Who would have thought that I would return to Jämtland after so many years? Not physically, however, only mentally … Years ago my research group analysed the sediments in Lake Spåime, a small lake close to Snasahögarna, between Handöl and Sylarna to reconstruct the climatic and environmental development of the area during the last 10 000 years. We cored the sediments in winter from ice and experienced most of the time bitter cold weather and blizzards.
A few years later, I returned with a group of students on a geology excursion, mainly to look at the sediments and landforms left behind by the last ice sheet. We traveled from Östersund to the Norwegian border and back.
One of our last stops was at Pilgrimstad, southeast of Östersund. Remains of a mammoth and sediments older than the last glaciation had been reported from this site. Many years later I returned to Pilgrimstad to study these sediments in much detail. I had however no idea then that exploration licences had been granted to Continental Precious Metals and Aura Energy for exploring the alum shale in the Myrviken area not so far from Pilgrimstad.
While I was busy with studying the sediments in Pilgrimstad, these companies (which by the way changed owners and names since then) explored the alum shale for a range of metals, including uranium. But since mining of uranium is no longer allowed and vanadium prices suddenly rocketed, it was of course much better to now focus on vanadium – the new gold.
When I looked at the home page of the two companies, it struck me how similar the jargon, the text, the pictures and the visions are to that of ScandiVanadium in Skåne: world’s largest vanadium resources, easy to exploit, attractive economics, Sweden as a mining friendly jurisdiction, jobs will be created for loads of people, and so on. Clean and environmentally friendly (open cast) mines (please note that there are no environmentally friendly mines!), no pollution of the groundwater or the agricultural soils, easy storage of the waste, … and – Vanadis Battery’s vision of a Hi-tech Hub in Jämtland and ScandiVanadium vision of leasing out Vanadium sound too good to be true. I really hope that no one believes these statements.
Grand visions, but not a single mentioning of the dangers that are connected with mining alum shale. Not a single mentioning that a processing plant needs to be built, that mining alum shale for vanadium entails that huge amounts of processed and toxic shale need to be stored somewhere. No mentioning that huge amounts of water and energy will be needed, that toxic metals (including uranium) in the waste will leak, no mentioning of which type of technology will be employed to extract vanadium so that any type of environmental disasters can be avoided.
If Swedish legislation in the near future would allow mines to be opened in the alum shale, we can be sure that these mines will have enormous environmental consequences. I think we (and here I include our politicians) should by now have learned something from studying historic Alum shale mines and their huge leaking waste piles. These are still polluting our ground water and will do so for many years to come.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to write a debate article in the magazine NyTeknik. The editor referred to earlier debate articles we had in the newspaper Sydsvenskan and thought that I could write something along these lines for NyTeknik, but also suggested that I could involve other persons in writing and signing the text.
So I teamed up with Svante Björck from Lund University and Bert Allard from Örebro University and the final product, which was published last week in Swedish, can be accessed here. We write about the current hunt for Vanadium in Sweden and the problems that are connected with mining Alum shale. We also write about the difficulties with leaching of metals from the shale and about the resulting toxic waste and that it needs new laws and strict rules to ensure a secure process chain. Lastly we emphasize the need for new technologies that will allow recycling of metals from existing mining waste.
One person’s comment to our article was: “Österlen” – gräddan. Kiruna – fattigt. Därav det yrvakna “intresset”! The comment writer thinks that focus is on Österlen because people in Österlen are rich or influential, whereas people in Kiruna are poor. I don’t fully agree with this comment. Of course there is a difference between Kiruna and Österlen in terms of for example population density (and geology by the way), tourism and summer houses. And, while northern Sweden has been dealing with mines and their advantages and disadvantages for decades, only few open-pit mines exist in Skåne and Österlen.
But both regions are far from Stockholm, where major decisions are being made and both areas have poor and rich people. Although Österlen sounds fashionable to many, the ‘rich’ part is restricted to the Baltic Sea coast only. Further inland from the coast the situation is very different and many struggle to make a living.
