Glaciers Get New Protections with Passage of Natural Resources Act

Over 300 glaciers in North Cascades National Park were at risk of mining contamination, but they will now receive increased federal protection aimed at better preserving them.

The largest public lands bill in decades was passed in February by the US Congress with bipartisan support. In the House, the vote was 363-62 and in the Senate 92-8. President Trump signed the bill in mid-March. The Natural Resources Management Act sets forth provisions that aim to protect land, rivers, and ecosystems across US public lands. The bipartisan effort extends protections to over 300,000 acres of land in areas around North Cascades and Yellowstone National Parks. The measure also adds 1.3 million acres of wilderness to the western United States, protecting those areas from resource extraction, such as oil and gas drilling. Utah will be granted 661,200 acres of wilderness land, California 375,500 acres, and New Mexico 272,900. A full list of the expansions of national parks, wilderness areas, and trail extensions can be foundhere.

Doubtful Lake as seen from Sahale Glacier Camp in North Cascade National Park (Source: Brew Books/Flickr).

Advocates for the legislation, including national park visitors, conservationists, and environmentalists, hope that it will reduce or prevent harmful impacts of climate change and water contamination on sensitive environments, such as the glaciers in North Cascades. Mining creates soot that falls onto glacier surfaces, reducing their albedo, which in turn causes greater amounts of melting.

According to the National Parks Service, North Cascades is among the snowiest places on Earth and is the most heavily glaciated area in the United States, outside of Alaska. Glaciers in the park are shrinking due to the impacts of climate change—20 percent of North Cascade National Park’s Boulder Glacier has been lost to glacial retreat. North Cascade Glacier Climate Project (NCGCP) has tracked changes on the glacier since 1988. According to NCGCP, Boulder Glacier has retreated about 20 meters per year from 1984-2009, a total of about 515 meters.

The Natural Resources Management Act will provide a larger buffer zone between mining sites and the park.

After the bill was passed in February by the US Senate, Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservancy Association stated: “We are one step closer to adding over 2 million acres of parks, wilderness, and conservation lands into protected status.”

Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican representing Utah, opposed the bill, fearing land in his home state would miss out on development opportunities.

The bill protects Yellowstone National Park from mining around the area. (Source: Frip/Flickr)

Lisa Dale, a lecturer at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, has extensive experience with wilderness designation. Dale, who worked for the Wilderness Society, which was instrumental in the passage of the 1964 National Wilderness Act, explained to GlacierHub the process for expanding wilderness protections on public lands.

The land must not have any roads and must be a minimum of 5,000 acres. And the areas under consideration should, according to Dale, “provide an opportunity for solitude … and not have any presence of modern life.” The presence of modern life includes noise and light pollution from nearby cities and towns.

Land under considered for protection must be deemed a valuable and unique ecosystem—North Cascade National Park, for example, which hosts awe-inspiring terrain and hundreds of glaciers.

The process for granting wilderness status is not typically fast or easy. First, it is important to note that land turned into wilderness is not taken from the private sector. Rather, wilderness comes from land that the federal government already possesses. What makes it wilderness, however, is added protection and restrictions of the land. After the land is constituted as wilderness, the area is designated for recreation—fishing, hunting, backpacking, and finding solitude. Mechanized vehicles are prohibited.

Dale said the process often starts with a small, grass-roots organization that has a substantial amount of data on federal areas. These areas are usually designated Wilderness Study Areas. In order to be considered a Wilderness Study Area, it must have been identified by the Land Management Agency, Forest Service, Park Service, or Bureau of Land Management as having “wilderness quality.” This wilderness quality will be maintained by organizations such as the Wilderness Society as they wait for wilderness approval.

Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness – White River(Source: Colorado Sands/Flickr).

There is much to celebrate with the passing of this bill, and with it comes the protection and conservation of sensitive ecosystems like the glaciers of Northern Cascade National Park.

“To have all of these things happening at once happening in one bill is pretty exciting and worth celebrating because of the bi-partisan nature of the support that came around to support these actions,” Dale said.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Not All Iceberg-Generated Tsunamis Are Alike. Here’s How They Differ

Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Glacier Lessons as a Glacier Lessens

Roundup: East Antarctic Ice Sheet, Mining Impacts and Flood Preparation

East Antarctic Ice Sheet Has Fast-Moving Margins

From Geomorphology: “The identification of different ice flow configurations, evidence of subglacial water and past ice margin collapse indicates a dynamic ice sheet margin with varying glacial conditions and retreat modes. We observe that some of the described morphological associations are similar to those found in the Amundsen sea sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) where they are associated with ice sheet and ice stream collapse. Although further studies are needed to assess the precise timing and rates of the glacial processes involved, we conclude that there is enough evidence to support the hypothesis that the EAIS margin can behave as dynamically as the WAIS margin, especially during glacial retreat and ice sheet margin collapse.”

Read more about the past behaviors of the East Antarctic ice sheet’s glaciers here.

The East Antarctic coastline where the Totten Glacier meets the ocean (Source: NASA).


Environmental Impacts of Mining in Glacier Regions

From the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies: “The ugly side of Kumtor is that an open-cast mine in pristine mountain conditions is bound to have negative environmental consequences. Combined with global climate change, the threat to glaciers and to sustainable water supplies downstream is severe. Kumtor’s owners and managers are aware of the issue; the questions are to what extent is the company responsible for countering environmental damage and what is the role of the government in protecting the environment?”

