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No. 364: Environmental monitoring at mine sites in Greenland

Søndergaard, J., Hansson, S.V., Bach, L., Hansen, V., Sonne, C., Jørgensen, C.J., Nymand, J., Mosbech, A., 2019. Environmental monitoring at mine sites in Greenland. A review of research and monitoring practices and their role in minimising environmental impact. Aarhus University, DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, 44 pp. Scientific Report No. 364. http://dce2.au.dk/pub/SR364.pdf

Summary

This report provides an overview and status of environmental research and monitoring practices near mine sites in Greenland and how the results of research and monitoring have been applied to regulate mining activities and minimise the associated environmental impact. The most significant mines in Greenland’s mining history are described together with research results and monitoring practices for assessing dispersion, bioaccumulation and toxicological effects of pollutants. Finally, considerations for setting up an adequate initial monitoring program are given together with future perspectives and directions for research and monitoring at Greenland mine sites.

The report is especially relevant for researchers, advisors, mining companies/consultants and people working with the administration of environment and mining in Greenland. However, many of the conclusions and recommendations can also be applied to environmental monitoring and regulation of mining and other activities in other countries, and the report are therefore  relevant to a broader audience.

Mining in Greenland really began in the 1850s with the opening of the cryolite mine in Ivittuut in South Greenland. Since then, mining for lead, zinc, silver, gold, olivine, rubies and feldspar (and to a small extent coal, graphite and copper) has taken place at a number of mine sites. Mining activities at three former mine sites, the cryolite mine in Ivittuut, the lead-zinc mine in Mestersvig and the lead-zinc mine in Maarmorilik, caused significant metal pollution (mostly with lead and zinc) in the surrounding environment. This was mainly due to the disposal of mine waste (i.e. waste rock and tailings) into the environment. These polluted former mine sites have later served as field laboratory study areas for the development of methods for pollutants monitoring.

Results show that environmental monitoring at Greenland mine sites is most adequately conducted using a combination of non-biota (water, sediment, soil and dust) and biota (i.e. biological monitoring organisms). We highlight the need to take temporal variations unique to the Arctic into account with respect to the discharge of pollutants (such as the typical flush of pollutants during spring associated with snowmelt). Biological monitoring organisms need to be selected from a diverse suite depending on abundance, pollutants of concern, speciation of pollutants etc. Typically, blue mussels, seaweed, sculpins, lichens and Arctic char are used as key monitoring organisms.

Results from environmental research and monitoring programs in Greenland have been used to establish environmentally safe threshold levels for regulation of mining activities during the permitting stage and for continuous evaluation, and in some cases also regulation, of ongoing activities in order to minimise environmental impact.

Future environmental monitoring of mining activities in Greenland will include a range of additional tools for assessing environmental impact owing to continuation of applied research in mining areas and technological advances. Future monitoring programs may also include regional monitoring programs to investigate cumulative effects of mining activities on a larger scale.