In and around Kiruna and in Österlen, people’s livelihood depends on clean water, forests and agricultural land, adequate land use, the sustainable use of resources and on job availability. And most of all, people do not want their land to be taken away from them because of an outdated Minerals Acts.
Sometimes I hear people say that “some need to suffer for the greater good” when it comes to “rescuing climate” and averting climate change. This statement reminds me of a sentence in Margaret Atwood’s latest novel The Testaments, where a similar sentence is used to keep Gilead going.
Already today many people suffer from climate change. But they also suffer from the hunt after minerals and metals that are in high demand to achieve the so-called transition from fossil energy (coal, oil) to a green technology. They suffer from forests being burnt down so that the soils can be used for the palm oil industry. And, and, and. This list can be made so much longer!
It depends very much on the perspectives of the person, who says that “some need to suffer for the greater good”.
Talking about renewable resources as a means to transition into green technology is actually pretty misleading. The storage of wind or sun energy in batteries, more and more refined electronics that should make our lives easier, and electric vehicles that consume huge amounts of metals and minerals all contain non-renewable resources. To get these non-renewable metals and minerals out of the soil and rock, mines are being opened, people are stripped of their land, and groundwater, rivers and soils are heavily polluted for centuries to come. Who will profit in the end? Certainly not our children.
This morning I listened to three very interesting radio programs (in Swedish), called Prylarnas Pris 1, 2 and 3, which discusses the effects of using rare earth elements in among others electric cars. It became pretty obvious from the three programs that the industry is not interested in knowing where these elements come from and how they are mined.
Maybe follow up questions should be: How interested are consumers to know what is hidden in their short-lived gadgets? How inclined are consumers to change their habits?
Maybe some of my readers will remember that I am the proud owner of a piece of the Lyby drill core. When I looked closer at the rock sample I saw that it was grey, compact and contained a large number of shell fragments. It reminded me of the stone stairs in our summer house and the stone floor in Kronovall castle. Both are made of Komstad limestone. So my suspicion was that the piece of the Lyby drill core had nothing to do with Alum shale, but actually represented parts of the Komstad limestone.
Alum shale is dark grey to black and has distinct rusty spots; rocks from shallow depths are very fractured, fissured and broken up and easily fall apart. Thus the piece of rock I had in my hands did not at all resemble the pieces of Alum shale, which I had collected some months ago at Flagabro.
To be sure that the rock I had was indeed Komstad limestone, I showed it to colleagues at Lund University, whose research is actually concerned with these old time scales and rock types. And what did they tell me: the piece of the Lyby drill core belongs to the Komstad limestone … Let’s hope that ScandiVanadium managed to drill deeper and did reach their target, the Dictyonema shale (Dictyonemaskiffer), in their first drill hole.
Drilling hole #2 was, according to rumors, not very successful. The target, the Dictyonema shale occurs here at much deeper depths, very likely because of all the tectonic movements these rocks and layers have experienced. I am not really sure where drill hole #2 is located, but the map below shows that some of the selected drill sites in Lyby are placed close to dolerite dykes (pink lines on the map) and close to deformation zones. Not really ideal locations for drill cores. The map also shows that the geology here is really complicated because of all the deformation/fault systems. Tectonic movements have broken up the original horizontal layers and moved them both horizontally and vertically, which resulted in a complicated pattern.
Coring in Lyby started August 9th and according to ScandiVanadium, each of the five drill holes should be finished within 3-5 days. Working non-stop this would mean that within 25 days coring should have been accomplished. But it still seems to be going on, or did I miss the grand finale?
This is a half serious text – no heavy geological facts and summary at all today!
When I wrote about the latest Investors Summary of ScandiVanadium it struck me how simple the planned Alum shale mining process is communicated. The figure gives the impression that all is nice and clean and that land areas can easily be restored again. The shale is dug out, transported to a processing plant, cleaned and dried and then used as a filling together with the overburden (i.e. rock and sediments above the Dictyonema shale). And voilà – farmers will be able to reuse the site and their land. This cartoon is quite in contrast to what a mine looks like.
