded with ice floes in var­i­ous shades of white and blue.

But the sur­round­ing re­gion is in steady de­cline. Although it thrived for gen­er­a­tions on fish­ing, that changed in 2010, when Royal Green­land, the sta­te­owned fish­ing com­pany, closed the lo­cal shrimp-pro­cess­ing plant, elim­i­nat­ing more than 100 jobs. Narsaq’s pop­u­la­tion has dropped 13 per­cent since 2006 as young peo­ple have moved else­where. Those who re­main are left won­der­ing how they can carve out a new fu­ture in an Arc­tic re­gion that is chang­ing rapidly and dra­mat­i­cally.

The op­er­a­tions man­ager

Ib Laursen, the lo­cal man­ager of the Aus­tralian min­ing com­pany Green­land Min­er­als and En­ergy (GME), spends much of his time try­ing to con­vince his neigh­bors that their fears about ura­nium are overblown. Un­less GME and its Chi­nese part­ner, Shenghe Re­sources Hold­ing Co., demon­strate that they can de­velop and op­er­ate the pro­posed mine safely, he said, there’s no way Green­land’s gov­ern­ment will al­low the com­pa­nies to pro­ceed.

At 61, Laursen is tall and toned, a for­mer fit­ness spe­cial­ist in the Dan­ish army who moved to Green­land to be a hunt­ing out­fit­ter 31 years ago. He and his wife have raised two chil­dren here, and he claims as much stake as any­one else in making sure the mine doesn’t con­tam­i­nate his adopted home.

“We have the in­sti­tu­tions. We have the trans­parency,” he in­sisted. “Green­land needs to have one good ex­pe­ri­ence and de­velop from there.”

So far, GME has spent $65 mil­lion study­ing the mine’s fea­si­bil­ity and will soon sub­mit fi­nal en­vi­ron­men­tal- and so­cialimpact stud­ies. To help de­fray costs, it brought in Shenghe as a 12.5 per­cent part­ner in Septem­ber. The agree­ment in­cluded the pos­si­bil­ity of in­creas­ing that stake to 60 per­cent in the fu­ture.

Stand­ing on a hill near the mine site made bar­ren by nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring high lev­els of toxic flu­o­rine in the soil, Laursen ex­plained that Kvane­f­jeld was formed when magma forced its way into Earth’s crust eons ago, then slowly cooled in place in­stead of spilling over as a vol­cano. The cool­ing pro­duced one of the world’s rich­est de­posits of ox­ides, used in the man­u­fac­ture of con­sumer elec­tron­ics and in al­ter­na­tive en­ergy tech­nolo­gies.

Ura­nium makes up only about 9 per­cent of the to­tal value of the de­posit. But there’s no way of get­ting at the more lu­cra­tive min­er­als with­out gen­er­at­ing ra­dioac­tive waste, dra­mat­i­cally in­creas­ing the project’s en­vi­ron­men­tal risk.

GME pro­poses build­ing a twom­ile pipe­line over the moun­tain to chan­nel a slurry of ra­dioac­tive “tail­ings” from the mine into a lake perched high above the fjord. The min­ers will build a com­plex dam that blocks the lake’s out­let stream but al­lows snowmelt to pass through so the lake basin doesn’t over­flow. Then there’s the ra­dioac­tive dust: The min­ers will have to de­ploy a host of mea­sures to keep it from con­tam­i­nat­ing the town and nearby sheep pas­tures.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the com­plex­ity of this plan gives many lo­cals pause. They also balk at plans to es­tab­lish a vil­lage for more than 700 mostly for­eign work­ers and trans­form Narsaq’s pris­tine har­bor into a trans­po­lar ship­ping fa­cil­ity. But Laursen ar­gues that all of this is man­age­able.

“This is a golden op­por­tu­nity to do it cor­rectly,” he said. “Green­land is stand­ing at the start­ing block just wait­ing for the gun to go off.”

The tat­too artist

Tat­too artist Panin­nguag Lind Jensen isn’t buy­ing it. She fears that the en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and health risks posed by an open-pit mine will in­evitably out­weigh the ben­e­fits. “If you Google ‘open-pit mine,’ all you see is de­struc­tion,” she said. “It would be like killing the spirit of

South Green­land.”

But Jensen has also seen Narsaq’s de­cline first­hand. While grow­ing up here in the 1990s, most of the adults she knew had jobs, and her neigh­bor­hood was filled with chil­dren play­ing in the streets, the older ones look­ing af­ter the younger. Jensen left Narsaq at 16 to fin­ish her ed­u­ca­tion in Den­mark, and when she re­turned last year at 26, the town was di­min­ished: The shrimp-pro­cess­ing plant was closed, whole apart­ment build­ings were boarded up and un­em­ploy­ment had be­come a ma­jor prob­lem.

