Barents region news

“A Real Find to Researchers”: Environment Discussed in Svanvik, Norway

1 April 2020

   The Community of Svanvik is located on the Western bank of the Paz river. The region is home to three Norwegian protected areas, namely the Øvre Pasvik National Park, the Pasvik Nature Reserve, and the Øvre Pasvik Landscape Protection Area. To the East, they border the Russian Pasvik Nature Reserve, and to the South-West, the Finnish Vätsäri Wilderness Area. Together they form the Pasvik-Inari Trilateral Park, whose employees have been engaged for years in monitoring the state of environment and studying bird and animal populations.

 This joint effort by researchers from the three countries is often cited as an example of fruitful international cooperation both in the Barents region and worldwide. One of the ongoing jointly implemented projects aimed at compiling an Multi-Use Plan document for the river basins of Pasvik is going to be presented to the public this year. For several years, the scientists have been studying factors casting a negative impact on the border Paz river. One of such factors is gold mining in Finland. For years, Finnish miners have been extracting gold inside the park and along the Lemmenjoki river. This resulted in an increased presence of mercury not only in this river, but also in the Paz river. Lemmenjoki falls into the Inari lake, which, in turn, serves as the source of Paz and other Lapland rivers. Dump fields left by the Syd-Varanger mine and the post-WWII waste sites represent one more environmental threat to the region. The third (but not the last) such factor is wastewater generated by households situated on the Paz banks. The previous environmental description of the Paz river was issued back in 1996, and the situation is different now from the way it was in the past.

   The Pasvik Seminar being held annually for sixth years, this was the first time when representatives of the industry took part in it. Employees of the Kola Mining and Metallurgical Company informed the participants about the Company’s plan to put out of operation its facility located in the border township of Nikel.

   The emissions generated by its melting shop have been affecting the environment since 1940s. “The fact that this is going to end soon is very good news not only for scientists, but also for those who live here”, says Tore Berglen, Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU). “I have been studying emissions since 2014. Getting emission-related information from Russians used to be quite challenging. However, things are changing, and in recent years Russia became more open on the subject.”

   Mikhail Shkondin, the Kola MMC Chief Ecologist, says that in the recent decade, the melting facility in Nikel has been successfully meeting the requirements set for emissions by both the Russian and the Norwegian legislation. In past two years, the facility has also been operating within the limits for maximum permissible discharge of sulfur dioxide. The closure of the facility scheduled for 2021 will remove 56,600 more tons of sulfur dioxide emissions from the region. From the scientific community’s perspective, the very fact of putting out of operation a major industrial asset located in the vicinity of a protected area will give a boost to the research:

·                    “This is a real find for those who study biodiversity and the environment. We are looking forward to the “day 0”, says Bente Christiansen, Director for Environment at the Finnmark and Troms County Governor’s Office.

   “Day 0” is the first day after the smelting units are turned off. After the operation stops, scientists will be able to look into how production facilities affect ecosystems. Now that the discussion as regards the Russian-Norwegian environmental issue is coming to an end, we can finally focus on promoting tourism, which has recently seen a rise both in Northern Norway and in Russia, thinks Rune Rafaelsen, Mayor of the Sør-Varanger municipality:

·                    “In recent years, we have successfully forged a strong relationship, and it is very important to trust each other. I am looking forward to furthering our cooperation with the Pechenga district in the field of tourism. I hope that the Paz valley will become a tourist Mecca,” Mr. Rafaelsen said.

   However, despite the recent changes for better in the Barents region, its key environmental problems are far from being solved. In 2019, a study by the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO) found trace quantities of heavy metals in lichen, moss, and pine trees that grow in the Svanvik reserve. According to Tor Myking, a NIBIO researcher, among these metals were lead, cadmium, arsenic, chrome, and aluminum. They may be indigenous to the region, but their origin is yet to be identified. Ecologists say that we should do our best to avoid repeating the sad experience of the Birkenes commune in Northern Norway, whose fish populations and environment were irreparably damaged by emissions from the Glencore Nikkelverk metallurgy plant and acid rains from Europe. According to the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment, in 2012, the Birkenes Glencore plant was responsible for 38% of industrial emissions of nickel country-wide. Since then, no additional studies on the subject were conducted.

   One more issue that raises much concern in Northern Norway is the presence of dioxin in fish and venison. Scientists admit that, for the time being, the issue is not well studied. According to Eirik Frøiland, Manager for the Fish Resources at the Finnmark and Troms County Governor’s Office, despite the fact that dioxins were found in venison, the nutrition facts list for this type of food has not been revised since 2009. Harmful matters accumulated in fish and venison, if consumed by humans, may provoke cancerous and chronic deceases. Dioxins may have originated from the production of iron pellets at a facility located in Northern Norway. Sea water being used to cool pellets down, this catalyzed processes resulting in dioxin formation. After having been released into the environment, toxins were making their way into fish, animals, and then, consequently, into the human body. Dioxin being harmful for humans, some years ago authorities placed signs prohibiting fishing alongside some rivers and lakes. This year, the area will be re-tested for dioxin content, and researchers will keep studying the issue.

   “We are going to take a better look into our sins”, summed up the seminar outcomes Bente Christiansen, Director for Environment at the Finnmark and Troms County Governor’s Office.

   Representatives of Norwegian youth organizations also took part in the event. Young people were particularly interested in learning more about how environmentalist actions influence policies of authorities and big business. Greta Tunberg’s popularity was not the only reason for that interest. Not long ago, the Norwegian Government okayed the construction of a mining facility not far from Hammerfest (Northern Norway) despite protests by locals. The seminar participants believe that eco-activism is not the way forward. In their view, what is needed to effectively tackle the existing issues, is a responsible approach aiming at improving the overall environmental situation in the Barents region.