Kvalsund, NorwayAt six o’clock on an August morning in the Norwegian Arctic, Einar Juliussen opens his eyes to a noon-bright summer sun filling his cramped boat cabin. He rolls over and shakes his 15-year-old son, Arvid, awake. Within an hour, with Arvid at the wheel, they’re speeding away from the dock and over the flashing waves of the Repparfjord in search of king crabs.
The Juliussens are working 18-hour days while the sun shines, hauling crabs and hanging them in heavy nets onboard. It’s dangerous work, and both wear helmets, but on this fjord, Juliussen feels confident. He is a sea Sámi, one of the coastal fishers indigenous to the North. His family has fished northern Norway for 3,000 years, previously for salmon, though he now focuses on more lucrative crab. “I know every stone, every wave,” he says.
Even so, there’s one spot on the fjord’s southern shore that raises his blood pressure.
It’s there that Norwegian mining company Nussir plans this year to begin pumping two million tons of mine waste annually into the Repparfjord. The government greenlit the copper mine in 2019; the Norwegian Environment Agency approved the waste removal plan in 2016. But independent scientists still dispute the assessments that justify depositing the waste in one of only 29 nationally protected salmon fjords.
The tiny waterfront town of Kvalsund, whose leaders approved the mine, has become an unlikely locus of national tension. Last summer, the conflict came to a head, as young environmentalists and Indigenous people from across the country pitched tents beside the fjord and chained themselves to Nussir’s excavators, daring the company to begin construction.
Behind the loud protests and the billions of dollars at stake are fundamental questions: Who can claim these lands and waters? And who gets to decide how best to protect them?
‘The particles will not spread’
“COPPER. NICKEL. ZINC. LEAD. CADMIUM. MERCURY”—the words, scrawled in black marker on white poster board nailed to a post, mark the entrance to the protest site. These are the metals, along with a sludge of rocks and processing chemicals, that Nussir has permission to pipe onto the fjord floor.
Beyond the sign, on a green slope overlooking the fjord, a dozen nylon tents circle a smoking campfire and a makeshift wood-and-tarp kitchen. Erected by Norway’s Nature and Youth organization in July 2021, this camp attracted a weekly rotation of environmentalists and Sámi from around Norway. For one hundred days, these activists kept constant vigil beside the digging equipment, protesting what they call a hypocrisy at the core of their nation’s climate-forward agenda: marine mine waste disposal.
The Nussir mine was first proposed in 2009 to tap Norway’s largest copper deposit, in the Nussir Mountains; the company plans to extract 74 million tons and sell it on international markets. Since its early years, Nussir has marketed the project as a source of much-needed copper for a fully electrified, climate-friendly future. In 2012, the Kvalsund town council unanimously approved the operation, though two council members opposed sea waste disposal.
All mining produces waste in the form of a fine rock powder called tailings. For decades, mining companies have struggled to dispose of the stuff. Around the world, tailings are stored in large piles or in ponds behind earthen dams. The least damaging method for the environment, backfilling the materials into the open mine, isn’t possible for underground mines like Nussir’s.
Instead, the company plans to run a pipe from its onshore processing facility 200 feet down to the fjord’s bed. It is allowed to pump two million tons annually and cover an estimated five square miles, or about 15 percent, of the fjord’s bottom. To keep the waste contained to this area, the company will use a flocculant, a chemical that binds particles together. It will also install monitors around the deposit site to make sure that concentrations of heavy metals––some of which, like copper, become toxic in water––stay within legal limits. Pumping must stop if they’re exceeded.
Half a century ago, marine disposal of mine tailings was common around the globe. Today, only four countries still allow it: Papua New Guinea, Chile, Turkey, and Norway. A landmark 1989 lawsuit by the village of Chañaral against Codelco, the Chilean national copper company, proved that toxic heavy metals from submarine tailings deposits had decimated marine life and even accumulated in local residents’ blood.
In 2018, the Norwegian government banned marine waste dumping for all new projects. But the ban does not apply to Nussir, which had already gained full approval.
According to Nussir’s environmental impact assessment, the mine tailings will have a “small negative impact” on the marine environment. Thanks to the flocculant, the report emphasizes, high concentrations of the toxic particles will cluster around the deposit site on the seafloor, affecting only a small section of the fjord. Thus the waste won’t adversely affect salmon populations, which stay close to the surface as they travel to the river to spawn, says Harald Sørby, an industry section manager at the Norwegian Environmental Agency, who was involved in approving Nussir’s plan.
“We engage many experts to ensure a sense of security that the deposit site will not be disrupted, that the technology is there so that the particles will not spread,” Sørby says.