“It’s like peo­ple lost all hope about Narsaq,” she said.

Hope can be frag­ile in Green­land, which has one of the high­est sui­cide rates in the world. Of the 30 chil­dren in Jensen’s pri­mary school class, five have taken their own lives over the years, she said. With the rise in job­less­ness, so­cial prob­lems in gen­eral have spread.

She would like to think these prob­lems would go away if the mine added jobs and im­proved lo­cal health ser­vices, but she’s con­vinced it’s not that easy.

“That’s a re­ally ro­man­tic pic­ture,” she said, “but I don’t be­lieve it.”

The shrimper

Un­til he died in De­cem­ber at 58, Jor­gen Ole­sen had spent most of his life at sea. He and his broth­ers owned a small fleet of shrimp boats, and he was fond of telling sto­ries about the days not so long ago when haul­ing 16 tons of prawns in a three-day run was com­mon­place.

“The town had a flow to it then,” Ole­sen had said, when in­ter­viewed in Septem­ber. “Peo­ple were happy. They went to work ev­ery day and got paid ev­ery two weeks.” Narsaq’s lo­cal pro­cess­ing plant ran 24 hours a day in three shifts, peel­ing, freez­ing and pack­ing shrimp for a global mar­ket.

While cli­mate change seems to be ben­e­fit­ing Green­land’s over­all fish­ing in­dus­try, coastal shrimp­ing near Narsaq has fallen vic­tim to sev­eral fac­tors. Be­cause shrimp thrive in the cold, they have moved to deeper wa­ter and far­ther north as tem­per­a­tures have risen. Royal Green­land’s large, mod­ern fac­tory ships are bet­ter suited to chas­ing mov­ing species and can process them more ef­fi­ciently on­board.

To pre­serve some jobs, the gov­ern­ment man­dates that 25 per­cent of the catch be de­liv­ered to on­shore plants, but Narsaq’s was not one of them. Left with­out a place to land their catch, small boats such as Ole­sen’s even­tu­ally stopped op­er­at­ing.

With less pres­sure on their numbers, some shrimp are re­turn­ing to the fjord. Hal­ibut fish­ing is also bet­ter, and mackerel are on the rise. But few think Narsaq will see re­newed fish­ing em­ploy­ment any­time soon.

Ole­sen said he had coun­seled his son to find an­other ca­reer — but not in the mine, which he op­posed.

Even if you thought it made sense to take the en­vi­ron­men­tal risk, Ole­sen said, min­ing is un­sus­tain­able. The project is ex­pected to run its course in 30 to 40 years. Young peo­ple tak­ing jobs there “won’t be em­ployed even for a gen­er­a­tion,” Ole­sen said. “Then they’ll just throw them back into un­em­ploy­ment.”

The farm­ers

All that Klaus Fred­erik­sen and Avi­aja Len­nert have to do to re­mem­ber why they op­pose the mine is to walk out their front door. Sixty-six acres of sheep pasture stretch to­ward a blue fjord choked with giant ice floes that have calved from the nearby glacier — a south­ern trib­u­tary of Green­land’s mas­sive ice cap. Fred­erik­sen’s fam­ily has farmed this land for three gen­er­a­tions.

Fred­erik­sen has first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence with ura­nium. He ap­pren­ticed on a Nor­we­gian sheep farm in 1993 that was still find­ing ra­di­a­tion in an­i­mals seven years af­ter the Soviet Ch­er­nobyl nu­clear plant ac­ci­dent. He knows the mine is not Ch­er­nobyl but still wor­ries that if ra­dioac­tive dust drifts north­ward from Narsaq, it could taint the pas­tures where he grazes his 600 sheep.

GME says there is no threat of such con­tam­i­na­tion, but farm­ers fear that even the sug­ges­tion of such ex­po­sure could turn con­sumers off the meat from South Green­land and dis­cour­age tourism. Like many of their neigh­bors, Fred­erik­sen and Len­nert have de­vel­oped a nice side in­come by rent­ing their out­build­ings to eco­tourists.

Len­nert thinks a rapidly warm­ing cli­mate will cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­velop new forms of sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture. But cli­mate change is un­pre­dictable. Warm­ing has pro­duced an ex­tended drought in the re­gion that has forced sheep farm­ers to im­port fresh hay from Den­mark via barge, an enor­mously ex­pen­sive un­der­tak­ing.

Fred­erik­sen said a fam­ily used to be able to make a living from 300 sheep but now must own 500 to get by. Even so, Len­nert wouldn’t trade her life for any­one else’s.

