Opponents of a major Greenland mine say coronavirus constraints are compromising the public hearing process

Public hearings on the Kannersuit mine have been put off for two weeks, but opponents want the entire process paused until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

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Protestors gather in Nuuk on May 15, 2018, to demonstrate against uranium mining. (Urani? Naamik)

Public hearings on a controversial and long-discussed rare earths and uranium mine in Greenland have been pushed back two weeks, but opponents of the mine say that’s not enough to ensure a robust public process, and called for a halt in the process until coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

The five town hall meetings across southern Greenland on the proposed Kuannersuit (also known as Kvanefjeld) mine are a cornerstone of the mine’s approval process.

During the hearings, the premier, the mining and commerce minister, and the environment and labor minister, as well as the leadership of Greenland Minerals, the Australia-listed firm that is licensed to develop the site, will address residents.

Those meetings were due to begin on Friday and continue until January 26, but instead they will begin on February 5. Representatives from Naalakkersuisut, Greenland’s self-rule authority expect the public hearing process will still be completed on-schedule on March 12.

The meetings are a part of what will be an extended public hearing period that is due to last 12 weeks, rather than required eight — a sign, the government says, of how seriously it is taking local and national concern about the mine and its potential impact.

The hearing period is the culmination of a decade-long effort by Greenland Minerals and the Chinese investor it acquired in 2016 to develop the Kuannersuit site. In September, its environmental-protection plan was approved, after having been rejected on three previous occasions.

A map showing the site of the proposed Kuannersuit mine (blue) and its location in proximity to Narsaq and other towns and hamlets that could be affected by its operations. (Naalakkersuisut)

The mountaintop mine overlooking the town of Narsaq is billed primarily as a producer of rare earths, a group of elements needed for most modern consumer and defense electronics, and thus coveted by emerging and established and powers, such as China, which already dominates global production, and the United States, which has limited deposits and no capacity to mine them.

That makes Kuannersuit a potentially lucrative opportunity for Greenland, but the mine would also produce uranium, raising fears that radioactive dust would drift over the area. Conservationists also worry that the mine will leave a legacy of pollution in the form a lake filled with contaminated rubble.

While the public is deeply divided about the mine, Naalakkersuisut, the elected government, is in favor. So, too, is a majority of the members of Inatsisartut, the national assembly — provided that the public hearings do not reveal anything unexpected.

Opponents of the mine, led by the grassroots group Urani? Naamik (“Uranium? No Thanks”), had hoped to use the public hearings to sway lawmakers. They now fret that measures imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19 that include a 100-person limit on indoor public gatherings and, crucially, border closures that would prevent foreign experts from giving testimony in person, placing the burden of challenging Greenland Minerals’ documentation on citizen activists.

[Public hearings on a controversial Greenland mine get underway]

The government says those who cannot attend in person are welcome to do so remotely. That sounds good in principle, but connections to online meetings in Greenland, even to well-connected Nuuk, are notoriously unstable. And, with just three hours set aside for each meeting, opponents predict they will be little more than government stump sessions.

COVID-19 is also likely to place a damper on activities outside the meeting halls. Uraani? Naamik is known for its highly visible rallies against uranium mining in Greenland, but its leadership has said would be irresponsible for the group to stage protests during a pandemic.

“The public hearing process should be postponed because of the pandemic,” Jan Rethmar-Petersen, the group’s chair, told KNR, a broadcaster. “We think it would be more appropriate to resume the hearings after the pandemic is over.”

Further information about the hearing process, including the documents submitted by Greenland Minerals, are available on the Self-Rule Authority’s website.