But several independent scientists questioned the report, saying that it failed to accurately capture tidal currents that would disperse toxic particles. “You can compare it to making a climate model without using the sun as a driving force,” Jan Helge Fosså, a marine scientist at Norway’s Institute for Marine Research, told Norwegian media in 2014.
Terje van der Meeren, also of the Institute of Marine Research, says the impact assessment modeled average current speeds—but nature doesn’t work in averages. The Repparfjord, a tidal body fed by a fast-flowing river, has highly variable currents. All it would take is one extreme weather event like a flooded river or high winds––which, with the changing climate, are becoming more common––to spread the toxic materials to the surface, north to the Barents Sea, and beyond, van der Meeren says.
What’s more, he argues, even if the waste stays confined on the bottom of the Repparfjord, it could still have a significant impact. Van der Meeren points to a 2016 study examining the effects of an earlier copper mine, called Folldal Verk, which deposited waste in the fjord from 1972 to 1979. Though that dump site wasn’t nearly as deep as the one Nussir plans, it also received in eight years only 10 percent of the annual waste that Nussir intends to deposit over 20 years.
The sediment at the Folldal Verk dump site remains toxic 40 years later, and according to the 2016 study, the tiny, copper-rich tailings particles get absorbed by plankton, small crustaceans, and marine worms that eat it. Because king crabs and larval and young cod and salmon depend on such bottom feeders for food, van der Meeren says, this toxic environment may contribute to the fjord’s diminished fish stocks to this day.
But there’s little research into the direct effects of mine tailings on fish, he acknowledges. Once Nussir starts mining, van der Meeren will begin one of the first such projects: tracking populations and health of cod and salmon in the Repparfjord.
Depositing tailings in the fjord is preferable to land-based alternatives, Sørby says. It’s a misconception, he adds, to think that the environment agency’s sole job is to defend the environment; it also must consider societal benefits. And when it weighed the potential costs of the Nussir mine against the benefits, Sørby says, the clear economic opportunities won out.
“Our main issue is of course the environment, but the environment is not isolated in society,” Sørby says. “We could say no to any pollution, and that would take industry in this country down to zero.”
From the mountain to the sea
Per Johnny Skum’s small kitchen, in a white wooden house on the shore of the Repparfjord, fills with the familiar smoke from sizzling slices of dark reindeer meat. He serves the meal to his wife, Eli, and four young children around the table.
Every May, Per Johnny and Eli ride ATVs behind their 500-strong reindeer herd west over the mountains to Kvalsund from their winter pastures in Karasjok, 120 miles away. On the way they camp in a lavvo, a Sámi teepee, for weeks until they reach their summer home on the Repparfjord, where the reindeer calve. The sea Sámi welcome them; for centuries, trade and intermarriage between the communities have thrived.
Though they live on the fjord only for a season, the Sámi reindeer herders have a stronger legal case against the mine than the resident Sámi fishers, because herders’ traditional livelihoods are technically protected under Norwegian law; fishers’ are not. But for decades, the number of herding families has dwindled with each new state-approved project: windmills, power lines, roads, hydroelectric dams, all of which have infringed on grazing territory. The Sámi Parliament, an Indigenous representative body also operating in Sweden and Finland, has more than 70 ongoing cases against projects that help power Norway’s 98-percent-renewable energy grid.
The Nussir mine threatens to strike a similar blow. According to a report from Protect Sapmi, a Sámi advocacy organization, the mine could force between six and 10 families to quit herding because the mine will fragment grazing territory, and because its noise and lights will disturb reindeer during the crucial calving season. Nussir disputes those findings.
The company chose sea waste disposal, in part, to protect the reindeer calving territory. According to Nussir’s environmental impact assessment, compared with all land-based alternatives, the sea deposit site will have the least impact on the herding district. But opponents want to block the mine altogether.
Not everyone is against the mine—not even all Sámi in Kvalsund. Many of the town’s 2,000 residents, including sea Sámi whose families once fished the fjord, look forward to the new jobs the mine will bring. Some even say they wouldn't mind limiting reindeer populations, since the animals roam streets, yards, and private gardens during the warmer months.
But Per Johnny Skum is: He points to the snout-shaped tip of the copper-rich mountain that Nussir will mine, which he can see from the window. “Nussir is a Sámi word, meaning nose,” he says. “They stole our mountain and our word.”
The world’s greenest mine
Sixty miles away, a screen projects a different view of the Nussir mountain range: layered topographical prints crisscrossed with red lines. At the Nussir offices in Alta, Norway, CEO Øystein Rushfeldt stands in front of the screen to discuss construction plans with his team.