Read more about the Kyrgyz Republic’s gold mine here.

An open pit in Kumtor Gold Mine in August 2012 (Source: The EITI/Flickr).


Preparing for Glacier Lake Outburst Floods in India

From Environmental Science and Policy: “Over recent years, at the level of international climate science and policy, there has been a shift in the conceptualization of vulnerability toward emergence of ‘climate risk’ as a central concept. Despite this shift, few studies have operationalized these latest concepts to deliver assessment results at local, national, or regional scales, and clarity is lacking. Drawing from a pilot study conducted in the Indian Himalayas we demonstrate how core components of hazard, vulnerability, and exposure have been integrated to assess flood risk at two different scales, and critically discuss how these results have fed into adaptation planning.”

Read more about translating climate risk in planning for floods in the Indian Himalayas here.

Schematic overview showing how the integrative concept of climate risk as presented by the IPCC (2014) was operationalized for the assessment of flood risk in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India. (Source: Environmental Science and Policy).

The Glacier Law Conundrum: Protecting Glaciers or Limiting Hazard Response and Adaptation?

The environmental and socioeconomic benefits of the world’s glaciers, from their role in water storage to their influence in tourism, have led to the development of national laws to protect glacial environments from activities like mining that could adversely alter them. While legal protections aim to safeguard glaciers and the value they generate, the laws often fail to account for the actions necessary to mitigate glacial hazards or adapt to climate change. A recently published study in Ambio examined glacier protection laws in Argentina and Chile in an effort to explore how laws could better address interventions in rapidly changing glacial areas.

Figure of rapid growth of a glacial lake
Figure detailing the rapid growth of a glacial-dammed lake, highlighting the need for a quick mitigation response to glacial hazards (Source: Iribarren et al. 2018).

The study was part of the Newton Picarte project on Glacial Hazards in Chile, a partnership between Universidad Austral in Chile and Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. Its goal, according to author Pablo Iribarren, a glaciology lecturer at Universidad Austral, was to emphasize that glaciers not only provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits but also pose a threat to mountain communities. In addition, Iribarren told GlacierHub that “…this duality must be considered by Glacier Protection Laws (GPLs) to better face challenges associated with a rapidly changing cryosphere.”

It might seem impossible to protect glaciers, except by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. But there are other concrete steps that countries can take, particularly in relation to mining. GPLs are a relatively new phenomenon intended to preserve glaciers and their surrounding environments from commercial endeavors. Argentina was the first country to ratify a GPL in 2010. Chile and Kyrgyzstan have also developed GPLs, although these laws have yet to be ratified, due largely to the power of the extractive lobby. The opposition to GPLs from the mining industry and even the government is robust because of the economic benefits of natural resource extraction. For example, in the central Chilean Andes 55.1 billion dollars were generated from 2004 to 2011 and over 60,000 people were employed by the industry.

Photo of the entrance to Pascua Lama mine
The entrance to the controversial Pascua Lama mine. Barrick Gold is the Canadian mining company behind the project (Source: infogatecl/Twitter).

Mining and other natural resources extraction activities on and near glaciers in many cases destroy ice or cover it with debris and contaminate water resources. Chiles’s unresolved GPL, for instance, stemmed from a mining project known as Pascua Lama developed by Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining company that proposed the removal of glacial ice for mining purposes. However, despite intending to protect glaciers from destruction or alteration, GPLs can also inhibit the mitigation of glacial hazards and climate change adaptation by limiting intervention in glacial environments.

Glacial hazards are primarily caused by three sometimes concurrent processes: glacial advance, glacial blockage of mountain streams, and the growth and subsequent failure of glacial-dammed lakes. In the case of advancing glaciers, their leading fronts can become stranded, blocking streams and creating lakes. These glacial dams are then particularly vulnerable to melting. A well-known glacial disaster occurred through this mechanism in the Argentinian Andes in 1934, when an ice-dam blocking a stream failed. The resultant flood inundated a valley below, killing 20 people. Conversely, retreating glaciers often leave in their wake glacial lakes, some of which can be very large in volume. When the volumes of these lakes increase or when waves from glacial calving strike the dam, damaging outburst floods can occur.

Photo of the draining of a glacial lake
The draining a glacial lake in the Himalayas to reduce the risk of an outburst flood (Source: Renaud Meyer/Twitter).

To reduce the risks posed by glacial hazards, different strategies can be employed. One strategy for an ice-dammed lake is the modification of the ice dam itself through reinforcement methods like increasing its impermeability. Another strategy involves the actual excavation or blasting of ice to prevent glacial advance or to preemptively drain an ice-dammed lake. In another form of intervention, local communities near glaciers might utilize glacial lakes as a water reservoir in response to reduced water availability due to climate change or reduce the risk of outburst floods by lowering lake levels.

However, conflict arises between these glacial interventions and GPLs because interventions usually involve the modification of the glacial environment. Under Argentina’s GPL Article 6, activities that modify a glacier’s natural condition or result in the destruction or movement of glacial ice are prohibited. Section 6b continues by prohibiting the construction of infrastructure on or near a glacier, although it does allow infrastructure for scientific purposes or to prevent risks.

