Flemming Enequist on his way to London Mining's Base Camp

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Greenland’s red hot labour market

Flemming Enequist stands at the stern of a Targa 37 with 600 horsepowers ploughing him through the Godthåp fjord on his way to London Mining’s base camp 150 kilometres north-east of Greenland’s capital Nuuk. He works for the local autority and his job is to tempt young Greenlanders to find work in the mining industry.

Oct 12, 2011 | Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

In a few years there could be six to seven major mining projects in Greenland. By then people might also have found oil off the coast. There are plans to build a large aluminium smelter. Yet only 56,000 people live on the island and the workforce is no more than 30,000 strong. Unemployment stands at nearly ten percent, but not all are suited to a job in the mining industry.

“There are many preconceptions among Greenlanders too. They believe that when you work in mining you must work underground all of the time,” says Flemming Enequist.

That’s why he’s off to see workers at London Mining’s Isua project, an iron ore find which right now is being narrowed down through test drilling. He is the coach for Greenland’s national nordic skiing team and knows the importance of role models.

The boat criss-crosses between floating ice in the fjord, the mist clears and reveals 1,200 metre tall mountains on both sides of the fjord. The lack of vegetation allows geologists to read different ages like growth rings and they can point out jurassic, cretaceous, silurian and devonian. But each shade of colour represents hundreds of millions of years and we are heading for precambrian. The Isua mountain is made up of the oldest rock ever found on Earth - 3.8 billion years.

We glide in the small Aninganeq fjord. 32 containers in four rows shaped like a rectangle sit on top of a hill. They are tied to big sandbags to keep them toppling over in a storm. Some have windows and contain sleeping compartments for two people, others are storage rooms and kitchens. As we get there and meet Anders Lie, the head of the camp, we hear a helicopter approaching. 

Under it hangs a pallet of new core samples from one of the drills up in the mountain.

Hunting for adventure

Knud Reimer steers the pallet safely down and carries the boxes with the samples to a working table under a tarpaulin roof. 

“These samples come from 350 metres down. The black stuff is magnetite,” he says.

It is in this magnetite you find the iron. The rock is magnetic, hence the name.

“Look,” says Knud Reimer and aims a metal pen towards the drill sample. The magnetism is so strong that the pen stands straight up.

He has taken time out from his translator job at Greenland’s only newspaper, Sermitisiaq/The Greenland Post, to take part in the mining adventure. He is called a geology assistant, which in practice means he has to do most of the physical work associated with the samples.

“This is very good for us. The mining industry is our future,” he says.

He can enjoy a fantastic view over the fjord where weather can change in a matter of minutes. Just a few months ago the fjord was covered in icebergs and full of the sounds of them colliding. Today there are just a few icebergs bobbing about in the sunshine. 

“The nicest thing to see is the reindeer as they approach from the other side of the river over there. I love hunting, but here we can only watch them. We’re not even allowed to fish,” he says.

Knud Reimer is not the only one to leave his ordinary job. In the kitchen we find Assgeir Erlingsson who normally works as a teacher at a cookery school in Iceland. Canadian Scott Boyce, however, has 20 years experience from drilling for iron ore, and he is the Isua mine chief geologist.

Tricky drilling

He describes how tricky it is to drill for core samples when you first have to get through 300 metres of ice with no support for the drill which will veer from side to side with the risk of breaking the drill string. Then there’s moraine consisting of round, polished stones which can jump in any direction and get stuck in the drill. Finally you must go through primary rock, where you cannot use heated water to drive the drill - it would make the ice melt. Instead they use salt - six tonnes a week. 

With the driller, support personnel and helicopter pilots there are 40 people working 24 hours a day. But when the go-ahead for mining comes, sometime next year if all goes to plan, a road will be built to the iron ore find 60 kilometres inland from the fjord. The mine becomes an open-pit mine with three separate production lines where the ore will be crushed and separated until it is a slurry which can be transported down to a harbour in a different fjord. The total investment will be two billion dollars.

We travel with deputy project director Marcel Pineau to take water samples from a couple of lakes which will provide water to the process. After flying for a few minutes over the deserted landscape we can see the edge of the ice sheet, which stretches across the primary rock like white elephant hide. The water close to the glacier’s edge is muddy and for a while we struggle to find the measuring point. Swedish pilot Andrew Hedström lands with enormous precision. He has flown helicopters for ten years, five of them in Greenland.