The company also writes that “Vanadium ore dug by shovel and hauled to process plant where metals are cleaned from the rock”. Shovel? Cleaning of metals? Did I really understand this correctly? Is ScandiVanadium planning to dig the Alum shale with a shovel? Or does ‘shovel’ have different meanings? And how is the rock cleaned of metals?
First I consulted Wikipedia to see what meaning the word ‘shovel’ actually has. Wikipedia tells me that “Most shovels are hand tools … The term shovel also applies to larger excavating machines called power shovels, which serve the same purpose—digging, lifting, and moving material”. A similar definition can be found in the Cambridge dictionary: “tool consisting of a wide, square metal or plastic blade attached to a handle for moving loose material” … “a similar part on a large machine for picking up and holding loose material”. Probably ScandiVanadium refers to the latter – a large machine, a so-called power shovel, that will dig out the Alum shale. But what exactly is a power shovel? Back to Wikipedia to find out more about power shovels. Here I learn that power shovels are used for excavating and for removing overburden in open-pit mining. So, this is what ScandiVanadium meant! And below is a picture of what a power shovel can look like.
But where is the process plant on the picture? The place where the rock is cleaned of metals? I continued my search for ‘Process plant’ and found a web side hosted by the Geological Survey of Sweden (SGU) with a series of six lectures (ITP308) that deal with different aspects of mining. The purpose of the lecture series is to “reduce knowledge gaps between authorities and industry and to make information about mining and the environment readily available to all stakeholders”. The lecture series is informative, easy to read and can be recommended to everyone wanting to know more about mining in general. Here is the link to the Introduction page from where you can navigate to all lecture series.
Lecture 1 is an Introduction to Minerals, Ore and Exploration. Lecture 2 an Introduction to Mining and provides a very different picture from that shown in the above figure by ScandiVanadium. Just don’t watch the video, which is an advertisement for a mining company.
Lecture 3 deals with Mining and the Environment, Lecture 4 with Mining Waste and Lecture 5 with sulphide minerals and acid rock drainage. What is described in Lecture 5 could actually apply to a future mine in the Alum shale, i.e. leakage of toxic metals at low pH. However, as has been shown in the literature, both a low pH and a high pH affect leakage of toxic elements from the Alum shale. Maybe one could add these observations in Lecture 5? The final Lecture 6 addresses Governance of Extractive Industries. So all in all an informative lecture series.
During the past months several people have told me that I am not able take a neutral or objective stand when it comes to ScandiVanadium’s whereabouts in eastern Skåne, since I am personally influenced through owning a summer cottage in the area. I have been thinking a lot about these statements and especially about whether and how my personal interest as a land owner influences my geological expertise.
Since my blog is in English I first consulted the Cambridge dictionary, just to be sure that what I mean with the word ‘objective’ is also what is generally meant when using the word ‘objective’.
The Cambridge dictionary tells me that the word ‘objective’ can be used both as an adjective and as a noun. The adjective ‘objective‘ is defined as based on real facts and not influenced by personal believes or feelings (UK English). The noun ‘objective‘ on the other hand is defined as: something that you plan to do or achieve (UK English). To make the whole thing a bit more complicated, the noun to the adjective objective is objectivity and this is defined as the fact of being based on facts and not influenced by personal beliefs or feelings (UK English); the state or quality of being objective and fair (American English); the quality of being able to make a decision or judgement in a fair way that is not influenced by personal feelings of beliefs (Business English). Now, having these definitions set, let’s explore my being or not-being objective.
To start with, I can say that I certainly have objectives. Actually I have several objectives. My first objective is to inform about Skåne’s geology and about various aspects of the Alum shale using published scientific articles, maps and reports. My second objective is to try and present the geological data sets in a way so that also those who are not familiar with the geological literature can follow (I must admit that I don’t always manage …). My third objective is to scrutinize ScandiVanadium’s work plans and other types of geological information that are issued by the company.