Glacial hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation would fall under this article, but any proposed intervention would be subject to an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), according to Article 7 of the GPL. Thus, the authors presume that “the most likely scenario for handling a hazard would be to conduct an EIS, yet this procedure may take months or even years.” During this possibly time-consuming process, a hazard “could put lives and infrastructure in danger.” For another view on this issue, GlacierHub spoke to Jorge Daniel Taillant, executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Environment, and author of “Glaciers: The Politics of Ice,” who finds it unlikely that preventive action against a potential glacial hazard would be delayed by a GPL and an accompanying EIS.

Why the disconnect between Argentina’s GPL and glacial interventions for hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation purposes? For Iribarren, it’s a result of the GPL being developed in response to conflict between mining and local communities fighting to protect their water supplies. Glacial hazards were simply ignored in the midst of a seemingly existential fight between international mining conglomerates and local people.

Photos of mine waste on a glacier and a damaged road that was built on top of a glacier
Photo A shows the mine waste that was dumped on top of a glacier in Kyrgyzstan. Photo B shows a road built over a glacier in Chile which was damaged when the ice beneath it crept forward (Source: Iribarren et al. 2018).

The omission of glacial hazards and climate change adaptation during the development of GPLs means intervention into the glacial environment could possibly be impeded or even prohibited altogether. To improve upon this current intersection, the authors argue that GPLs should include allowances for glacial interventions that protect lives or infrastructure. They further argue that the process to authorize intervention should be sped up so that hazards are addressed in a timely manner, reducing the possibility of disaster. Finally, they propose that GPLs should clearly designate the government institutions responsible for glacial interventions.

While these proposals would likely help to improve GPLs, challenges would still remain. The biggest of these, according to Iribarren, is the possibility that GPLs that allow for easier glacial interventions could be used as a loophole for parties to intervene in glacial environments for strictly economic purposes like mining.

With Argentina’s GPL, the only one of its kind enacted worldwide, future research is undoubtedly needed to truly assess the conflicts these laws potentially pose. A first step in this process, Iribarren believes, is to study how other glacial countries like Peru or Switzerland have balanced “conflicts between economic interests and the protection of the cryosphere and surrounding landscapes.”

Activists Say Chilean Glacier Protection Law Falls Short

A recent incident shows the importance of a social movement in shaping a glacier protection law in Chile. Representatives from indigenous and environmental groups testified in April that the draft law— which designates glaciers as protected areas and limits activities that can damage them— has glaring loopholes that would leave  glaciers and the people who depend on them unprotected. They urged the Commision on Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples to review the proposed law.

A glacier in southern Chile. Courtesy of Flickr user Piero.
A glacier in southern Chile. Courtesy of Flickr user Piero.

The group, the Coordination of Territories in Defense of Glaciers, is a coalition of organizations from northern and central regions in Chile with glaciers. According to an article posted by the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), the group’s message was received positively by representatives on the commission, which is part of the lower house of the Chilean legislature. The article was signed by several groups advocating for glacier protection, including the Coordination of  Territories. It was posted by the indigenous media blog Mapu Express as well.

According to the article, advocates for communities living alongside glaciers argued that these communities need to be able to secure their water rights in order to survive. Central and northern areas are the most dependent on glacial waters, and glaciers there would be left vulnerable by the law, advocates argue. They also point out that Chile is currently experiencing a prolonged water shortage.

The draft law is currently under review within the Environment Ministry, and the group asked the Commission of Human and Indigenous Rights to review it.

A mural protesting the destruction of water resources by mining. Courtesy of Flickr user Amilcar.
A mural protesting the destruction of water resources by mining. Courtesy of Flickr user Amilcar.

These advocates stated in an earlier post that industry interests have ensured that “Ningún glaciar quedará protegido”: Not one glacier would be protected. The groups are aligned against mining interests, including the state-owned copper company CODELCO and Consejo Minero, a mining industry group. Representatives on the committee acknowledged the role of mining interests in opposing glacier protection; Deputy Roberto Poblete, who sits on the committee, singled out Barrick Gold, a large mining company that operates in Chile, as an example of the forces at work against the law’s efficacy.

Conflict between mining groups and local activists are taking place in other parts of the world as well, including Kyrgyzstan, as GlacierHub recently covered. The issue has also been picked up in American popular culture, on the TV show Madam Secretary.

Chileans have been pressing their government to protect glaciers in law since 2014, when plans were announced to expand Chile’s largest mine, further impacting glaciers. Greenpeace started an advocacy campaign called “Glacier Republic” in which it jokingly claimed to declare Chile’s glaciers an independent country. Greenpeace’s efforts combined with those of a handful of Chilean politicians and grassroots activists. A march of two thousand people called for Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to protect the glaciers in law. Discussion of glacier protection in the law followed, and a group within Chile’s legislature advanced a bill to protect glaciers. GlacierHub reported in 2015 that though progress was made in bringing a law to the table, there was uncertainty in how far it would go to protect glaciers.

The Chilean groups testified last month that the draft bill did not go far enough. In January, advocates detailed that the law’s impact would be severely limited. That’s because the law would require that a glacier be in a “Pristine Region,” a park or national reserve, or part of a declared Strategic Glacier Reserve to be protected. They wrote that there are several loopholes that could prevent glaciers that fall under these conditions from being protected. One of these loopholes is a legal provision that parkland can be opened to economic development if permission is granted by the government.

