Complexity and Megastructures

Interviews in Talvivaara December 2014 and February 2016

Reflections on the course ‘Environment. Now!’
By: Pia Lindman – Professor of Environmental Art

In these excursions to Talvivaara students witnessed power structures of immense scale rolling over human and other lived experiences (be it geologic or organic).

Talvivaara is a Finnish mining company in Kainuu, Finland, using bioleaching to extract nickel and zinc from an open pit mine in the vicinity of Talvivaara hills. In addition, concentration of uranium ore is one of the byproducts. Talvivaara is one of the largest open pit mines in the world, and its short history is dominated by massive leaks of toxic water and sludge from the mine, contaminating the lakes and ground water in as large an area as several hundred kilometers in radius. After this outdrawn environmental disaster, the scale of which is unprecedented in Finland, the Finnish government took over the mine and renamed it Terrafame. The controversy around Terrafame continues. The leading organization protesting the mine is Stop.Talvivaara.

Unto Ritvanen, local official in the Kainuu ELY –keskus (the state authority for the environment and livelihoods) in conversation with students and Hyökyaalto activist Jason Marshal at the former Rumo Elementary School. Ritvanen spoke from the perspective of a state organ, the task of which is supervision of any action impacting the environment.

Some key elements in this supervision:

Initial Criteria
Environmental Impact Assessment must include all available data, i.e., company protocols of action, existing conditions, plans of action. It is now clear that Talvivaara did not and has not disclosed all information to bring the impact assessment to a correct state. According to Ritvanen, ELY could not operate accurately due to this lack of information.

Data collection
Sampling and testing of environmental impact is outsourced to private professional laboratories, rather than conducted by the state officials themselves. The protocol defining how and where samples are taken has great impact on what the findings will be. This has proven dramatic in the case of Talvivaara. Water contaminated by sulphuric acid is heavier than sweet water (together with some uranium and other heavy metals, sulphuric acid is the main ingredient in the dumped toxic water from Talvivaara). Water samples from 30 cm below surface (according to the ELY protocol) will not show the levels of contamination in the lower levels of water. Molecular biologists Jari Natunen turned environmental activist predicted that the bottom levels of the contaminated lakes will die due to high concentration of sulphur. Atte Korhola, professor at Helsinki University has recently, fall 2017, published official findings that confirms Natunen’s claim. The bottoms of the lakes have now died.

Above: Video snippet above from first discovery of toxic sludge from Talvivaara mine, 2013

In the discussion with Ritvanen, questions whether these laboratories are politically neutral emerged. Ritvanen responded that he trusts these laboratories and questioned the citizen-activists (Natunen and his citizen-scientists) that have been sampling the water and soil in Talvivaara for years. Important to note: had these activists not raised their voices the leaks would not have been discovered.

Watch video starting at 4min 37s: Dead sea birds

The tension and distrust between local inhabitants now-become activists and citizen scientists and official authorities is a prime example of how situated knowledges can play themselves out, act, and have impact.  Yet at the same time, we see how indeed, situated knowledges remain a minor knowledge and continues to be in a state of struggle. Both Ritvanen at ELY and the citizens are in their own situated and minor positions in regards to the bio-power of the Finnish state and corporations too large to fail. The pain was viscerally felt.

Student Sanna Ritvanen writes:
Once I had all the facts and the chronology somewhat collected in my mind, I realized how many different parties parties are involved and how people’s private lives, work, money, politics, and personal values are attached to these events. The intensity of my process was increased by the fact that my own father, Unto Ritvanen, was involved as a state official, and that these events took place in my home municipality Sotkamo. To me, Talvivaara was and is an emotionally charged situation, perhaps even more than for someone coming from outside the municipality. One question remains above all: how to separate emotions from facts, reason from sentiment when dealing with situations such as Talvivaara. Is it even necessary, and to what degree?