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Mining and Environment in Greenland

Mining can affect the environment in numerous ways. Mining, mineralisation and transport involve disposal of waste products, wastewater, dust and noise, and other disturbances of animal and plant habitats.

Mining usually involves breaking and crushing of ore, some form of further processing of the broken ore and, finally, disposal of waste products. The waste products include waste rock, which is rock that is removed in order to get access to the mineral deposits. This rock material may be inactive but may also contain concentrations of metals that could contaminate the environment.

The ore with the valuable minerals is often broken into small particles that are processed to a concentrate to be transported off-site for shipment. In the production of the concentrate, chemicals are often used.

The processed ore that is left is called 'tailings' and is deposited on land, in a lake or in the sea.

Pollution from the mining industry is often linked to the dust generated by the transportation and crushing of ore, the use of chemicals during extraction (e.g. cyanide) and the release of heavy metals from tailings and waste rock.

Exploration for minerals in Greenland includes gold, lead, zinc, iron, diamonds and other precious stones as well as industrial minerals. Since 1850, mining has taken place at several sites in Greenland – for instance of cryolite in South Greenland, lead and zinc in both East and West Greenland, the industrial mineral olivine in Southwest Greenland and most recently gold in South Greenland.

Mining has led to pollution of large areas in many parts of the world, as was the case with several of the older, now closed mines in Greenland. Over the last couple of decades, Greenland has implemented modern legislation to ensure that mining is conducted on an environmentally sound basis in accordance with high international standards. Thus, detailed studies of possible environmental impacts are carried out before a licence for mining activities is granted. The investigations must ensure that mining operations can be carried out without causing pollution and disturbance to nature. During mining, environmental monitoring is undertaken, which ensures that the authorities can intervene if the impact is greater than expected. When extractive activities cease, clean-up and restoration processes begin, which involves returning the land to its natural state to the extent that it is possible and desirable.

Exploration and exploitation of mineral resources are carried out by private companies and must be licensed by the Ministry of Mineral Resources in Nuuk. An overview of existing licences can be found at the Ministry’s website.

 Advisory services to the Government of Greenland

 The environmental consequences of exploration and exploitation of mineral resources in Greenland are assessed by DCE – Danish Centre for Environment and Energy, Aarhus University, in collaboration with the Greenland Institute of Natural Sciences in Nuuk. These assessments serve as advice to the Government of Greenland, which regulates mineral extraction on the basis of the Mineral Resources Act. The main activities of the advisory services are:

  • Development and adjustment of guidelines for mineral exploration and exploitation
  • Environmental Assessment of new exploration licenses and concrete exploration activities, such as exploration drillings
  • Environmental assessment of exploitation plans for new mines
  • Environmental assessment of ongoing or closed mines

    The advice is based on research and monitoring activities in Greenland and is, moreover, founded on experience and similar legislation in other countries or internationally. An important basis for the advice is also the maintenance of a database of relevant environmental data on, for instance, particularly sensitive areas for wildlife and chemical data from previous studies in Greenland. DCE also has a chemical laboratory and a test bank with a large collection of environmental samples from Greenland.

    Click on the submenus of this page to obtain more information about the environmental aspects of current mineral projects and about current research and monitoring projects. The map shows the sites mentioned.

    Further information: Senior Scientist Peter Aastrup, paa@bios.au.dk