These advocates further state that most glaciers would not qualify for protection under these three categories. Small glaciers, found in the northern regions, and types of terrain that function alongside glaciers, such as permafrost, are vulnerable, they argue. They also argue that mining activity in these excluded areas would lead to the fragmentation of glacial ecosystems. Also, the law would not prohibit mining that results in suspended dust or underground activities, which are the most dangerous for these water sources. According to the advocates, at the meeting last month, they argued that the law legalizes and standardizes the destruction of glaciers, rather than protecting them.

The March for Restoration and Protection of Water in 2013. Courtesy of Flickr user Rafael Edwards.

Estefanía González, a spokesperson for Greenpeace, in an article in the online newspaper El Mostrador, stated that Greenpeace has remained active in advocating for a strong glacier protection law, and issued a call for attendance at a march for the Defense and Restoration ofWater and Lands in Temuco, Chile to denounce it. The march was held on April 23, and was attended by an estimated 4,500 people.

González echoed the indigenous groups’ comments and also drew parallels to other nearby countries who were fighting similar battles. In Colombia, activists are fighting to protect tundra as a water resource, and in Argentina, where Barrick Gold, a mining company, is consuming 9 million liters of water per day in the zone where a water emergency was declared, Gonzalez stated in El Mostrador.

Deputy Hugo Gutiérrez spoke about the challenges the law faced. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Deputy Hugo Gutiérrez spoke about the challenges the law faced. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Members of the Council expressed their sympathy with the message. The advocates wrote. Deputy Gabriel Boric described access to water as an inalienable human right. However, the representatives pointed out that they fought an uphill battle against big business interests that had a strong hold on Chilean politics. Deputy Hugo Gutiérrez, from the Communist Party, compared the law with the Fisheries Act, which was originally designed to promote sustainable use of marine resources but actually ended up supporting large fishing companies while disadvantaging independent fishermen. Protests erupted in 2015 over this issue.

Council members pledged to do their utmost to take the glacier law under review to examine its human rights impact, even in the face of political and industry pressure. The difficulties which they acknowledge shows the obstacles faced by legislation that favors environmental protection, in Chile as in other countries around the world.

A Glacier Makes a Cameo on ‘Madam Secretary’

Glaciers made an unusual appearance on a primetime American television network last month: the television series Madam Secretary aired an episode whose plot involved a conflict between mining interests and an transnational public over the fate of a glacier in Chile.

Téa Leoni plays Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord in the series. Credit: CBS.
Téa Leoni plays Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord in the series.
Credit: CBS.

The show, on CBS, stars a fictional Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord (played by Téa Leoni). In “Higher Learning,” Secretary McCord is pulled into a conflict sparked a hemisphere away when protesters bar an American mining company’s trucks from entering an indigenous heritage site in the Andes. Viewers learn through protesters’ shouts that the miners intend to extract gold that lies beneath the glacier at the site. The miners planned to dig through the glacier to access the gold, and the opponents of the operation say this will destroy the glacier.

The mining company is American, and has a contract with the Chilean government. When an American employee is injured by a protester, the company calls on the State Department to ensure the safety of its workers.

The Secretary attempts to intervene on behalf of the company by negotiating with the Chilean government to shut down the protests. The issue hits her agenda just as she is preparing to leave on a trip with her daughter Alison to visit the fictional Rafferty College, which Alison hopes to attend. Stopping by the office, where she is briefed by her team of four staffers, she points out that she understands the protesters’ perspective, saying, “It’s not surprising that people would object to moving an entire glacier to dig the gold out.”

Mountain glaciers in Magallanes Province, Chile, where the protests are set. Credit: Neil Moralee, Flickr.
Mountain glaciers in Magallanes Province, Chile, where the protests are set in the episode. Credit: Neil Moralee, Flickr.

An advisor, Jay Whitman, played by Sebastian Arcelus, also points out that the whole affair has “a strong whiff of neo-colonialism.” However, the White House Chief of Staff pressures her to respond to the mining company’s interests because the company is based in the home state of a potential ally of the president. Furthermore, the mining company has a legal contract to extract the gold, so the Secretary is left in the position of having to try to protect their right to operate.

The story takes another twist when the Secretary arrives at the college campus she is visiting with her daughter and is confronted by a group of vocal students who demand justice for the Chileans and for the environment. The students jumped on the issue when the media picked up the story of a solo protester who began a hike up the glacier saying he will reach the top to pay tribute to the glacier one last time, or die trying.

GlacierHub has covered controversy over mining in glaciated areas, for example when state-owned Codelco proposed expanding Chile’s largest copper mine in 2014. The expansion, which Codelco announced would continue, albeit with some redesigns, requires major operations near glaciated territory and the removal of six glaciers. The company initially claimed that there would be little environmental damage. Greenpeace responded to Codelco’s move by declaring Chile’s glaciers an independent “Glacier Republic.” This move was a sign of protest against the failure of the state to protect glaciers. Also, in Kyrgyzstan, the Kumtor gold mine’s operations has threatened glaciers and water.

As these stories show, the episode of Madam Secretary is fairly realistic in its depiction of geopolitical issues. We see how transnational politics play a role in resource extraction. We also see how a Secretary of State uses political channels, leveraging US trade policy in a conversation with the Chilean ambassador, who she calls on to shut down the protests. At the same time, we see the human aspects of this political role, as the Secretary follows the Chilean protester’s hike and handles the confrontation with students on the campus who seek to protest injustice.