“I feel like I’m rich,” she said.

The seal hunter

Stand­ing on a bloody dock next to six small boats filled with slabs of whale meat, Sebu Kaspersen, 31, said he, too, is feel­ing the ef­fects of cli­mate change. For years, he has hunted adult seals that sun them­selves on the sea ice that floats down from East Green­land each spring. But a lack of ice last year meant seals were scarce.

Whale and seal hunt­ing hardly en­dears Green­lan­ders to the rest of the world, but it is a proud Inuit tra­di­tion and an im­por­tant source of food and jobs. As friends and neigh­bors crowded around the boats to fill bags with meat and blub­ber, Kaspersen said he con­sid­ers him­self part of an es­sen­tial cir­cle of life. Kaspersen grew up on his fa­ther’s boat and got his pro­fes­sional hunt­ing li­cense at 18. The work isn’t easy, but the idea of trad­ing his life for a job in the mine, he said, is un­think­able.

Still, Kaspersen is in fa­vor of the Kvane­f­jeld project. Hav­ing watched Narsaq de­cline af­ter the shrimp plant closed, he thinks the town needs a new source of jobs. Although Kaspersen said he would keep a wary eye on the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment, he’s con­fi­dent ura­nium can be mined safely. “To­day the tech­nol­ogy is much bet­ter,” he said. “I’m okay with it.”

The politi­cian

For Vit­tus Qu­jauk­it­soq, Green­land’s min­is­ter of in­dus­try, la­bor and trade, the ques­tion is not whether a ura­nium mine makes sense for Narsaq but whether the town has any choice.

“Is it an op­tion for peo­ple to be un­em­ployed and sup­ported by sub­si­dies?” he asked. “No.”

Qu­jauk­it­soq, who is also Green­land’s for­eign min­is­ter, is a blunt, hard-nosed leader of the Si­u­mut party that has con­trolled Green­land’s gov­ern­ment since 2013. Wide-shoul­dered and solid, he has the pug­na­cious air of a big-city mayor and is not afraid to pick a fight.

Qu­jauk­it­soq in­sisted there is no rea­son to think the laws and frame­works in place will not pro­tect Green­land’s in­ter­ests — en­vi­ron­men­tal, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal.

“Is our small size a con­cern?” he said. “No. We have to be­come more than we are . . . . Ev­ery­thing has a price, in­clud­ing our free­dom. It’s a ques­tion of how will­ing the peo­ple are to be free.”

The shop­keeper

Hans Knud­sen did not ex­pect to be back here. He had gone away af­ter pri­mary school and even­tu­ally stud­ied IT sup­port and mul­ti­me­dia Web de­sign in Den­mark. He thought he was headed for a job in the new econ­omy.

But when the shrimp plant shut down, his fa­ther’s va­ri­ety store be­gan to fal­ter. Fish­er­men and plant work­ers — cus­tomers for cig­a­rettes, laun­dry de­ter­gent and much else — once were a steady clien­tele, but now their pa­tron­age was gone. Knud­sen’s fa­ther called him home to help out.

He com­plied. And like his fa­ther, Knud­sen, 33, was ini­tially a big sup­porter of the mine pro­posal. The town needed jobs, and a mine could pro­vide them. But then he be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with a lo­cal woman, and they had a child. The mine op­po­nents’ warn­ings about toxic dust float­ing over the town be­gan to res­onate.

“I’m wor­ried about my own fam­ily now,” he said. But he’s also con­cerned about keep­ing the fam­ily busi­ness afloat. He’s stuck on the fence, full of anx­i­ety about the fu­ture.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not say­ing no, and I’m not say­ing yes.”

“Is it an op­tion for peo­ple to be un­em­ployed and sup­ported by sub­si­dies? No.” Vit­tus Qu­jauk­it­soq, min­is­ter of in­dus­try, la­bor, trade and for­eign af­fairs



The Kuan­ner­suit Plateau, the planned lo­ca­tion of a min­ing project to ex­tract ura­nium and rare-earth min­er­als near the town of Narsaq. The fish­ing har­bor would be de­vel­oped into an in­dus­trial ex­port cen­ter.


CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Sebu Kaspersen is a whale and seal hunter who says the an­i­mals are scarcer in the warmer cli­mate. Vit­tus Qu­jauk­it­soq is the min­is­ter for in­dus­try, la­bor, trade and for­eign af­fairs. He backs the ura­nium and rare earths mine, whose fu­ture his gov­ern­ment will de­cide. Shop­keeper Hans Knud­sen said he “was pos­i­tive about the mine, but now I’m a fa­ther and I see things dif­fer­ent.”

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