No. 241: Environmental Impact of the Lead-Zinc Mine at Mestervig, East Greenland.

Johansen, P., Asmund, G., Aastrup, P. & Tamstorf, M. 2008: Environmental Impact of the Lead-Zinc Mine at Mestervig, East Greenland. National Environmental Research Institute, University of Aarhus, Denmark. 30 s. - Research Notes from NERI no. 241.



At Mestersvig, East Greenland the Danish company Nordisk Mineselskab operated a lead-zinc mine from 1956 to 1963. The mine was underground, located c. 10 km inland from Kong Oscars Fjord. 554,000 tonnes of ore was mined, and 58,000 tonnes of lead concentrate and 75,000 tonnes of zinc concentrate produced. A road was constructed between the site and the fjord, where concentrate was shipped out. Tailings from the concentrator were discharged at the mine on a nearby mountain slope, from where most has slid into the river Tunnelelv flowing to Kong Oscars Fjord.


The first environmental studies at Mestersvig were conducted in 1979. They showed that there were high levels of lead and zinc in the sediments of Tunnelelv and in the river delta at Kong Oscars Fjord. Also high concentrations of dissolved and particulate lead and zinc were found in the water of Tunnelelv downstream the mine. In lichens elevated zinc and lead levels were found up to 10 km from the mine site, demonstrating that some airborne transport of metals had taken place. The most significant impact was found in brown seaweed from the intertidal zone. Elevated lead and zinc levels were found on a significant part of the south coast of Kong Oscars Fjord. The heavy metal pollution of the fjord originates from three main areas: The northern and the southern delta of Tunnelelv and the harbor area in-between reflecting the transport of tailings in Tunnelelv and the spill of concentrate at the quay in Nyhavn.


Further environmental studies of biota were conducted in 1985, 1991, 1996 and 2001, and they included seaweed in all cases. In 1985 also bivalves were included, and so were fish and seals in 1991. Fish were also sampled in 2001. These studies showed that cadmium and copper were not elevated in marine biota, and that zinc was only elevated in seaweed, whereas lead was elevated in several species, including three bivalve species and the liver and bone tissue of sculpin. In seals levels were not higher in Kong Oscars Fjord than elsewhere in Greenland.


In 1985, 1986, 1991 and 2001 studies of beach sand and marine sediments showed that spill of concentrate at Nyhavn and transport of tailings with Tunnelelv had heavily polluted beaches and marine sediments in the southern part of Kong Oscars Fjord.


Both lead and zinc concentrations have decreased since 1979 in the media monitored: sediments, seaweed and fish. However, Kong Oscars Fjord will be affected by heavy metal pollution for many years. Overall levels are expected to decline only at a slow rate, as the contaminated material becomes more and more dispersed and gets mixed up with or covered by non-polluted sediments. Lead and zinc concentrations in the marine environment may be expected to fluctuate with high levels following coastal erosion of major contaminated land areas, especially at the quay, followed by decreasing levels in periods with no erosion.


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