A protester demonstrating against gold mining in Chile in 2005. Credit: David Boardman, Flickr.
A protester demonstrating against gold mining in Chile in 2005. Credit: David Boardman, Flickr.

As the protester continues on his hike, he is lost in an avalanche. The mining company and the Secretary discuss workarounds including the use of an independent monitor group to supervise the operations and the possibility of mining the glacier from a site at a lower elevation, which would avoid destroying it. After this hike put the spotlight on the conflict, reports point out that the Chilean government has violated its own laws by granting indigenous lands to a mining interest. The mining company decides to abandon its plans (it finds another site in Argentina) and the protester is rescued.

The episode can be watched for free online for a limited time, here.

Peru Faces Tensions Over Water

Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr
Pastoruri, Peru. Image by Taco Witte/Flickr

Peru will face a “new normal” as greater agricultural and energy demands, population growth and climate change chip away at what is left of its glaciers, according to a recent article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs. Glacial retreat could ultimately lead to conflict in the country, the author found.

“Peru offers an early view of the challenges mountainous regions worldwide may face in coming decades,” wrote Peter Oesterling, the author. “The country—if successful—may also provide the world a model for effective policies to mitigate threats to environmental and human security.”

For people in Peru, glaciers are the essence of their existence. Most people live on the west coast, an arid region, and rely on glacier meltwater for day to day use, crops, hydroelectric power and mining. But since the early 1980’s, Peru’s glaciers have shrunk by more than 22 percent. Further loss could lead to increased risk of flooding and water scarcity as well. Already, seven out of nine watersheds in the Cordillera Blanca are already past “peak water,” meaning that the glaciers have passed the upper limit of melt water they can release.

At the same time, water demand in Peru is on the rise as water security dwindles. The population is projected to grow by 35 million by 2020, which will put pressure on the country’s existing land and water resources. Millions of households rely on the  Cañon del Pato hydropower plant on the Rio Santa, but as water availability declines, the plant could lose 40 percent of its power generating capability.

The country’s mining industry also consumes a great deal of water. Eleven percent of Peru’s land is being mined for minerals. In addition to using water for mineral extraction, mining releases contaminated water back into the watershed.

View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr
View to Tocllaraju Summit, 6036m. Photo by Twiga269/Flickr

“Peru’s trends in water use and supply are incompatible,” wrote Oesterling. “Glacially-fed rivers are already at emergency levels—insufficient for the country’s agricultural and hydroelectric demands during the dry season.”

The result has been socio-environmental tensions in the country, which have roots in the country’s history. Peru’s government historically cut indigenous communities off their land and limited their access to water resources for the sake of economic development. Still now local populations are dis-empowered and unable to take part in any decision making processes on their land even though they are the first to suffer from water contaminated by mining. Oesterling discusses a protest in which angry villagers blocked a major highways for several days, even though they were physically attacked by police, in order to bring attention to the concerns over pollution from mines.

To prevent future conflict, the country will need better regulatory processes that shifts the responsibility of environmental impact assessments away from private companies and into the hands of government bodies, said Oesterling. Existing regulatory government bodies could also benefit from being strengthened.

“With a sound response that addresses clean water access, environmental protection, and public participation in resource allocation decision-making, Peru can mitigate the effects of glacial recession and acclimate to new environmental realities,” he concluded. “Yet—much like Peru’s water supply—the time for effective action against glacial recession is dwindling—and quickly.”

Political Tug of War Over Greenland’s Mining Industry

Greenlanders are engaging in a fierce ongoing debate about whether to develop the country’s onshore mineral resources into a robust mining industry.

Since gaining political autonomy from Kingdom of Denmark in 2009, the government of the world’s largest non-continental island has long been brainstorming how to solve its increasing financial woes. When a 2008 US Geological Survey documented the potential for more than 50 billion BOE (barrel of oil equivalent) in the Greenland region, rapid political support emerged for the development of a national mining industry.

Colored houses clustered at the foot of Qaaqarsuaq
Colored houses clustered at the foot of Qaaqarsuaq. Courtesy of BBC.

Indeed, with the rise of temperatures and subsequent melt of icecaps and glaciers, the available surfaces for extraction in Greenland are rapidly increasing, and are being trailed by the arrival of small scale mining companies and exploration wells.

Greenland’s particular mining and extraction of fossil fuels would have noticeable ramifications on encouraging the country’s long-term use of carbon-emitting energy sources, ensuring and reinforcing an energy dependence that the 2009 European Commission’s Market Observatory for Energy study predicts to last for quite some time. However,  climatologists warn that fossil fuel extraction will further contribute to rising Arctic temperatures, which are causing the melting of the ice caps and glaciers in the first place.

Nalunaq Gold Mine,  Greenland’s first gold mine.
Nalunaq Gold Mine, Greenland’s first gold mine. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Companies are exploring the mining potential of a long list of minerals in Greenland, including iron ore, copper, oil, zinc, lead, uranium, fluoride, gold, rubies, and rare-earth minerals, which are commonly used in the manufacturing of mobile phones, solar panels, and wind turbines.

Greenland’s major political parties, all unanimous in support for the development of the mining industry, hope to capture the rich benefits of oil taxes, royalties, employment opportunities, and financial independence, and therefore perhaps increased political independence, from Denmark.

However, elections have proceeded with caution as politicians battle over the pace at which to attract foreign investors to the market and over the employment of uranium mining, which was recently relieved of a decades-old ban on the practice.