But then comes the next question: do I present the geological information in an objective way or are my writings colored by the fact that I am one of the hundreds of landowners whose land has been claimed by ScandiVanadium? To this question my answer is both yes and no. First of all, I would never have felt affected by the company’s claims if I had not had a house in the area. I also would not have become interested in the Alum shale at all if I would not have been personally concerned. So – this is the no, I am not objective. Having become interested in the Alum shale (of which I knew very little before), however, has opened up a myriad of new geological literature, which I read and summarize on my blog. Of course I could easily introduce a large bias in my literature review if I would decide to only choose those results that fit my case and leave those out that would argue against ‘my case’. But in doing so I would not present the complete picture, I would not follow research ethics, and I would certainly not be objective. So – this is the yes, I am objective when it comes to presenting the geological knowledge.
A mining company can make many different claims and present selling arguments. But how do these compare to what is already known about an area’s geology? Are the claims really supported by existing research and scientifically proven technology and methods? Or, is much of what is stated actually a vision for the future? Checking claims against geological knowledge does not make a person objective, unless one decides to leave evidence out that would argue against or for a case.
Especially now that critical metals and minerals (or raw materials) are making headlines, are assumed necessary for the transition to a green technology and might in the future lead to opening of new mines in Sweden, it is crucial to understand the regional geology, the geochemical properties of the rocks in question and the implications for groundwater, agricultural land and nature should a mine be opened. The Alum shale contains many of these critical metals and has therefore again become a rock type, which is of great interest to a range of stake holders, many of whom are not familiar with geology.
Maybe we all should scrutinize ourselves and ask whether our judgements are based on real facts and not influenced by personal believes or feelings.
In one of my blogs I described a few of the historical (and not so historical) sites, where Alum Shale was mined for various purposes (alum, oil and gas extraction, uranium and/or vanadium). I also mentioned that huge piles (and hills) of burnt Alum Shale, so-called red ash are still testimony to gone-by mining activities. Several studies have looked closer into how much of the toxic substances that are contained in the mining waste leak out into the environment and how leakage actually occurs. The summary of these studies, which I give below, is maybe a bit too much on the science side, but the essence of all these studies is that Alum shale, whether it is unprocessed, processed, or burnt leaks toxic elements to the groundwater and soil as a result of weathering.
Falk et al. (2006), and Lavergren et al. (2009a, 2009b) focused on Degerhamn, which is located on the west coast of Öland, and where Alum shale was mined between the years 1723 and 1890. They studied non-weathered Alum shale, weathered Alum shale and burnt Alum shale (also called red ash) to analyze the abundance and mobility of a large suite of elements (Ca, Fe, S, As, Cd, Co, Cr, Cu, Mn, Mo, Ni, Pb, U, V and Zn) before and after weathering. To do this, they conducted a series of controlled leaching experiments in the laboratory. They found that non-weathered Alum shale contains high amounts of As (88–122ppm), Cd (0.4–4.6 ppm), Mo (64–176 ppm), U (27–71 ppm), V (496–1560 ppm), Cu (113 ppm), Ni (100 ppm) and Zn (304 ppm) , while the content of Cd, Mo, Ni, Zn and U is lower in weathered shale. This means that Cd, Mo, Ni, Zn and U are easily leached when in contact with water and during weathering. Highly acid groundwater, which occurred in connection with burnt alum shale in the old Degerhamn mine, showed strongly elevated values for Al, U, Cd, Co, Cu, Ni and Zn. But even in near-neutral waters, the researchers found high amounts of Cd, Mo and U. The results of these studies are very clear: simple weathering of alum shale leads to leakage of toxic elements. Weathering of burnt alum shale however supplies massive amounts of metals to aquatic environments.