“When I’m not here I go back to my family, wife and three kids in Mora,” he says.

While Marcel Pineau collects his water samples Andrew Hedström explains that flying helicopters in Greenland is one of the most demanding jobs there are. 

“We have very little electronic help in these small helicopters and the weather can change with heavy fog in a very short period of time.”

We fly on and quickly stop to leave a spare part for a digger on one of the rigs which stands on a container on the ice, before landing on the top of a hill next to the top of Isua mountain, which juts through the ice, black and dark. 

The ore deposit from which London Mining wants to extract iron was discovered in the 1960s and is partly covered with ice. 

“We will remove 200 million tonnes of ice to access it. But it is important to know that the ice we remove does not belong to the ice sheet. That is ‘dead’ ice which does not move,” says Marcel Pineau.

If the ice belonged to the glacier, removing it could soon turn into never ending work because new ice would constantly be pushed out towards the open-pit mine. For environmental reasons all water used will be cleaned before it is put back into the fjord. The ice will simply be moved elsewhere.

“Look at the edge of the mountain top! Can you see the magnetite lying like rods along the side there? So this is iron, all of it. A billion tonnes of iron ore, perhaps more.”

How will they manage to get enough labour to do this?

The Isua project is but one of several mining projects in Greenland. During the construction phase in 2012, some 1,100 workers are expected to be needed, and 500 workers will be needed when production begins. 

On the island’s north-eastern side in Citronen fjord there are plans for a lead and zinc mine which will employ some 1,000 people during the construction period between 2012 and 2012. After that the mine will employ between 200 and 300 permanent staff. 

New production of zinc and lead is expected also in Maarmorilik on the west coast in the Black Angel Mine, once owned by Swedish Boliden. Angel Mining, which has taken over the mine, estimates employing 100 people.

The same number of people are expected to find work in Kringlerne on the southern tip of the island, where they will explore rare earth metals, and in the gold mine Nalunaq where production started again this year, but where production is expected to peak in 2013.

Foreign labour

It is expected that much of the labour needed for all this must be imported, just like when Iceland built its large power plant Kárahnjúkar and the aluminium smelter Fjarðaál near Reyðar­fjörður in eastern Iceland between 2004 and 2007. 75-80 percent of the labour then came from other countries, like Poland and China. 

Even if not all of the mining projects take off and while no deal has yet been signed for the aluminium smelter, it could become nearly impossible recruit locally more than a fraction of the 4,000 to 6,000 qualified workers needed for the construction phase of the mines, industry and infrastructure projects which are planned. But the majority of the permanent staff needed when production gets going will probably be Greenlanders. 

Facts about Greenland

Greenland is an autonomus country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Since 2009 the logal government handles most affairs except foreign and security policy. Denmark provides a subsidy to Greenland which covers roughly half the budget. If oil, gas or minerals are found Greenland gets half of the income. The other half will be used to compensate the subsidy. When Greenland finances it's own budget negotiations about independence will begin.

Greenland is not part of the EU. The main industry is fishing, and more than 80 per cent of the catch is shrimps. The capital Nuuk has 15 000 inhabitants. The second largest town, Sisimiut, has 5 000. The rest of the population lives in 115 smaller communities. There are no roads between the cities. Boat and airplane are the main ways of travelling, but in the northern parts dog sleighs are still common.

Icebergs

Icebergare beautiful but dangerous.

The Base Camp

Base Camp

consists of 32 containers in a rectangle.

A view to the fjord

A view to the fjord

where the fog can come almost instantly.

Scott Boyce

Scott Boyce

decides where to drill.

Assgeir Erlingsson

Icelandic chef

decides what food is served.

Leaving the camp

Leaving the camp

with a helicopter

The Inland Ice

Inland Ice

stretches as far as the eye can see.

A Drilling Unit

Drilling unit

needs a spare part to a digger.

Back to work

Drilling unit 2

The drillers work 12 hour shifts, two weeks in a row.

Marcel Pineau:

Marcel Pineau

- It's iron everything you see!