Greenland citizens, however, are deeply divided over the ambitious plans to develop the mining industry.

Some believe a robust mining industry development could solve Greenland’s struggling economy. The country’s locals, historically sustaining themselves through hunting and fishing, have faced a faltering economy and a declining population, particularly in the town of Narsaq. When the its largest employer, a shrimp processing plant, closed a few years ago after the shrimp population fled to cooler northern waters, the town lost over 80 jobs.

Town slaughterhouse manager Henning Sonderup told BBC, “Many people are unemployed,” he says. “Lots of families from Narsaq have moved out to other cities, so we have to do something.”

Local Susanne Lynge sees mining as a potential solution to the government’s financial woes.

“Our local government needs money,” she says. “I wish they would open the mining,” she told BBC News as she led a protest calling for the local council to speed up the construction of a new school.

Local protest calling for the council to speed up construction of a new school.
Local protest calling for the council to speed up construction of a new school. Courtesy of BBC.

Sonderup added that a stable industry could bring economic prosperity and development back to Greenland.

“New school, bigger hospital, better airport, new harbor, new roads, everything. Greenland will be on the map again,” he said.

The site of the Kvanefjeld uranium and rare earth element project in southern Greenland
The site of the Kvanefjeld uranium and rare earth element project in southern Greenland

Other citizens in Narsaq, however, deeply oppose the mining industry’s encroaching presence, concerned about environmental impacts such as pollution, radioactivity, and threats to biodiversity.

One resident, Agathe Devisme, remarked, “People coming to Greenland are looking for something pure,” she says. “It’s the last corner of the world not touched by pollution. If there is any kind of radioactivity in the area, they will not like it.”

In addition to these environmental threats, Greenland’s extraction industry poses major geopolitical and economic implications onto the hazy future of Arctic oil extraction. A 2015 study estimated there to be 100 billion barrels of oil and natural gas reserves in Arctic, but concluded that Arctic reserves could not be exploited if global temperature increases were to be kept under the generally agreed “safety limit” of 2ºC. With the approach of December’s UN negotiations and international climate deal, environmental policymakers will be watching Greenland’s move.

Record-speed melting ice in Greenland
Record-speed melting ice in Greenland (Courtesy of Brendan Delaney/Shutterstock)

Greenland Minerals and Energy’s operations manager Ib Laursen believes that a mining industry can still adhere to sustainability goals.

“Other countries like Canada and France have uranium mining,” he says. “If they can do it, we can do it in Greenland, we can take best environmental standards and put them to work here.”

Several recent studies and working papers, most recently a paper on developing energy sectors in the Arctic in the soon-to-be-published Handbook of the Politics of the Arctic, seek to predict the unknown future of Greenland’s mining industry and environmental policy. The Energy Security Institute at Brookings offers its own interpretation of the future in a 2014 report, as does MaRS Discovery District in this blog post.

For many, the debate over the development of Greenland’s mining industry hinges not on whether to capitalize on the economic benefits of a mining industry, but on whether the industry can balance tense sociopolitical tensions in the Arctic and extract resources in a sustainable and environmentally-safe manner.


European Bank Says Mining Projects Don’t Damage Glaciers

For years, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has been involved in the Kumtor mining project, which some experts say is contaminating ground and surface waters. Kyrgyz local communities have been complaining that the gold mine is causing negative environmental and social impacts on the nearby villages. Additionally, international NGOs and Kyrgyz environmentalists believe that the Canadian-operated Centerra Gold mine is triggering rapid glacier melt due to company’s mining practices. The EBRD has denied these claims.

In May 2014, I was invited to the EBRD Annual Meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia where I met and interviewed  Alistair Clark (EBRD’s Managing Director Environment and Sustainability Department), Michaela Bergman (EBRD’s Chief Counselor for Social Issues Environment and Sustainability Department), and  Dariusz Prasek (Director, Project Appraisal Environment Department).  

Here is an excerpt of the interview:

 Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.
Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.

Ryskeldi Satke: on EBRD audits of the Kumtor mine. It looks like drinking water is the main concern here and it was one of the demands in the villages and this problem was raised during protests as well. My understanding is that EBRD has done due diligence on the impact. Why then there is an issue with the drinking water, still?

Alistair Clark: There shouldn’t be an issue with the drinking water. For instance, there are monitoring results for water discharge from the mining site available to the public, I believe.

Ryskeldi Satke: CEE Bankwatch did an investigation into the mine in 2011 and they were trying to get hydrogeologist Robert Moran onto Kumtor premises but Centerra refused to grant access to Mr. Moran for water quality testing. Moran took samples down the local river stream from the mining project and said that “something is in this water that has been added from the mining activity”.

Dariusz Prasek: We followed up on that and 50 samples of water were taken near the Kumtor mine. None of these 50 samples confirmed Mr. Moran’s findings. ERM firm was the consultant. I don’t have all the data in front of me and ERM work never confirmed Moran’s findings. These findings were ungrounded. Something that Mr. Moran took for sampling was never confirmed by the independent consultant.

 Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.
Saruu village community activists in the summer of 2013 when they went to inspect the Kumtor mine with local Kyrgyz government officials.