In her Bachelor thesis presented at Lund University, Anna Pettersson analyzed the elemental composition of Alum shale and red ash deposits in Andrarum using the XRF technique. Her analyses gave very similar results to those from Öland. Both the shale and the red ash had high concentrations of As, Ba, Cr, Cu, Mo, U, Ni and V.
Much research has focused on Kvarntorpshögen, the 110 m high hill in the province of Närke. The hill consists of Alum shale waste, i.e. the remains of oil extraction and mining for uranium that took place between 1942 and 1966. The waste is made up of burnt and processed Alum shale, which contains high concentrations of for example Co, V, Cr, Zn, Cu, U and Ba.
Lovise Casserstedt and Lovisa Karlsson conducted a whole suite of different analyses to compare the geochemical composition of unprocessed, processed and burnt Alum shale and leaching of metals from the different materials under various pH and temperature conditions. One of the results was that if water with extreme low and high pH infiltrates the waste deposit, then a whole suite of metals is being released. However release of Ni, Mb, and Ba occurred in high concentrations even at a close to neutral pH (5.5.-8.5). Water samples analyzed around Kvarntorp show that water draining the waste site had generally high concentrations of most elements as compared to water entering the site, but also that metals are being precipitated and diluted downstream of the deposit. One observation was that heavy leaching of certain metals seems to be concentrated to specific areas. To investigate this further, Åhlgren & Bäckström (2016) analyzed water samples from different localities upstream and downstream of Kvarntorpshögen. They concluded that Kvarntorpshögen is one of the most important contributors of metals, but probably not the only one. To identify the sources for metal leaching, Åhlgren et al. (2017) analyzed water in wells from around Kvarntorpshögen over a longer time period and also conducted controlled leaching experiments on solid shale ash samples. One of their results was the finding of high concentrations of trace metals such as U, V, Ni and Mo in the groundwater wells around the waste deposit, but also that metals in the shale ash and fine particles leach differently. In Åhlgren et al. (2018) focus was therefore on better understanding the difference in the leaching potential of metals in the shale ash and in fine particles. The controlled laboratory analyses showed that low pH led to increased leaching of U, V, and Ni and high pH to leaching of Mb in both fines and in the ash samples. However, at low pH, the ash samples leached less U and Ni as compared to the fine particles. The differences and heterogeneity of the processed and burnt Alum shale in Kvarntorpshögen thus lead to large differences in the leaching of metals to the groundwater and would explain the observed divergence in metal content at different sites around the waste deposit.
It would be really interesting to conduct similar studies around Andrarum, where old heaps still testify to former mining and where the small stream Verkeån enters and drains the old mining area. Precipitation of iron in small ponds close to the historical mining site and highly eutrophic standing water suggest that the sediments and the water contain high concentrations of toxic elements.
Casserstedt, L. (2014): Chemistry and mineralogy of shale oil mining at Kvarntorp. MSc thesis, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Gothenburg, 39 pp.
Falk, H., Lavergren, U. & Bergbäck, B. (2006): Metal mobility in alum shale from Öland, Sweden. Journal of Geochemical Exploration 90 (2006) 157–165.
Lavergren, U., Åström, M., Bergbäck, B. & Holmström, H. (2009a): Mobility of trace elements in black shale assessed by leaching tests and sequential chemical extraction. Geochemistry: Exploration, Environment Analysis, Vol. 9 2009, pp. 71–79. DOI 10.1144/1467-7873/08-188
Lavergren, U., Åström, M., Falk, H. & Bergbäck, B. (2009b): Metal dispersion in groundwater in an area with natural and processed black shale – Nationwide perspective and comparison with acid sulfate soils. Applied Geochemistry 24, 359-369.
Karlsson, L. E. (2011): Natural weathering of shale products from Kvarntorp. Report 15 hp, Örebro University, 93 pp.
Karlsson, L. E., Bäckström, M., Allard B. (2012): Leaching of sulfidic Alum shale waste at different temperatures. 9th International Conference on Acid Rock Drainage. 12 pp. DOI: 10.13140/2.1.3837.8242
Karlsson, L. E. (2014): The water course at Kvarntorp. Report 30 hp, Örebro University, 63 pp.