Rushfeldt, who assumed the company’s top position in 2008, has spent more than a decade positioning the mine as one of Norway’s most progressive climate projects, one that offers the country an alternative to oil exports and contributes to the renewal of power grids. In 2019, Norway’s Minister of Industry Torbjorn Røe Isaksen said the mine was “needed for the green shift to tackle climate changes.”
Rushfeldt, a self-proclaimed environmentalist, leads nature hikes, is an “obsessive” recycler, and doesn’t drive a car. He meets regularly with Nature and Youth’s leaders and with the residents of Kvalsund. In August 2020, Nussir signed the biggest copper deal in Norwegian history—a billion-dollar contract with the German smelting company Aurubis. Months later, in October 2020, Rushfeldt announced that Nussir would be the “world’s first” zero-emissions mine, with operations run entirely on renewable energy.
Rushfeldt acknowledges that the mine will cause some environmental damage. But he says that’s the price to pay for the global transition to clean energy.
“This idea of leaving the metals in the ground doesn’t work,” he says. “Then all of our hopes for handling the climate crisis are obviously lost and gone.”
Rushfeldt argues that Norwegians need to see the effects of their consumption firsthand. Like most of the developed world, Norwegians use a lot of copper—in phones, laptops, and electric vehicles. But by outsourcing metal extraction to regions like the Congo or South America, Rushfeldt says they never have to see its dirty origins.
“It’s almost easier when it’s not in your backyard, it’s not your problem,” Rushfeldt says. “But when it doesn’t disturb our society, why would we change our habits?”
In late August, after two months of headline-grabbing protests, Aurubis canceled its billion-dollar contract to purchase Nussir’s copper, citing delays and “certain social aspects of the project.” In October, the municipality of Hammerfest, of which Kvalsund is part, agreed to suspend construction until complaints from conservation organizations and the herding district had been fully reviewed. But in December, Hammerfest ruled in the mine’s favor.
Rushfeldt isn’t worried that demand for copper will decline. More than a decade into the project, with government approvals so far on his side, he’s ready to wait out one more delay.
Already, many in Kvalsund are preparing themselves for the mine to finally open.
When there is no more hope
Autumn in Kvalsund comes in a tumble of quick-darkening evenings, a shift of winds, woodsmoke in the salted air. Soon, Per Johnny and Eli Skum will follow their 500 reindeer back east over the mountains.
Einar Juliussen—one of fewer than a dozen Sámi fishers left on the Repparfjord—is readying his nets for what may be his final winter cod season in the fjord. Once the mine waste begins killing bottom feeders, Juliussen worries that the cod will no longer migrate into the fjord, and that the king crabs will die. The large waves of the Barents Sea are too dangerous for his small vessel. He says he will have to find another fjord, one that isn’t so polluted.
To Juliussen, losing the fjord isn't just about his livelihood. It's about the centuries of traditional knowledge and legends tied to these waters, learned from his father and passed down to his son. When Juliussen was growing up, Sámi language and songs were banned under Norwegian law. By fishing this fjord, Juliussen's family could keep their ancient heritage alive.
"This fjord is where I learned what it means to be sea Sámi," he says.
In truth, the life of an Arctic fisher faces far greater threats than a single mine. The government has reduced his catch quotas, and Juliussen must compete with ever-bigger vessels and commercial trawlers owned by China in the Barents Sea that catch fish that would otherwise swim into the fjord. According to the 2021 UN climate report, the Arctic’s climate is changing twice as fast as the rest of the globe, bringing temperature swings and unprecedented storms. Juliussen and other Repparfjord fishers say that persistent, dangerous storms shortened last year’s summer king crab and salmon fishing seasons. And, since the 1980s, the Norwegian government has ceded more and more sea space to fish farms. Last year, it committed to increase fish farming fivefold before 2050.
In mid-September, the Sámi Parliament elected its first president with sea Sámi heritage, Silje Karine Muotka. She grew up alongside a fjord damaged by mine waste dumping and has pledged to fight for better protection of sea Sámi traditional livelihoods.
Juliussen sees his fight for the sea running in parallel with the reindeer herders’ fight for land. Every year, one more family must sell their boat and adapt.
“We sea Sámi, we lose the sea, one bit every day. Until one day, it will be hopeless.” He laughs bitterly. “Maybe we will work with mining.”
But Juliussen is preparing for one more fight. When Nussir begins building its pipe, he says, the Repparfjord fishers will be ready to lay down their nets directly where the pipe will enter the water. They will dare the Norwegian Coast Guard to remove them.
“If they stop that, we just don’t know.” He takes a deep breath. “What can we do when there is no more hope?”
This reporting was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the Brinson Foundation, and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.