Alistair Clark: We are basing and we took that science in terms of results, you raised that issue. And we’ve got  information that doesn’t confirm Mr. Moran’s findings. So, we are not trying to discredit it and we have body of data that actually says that water is ok for water supply. We can’t comment on why people are protesting. Last time, there was an annual meeting few years ago and issues of Centerra Gold came up. We took claims that were made by Bankwatch and others. We took it very seriously and dispatched two-three people to the mine site to have independent audits done. These claims were not found to be there, company’s practice was in compliance with international best practice and policy. And also, according to requirements that we put onto the project as part of EBRD financing. So when we have information from colleagues like yourself, we’ll look at that data, we’ll look at that information and we would triangulate. We can’t really do much more to stage until we see body of evidence.

Ryskeldi Satke: I was recently in Mongolia and we have similar reports from the local people near the Gatsuurt mining project about the drinking water again. What are the odds of having complaints from the local communities in both Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia about the drinking water?

Michaela Bergman: I think people can express concerns and it can also be about perceptions. I think we have to understand what these concerns are. We have worked on projects where the data is within whatever acceptable limits and people still don’t accept it as safe. We have to understand exactly what the issue is. Have they’ve got a proof of them being sick or they don’t like the smell of the water. It could be a lot of reasons, in our experience.

Ryskeldi Satke: Was there any comprehensive medical research into long-term health effects in the areas which have generated numerous complaints about the drinking water?

The Gatsuurt open pit gold project in Mongolia is ready to launch mining operations (not a working project yet)
The Gatsuurt open pit gold project in Mongolia is ready to launch mining operations (not a working project yet)

Alistair Clark: There was a medical study in 1998 after spill

Ryskeldi Satke: Was there any study done in recent years?

Alistair Clark: I don’t know about now. But there was a study of the impact of that spill and we were dealing with cyanide with half life of days which got down quickly to low concentrations. Company provided clean drinking water. There have been number of claims about injuries and medical conditions associated with that and I understand that the medical reports from the Kyrgyz Republic that most of those reports were not associated with the spill.

Darius Prasek: What we monitor is actually in compliance with the standards of the project we finance and we have our own annual visits to the company, we review all standards on annual basis. So we are happy that the company is meeting standards. We didn’t launch any health assessment of the local populace.

Ryskeldi Satke: You referred to the independent consultants hired by Centerra Gold.

Dariusz Prasek: Paid by Centerra Gold but hired in agreement with EBRD in terms and references preferred by the bank.

Satellite imagery of Kumtor (1975-2014) in the attached file. Compiled by  GEUS's William Colgan.
Satellite imagery of Kumtor (1975-2014) in the attached file. Compiled by GEUS’s William Colgan.

Ryskeldi Satke: Prizma LLC. is one of them which went as far as stating that Kumtor mine glaciers are melting primarily due to climate change. And I have contacted PhD William Colgan glaciologist with Geological Survey of Greenland and Denmark (GEUS) to clarify Prizma’s claim on effect of the global warming on Kumtor glaciers and according to Colgan’s expertise, climate change is not the only reason, although it is undeniable that climate change is effecting glaciers globally. Kumtor case is very specific, the GEUS researcher says “local mining activities are clearly a larger factor in the recent wastage of the Lysyi and Davydov glaciers than regional climate change”. William Colgan’s finding was also demonstrated on satellite imagery pulled from archives from 1977 to 2014.

Alistair Clark: If you look at the number of glaciers around the world and see how many are retreating, the vast majority are indeed retreating. Prizma was looking at specific issues. We have our own experts in climate change team, many geologists. So this issue of melting is of concern and for instance, Centerra Gold had a habit of putting waste rock on one of the glaciers at Kumtor and EBRD has stopped such practice. We did that. Now, what’s the consequence of saying that glaciers are melting. is it due to mining activity? Maybe glaciers are retreating with nothing to do with mining, if you take rock off the ground and putting the waste rock on the glacier which is also slowly moving, I think that’s an argument to say that one affecting the other. But if there’s no rock placed on the glacier which still retreating, well, it’s not gonna be due to the mining activity. It will be due to long-term geological issue.

Grandmother with her grandchild about 4-5 miles away from Gatsuurt mine.
Grandmother with her grandchild about 4-5 miles away from Gatsuurt mine.

Ryskeldi Satke: Given the subject of melting, that is the reason for growing in size of the Petrov lake. And people have been raising the issue of outburst at Petrov lake which may wash away the cyanide tailing pond and contaminate the Kumtor river which is a tributary to Syr Darya river. You might heard of the dam spill disaster at Mount Polley mine in Canada, last year. Conditions are somewhat similar between the Kumtor and Mount Polley sites, both with over 50 million tons of waste chemical material. Is there any plan in place that would safeguard the area from disaster scenario similar to Mount Polley spill?

Alistair Clark: Yes, they are putting in an engineering design. That aspect is monitored by the company, I think they have done land forming to channel any sudden breaks. So they have been engineering that issue out.

Dariusz Prasek: And they have been assessing the worst case scenario. In terms of what would have really happened. The modelling showed that it’s even with the outburst falling into the tailing pond and the contamination would not be significant. They did modelling but they are not ignoring the issue but implementing measures to prevent it from happening.