Pettersson, A. (2011): Spårämnen i alunskiffer, rödfyrshögar och björkträd vid Andrarums alunbruk, Skåne. Examensarbete i miljövetenskap, Lunds universitet, 25 pages.
Åhlgren K. & Bäckström, M. (2016): Identification of major point sources in the severely contaminated alum shale area in Kvarntorp, Sweden. In Drebenstedt, C., Paul, M. (eds.), Mining Meets Water – Conflicts and Solutions. Proceedings IMWA 2016, Freiberg/Germany, 6 pp.
Åhlgren, K., Sjöberg, V., Sartz, L. & Bäckström, M. (2017): Understanding groundwater composition at Kvarntorp, Sweden, from leaching tests and multivariate statistics. In Wolkersdorfer, C., Sartz, L., Sillanpää, M., Häkkinen, A. (eds), Mine Water and Circular Economy. Proceedings IMWA 2017, Lappeenranta/Finland, 7 pp.
Åhlgren, K. Sjöberg, V., Bäckström, M. (2018): Leaching of U, V, Ni and Mo from Alum Shale Waste as a function of redox and pH – Suggestion for a leaching method. In Wolkersdorfer, C., Sartz, L., Weber, A., Burgess, J., Tremblay, G. (eds), Risk to Opportunity. Proceedings IMWA 2018 Pretoria/South Africa, 6 pp.
What is my impression after having listened to ScandiVanadium? Disappointment actually. The information they presented was probably new for the audience, but was mainly repetition for me. Basically everything is presented on ScandiVanadium‘s web page and in the various brochures, working plans, investors presentations, and so on.
What did strike me however, was the poor design of ScandiVanadium‘s powerpoint slides, since I had expected something much more flashy and appealing; I was also pretty surprised to see how naive the whole venture was presented. Moreover, the Swedish spokesperson for ScandiVanadium gave the impression that she did not really know what she was talking about and had a hard time translating a question from Swedish to English and back to Swedish. I also did not quite understand if it was a language / translation problem that David Minchin did not always really answer a question from the audience, but drifted off.
So, what sort of new information did I get out of ScandiVanadium‘s presentation and the Q & A session? That the information, which was delivered to the district council (kommunstyrelse), differs from the information that is presented to investors. David Minchin talked for example about opening one single mine only, while investors are pampered with the extraction of 610 – 1200 million tons of shale. There was no mentioning of the geology, the hydrology and of the dangers/potentials connected to mining Alum shale. There was also no clear answer to why vanadium cannot be extracted from mining waste, except for that the costs for doing so are far too high. But how high are the costs for opening a new mine and building up a Pressure Oxidation plant?
Employment is always an important issue when it comes to the establishment of new industries. If I am not absolutely wrong, then David Minchin said something about 200 jobs. I forgot to ask how he will fit in 200 people in a mine that measures 500 x 500 m.
My overall conclusion is that I have rarely seen so little professionalism. Maybe Bergsstaten should conduct interviews with the companies that apply for exploration permits instead of strictly following the law and handing out permits based on a minimum of information?
ScandiVanadium left a piece of a drill core from the Lyby drilling as a present to Jeanette Ovesson, the chair of the district council (kommunstyrelse). After my presentation, Jeanette no longer wanted to keep the piece of rock, since she was afraid that it might be Alum shale and contain a lot of uranium. I was happy to take it! It is not every day that I am offered a piece of a Skåne drill core. However, I have no idea if the rock is derived from the Alum shale or the Dictyonema shale (the target for ScandiVanadium), or from bedrock above the shale; I don’t know from which drill hole it comes and from which depth. In this respect, it is pretty useless from a geological point of view, but it remains an interesting memory. I will in any case ask a specialist for help so that I at least can get a bit more information. Maybe I can even scan it for uranium and vanadium?