Dam Spill Threats at a Gold Mine in Kyrgyzstan  

In light of the Mount Polley tailings dam spill in British Columbia, Canada, environmental activists in Kyrgyzstan are ringing alarm bells over a possible scenario of a similar outburst at Petrov Lake near the Kumtor gold mine project. At Mount Polley, the tailings dam at a copper and gold mine burst in August last year, spilling 25 million cubic meters of toxic waste into nearby lakes. The British Columbia provincial government appointed a commission to probe into the disaster. The commission has concluded that a “dominant factor in the breach of the Mount Polley tailings dam was a failure in the dam’s foundation”. All the while in Kyrgyzstan, the main concern has been and still is the Kumtor project’s chemical waste tailings pond, managed by Centerra Gold. Coincidentally, the very same engineering firm of record for the Mount Polley dam, AMEC, was hired to investigate the Centerra Gold’s environmental record at Kumtor mine in 2013.

Kumtor mine
Kumtor Mine (source: Ryskeldi Satke)

The most worrisome issue at Kumtor has been evolving with the stability of the glacial Petrov Lake, which is situated in direct proximity (7 km) above the tailings pond. The northwestern perimeter of Petrov Lake, where the dam is the narrowest, has become a major cause for concern in the Kyrgyz environmentalist community. The length of this particular section is approximately 30 meters. A Petrov Lake outburst could be expected to wash away the Kumtor tailings. where 60 million tons of cyanide liquid waste has been collected and stored so far. Just as in the case with the design of the Mount Polley dam, Kumtor tailings pond’s flawed feasibility has led to the instability of the dam and to seepage of toxic substances into the groundwater. The first report of the movement of the Kumtor tailings dam was recorded in 1999. And it was found that in the initial stages of the construction, the active layer of relatively unstable alluvial deposits had not been removed from the base of the tailings pond. That has made the remaining loamy interlayers (at depths of 4 to 6 meters) alsovulnerable to instability. The Prague-based group CEE Bankwatch has indicated that “in spite of measures to stabilize the dam in 2003 and 2006 (so-called shear keys and toe berm), the dam is still continuing to move.”

As this statement suggest, the company’s plans have not solved the issue of the tailings dam stability. An underlying issue is that the plans to store and manage the tailings from Kumtor did not include a hydrogeological study of the chosen location. The storage pond was built on the riverbed of the Arabel creek. It was later discovered that an old bed aquifer remained at a depth of 6.85 meters.  This active bottom (underflow) is contributing to the instability of the tailings dam. Dr. Robert Moran, a hydro-geologist who visited the Kumtor mine in 2012,  said that the tailings dam instability was “enhanced by the relatively high temperatures of the tailings when they come from the process plant (a highly contaminated mix of about 50% solids, 50% liquids), which would increase permafrost melting [in this high-elevation location]. Such deformation and movement of the tailings structure, combined with the partial melting of the permafrost raises concerns about a catastrophic failure of the tailings impoundment — especially if a severe earthquake were to occur [in this seismically-active region].”

Expansion of tailings pond from 1977 to 2014 (source: William CoOlgan)
Expansion of tailings pond from 1977 to 2014 (source: William Colgan)

Dr. William T. Colgan, a researcher with Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, believes that Petrov Lake presents an “additional geotechnical hazard confronting the Kumtor tailings pond”. According to Colgan’s analysis, “glacial moraine and till is often a poorly consolidated material, outburst floods from proglacial lakes due to berm breaches present a non-trivial hazard. Petrov Lake is one of approximately fifteen proglacial lakes in Kyrgyzstan for which the moraine dam has been classified as ‘at risk of rupture’ by previous researchers. The stability of the lake is important for the stability of the Kumtor tailings pond, as an outburst flood could result in failure by over topping of the downstream Kumtor tailings pond. The lake has grown in size from an area of 1.8 to 3.4 km² between 1977 and 2014. In 1957 it was just 0.96 km2 in area. This growth is due to climate change, which has enhanced both the retreat and melt of Petrov Glacier. This multi-decadal growth indicates that the volume of Petrov Lake is not in steady-state (whereby lake inflow is balanced by lake outflow), and thus the forces being exerted on moraine and till berms are likely changing over time.”

Kumtor tailings pond (source: Flickr/anonymous)
Kumtor tailings pond (source: Flickr/anonymous)

The threat of the environmental disaster over Kumtor tailings pond was highlighted at the United States House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing by Dr. Amanda Wooden (Associate Professor of Environmental Politics & Policy, Bucknell University) in November 2014. Wooden’s testimony has indicated that the “changes in the permafrost underneath this extensive tailing pit at the headwaters to the Naryn River and breach threats to Petrov Lake above the tailing pond are concerns that should be monitored”. Moran believes that in the scenario with Kumtor tailings dam failure, it would rapidly release “masses of contaminated water and sediments (the tailings) into the Kumtor river, endangering downstream people, facilities, downstream rivers, and would likely kill much of the mountain trout population and other aquatic organisms. Such a collapse could negatively-impact waters throughout much of the Naryn River basin, which flows into Uzbekistan.”

In sum, the tailings pond at Petrov Lake, with large quantities of toxic substances in an unstable glacial environment, represents a serious threat to the ecosystems and human populations in two countries. The efforts of environmental activists may serve to bring this serious risk to attention within these countries and beyond, pressing for tighter and more effective regulations.

For other stories on mining risks in glacier regions, look here and here.

Author information:

Dinara Kutmanova: PhD in Environmental Law from Kyrgyz State Law Academy; leading environmental expert and member of the Kyrgyz State Commission probe into Kumtor mine operations in 2012-2013: co-chairman of the Green Party of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Ryskeldi Satke: contributing writer with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the U.S. Contact e-mail address: rsatke at gmail dot com