Outokumpu was a mine that operated from 1910 until 1989 located in North Karelia in Eastern Finland . The Outokumpu ore deposit was 4km long, making it the second-largest deposit discovered in Europe until today . The mine gives the name of the current location, formerly called Kuusjärvi. Today, Outokumpu, besides being a municipality in Finland, is a whole mining district with numerous deposits.
The old Outokumpu mine was rich in copper, iron, sulphur, zinc, cobalt, and a very small amount of gold and silver . Initially, the Finnish State owned the mine together with other private parties. Later, the mine changed to being a fully state-owned enterprise. The first name of the company, established in 1914, was Outokumpu Kopparverk. By 1930, Outokumpu had become a major producer of copper and an important exporter of copper ore. As a result of its increasing production, Outokumpu moved into the hands of a completely private enterprise and became a limited company in 1932, Outokumpu Ltd. After the growth of Outokumpu mine’s production, the company opened six new plants. That is when it became one of the five major copper producers in Europe. With new ore discoveries, the company started production of other minerals like zinc, cobalt, and nickel .
In 1989, the old Outokumpu closed. Many deposits located in the historic Outokumpu district, such as the Kylylahti, the Vuonos, or the Luikonlahti mines, emerged through this first discovery . Therefore, the old Outokumpu copper mine is considered to be the root of the modern mining industry in Finland. In the early 2000s, there was a rapid boom, and since then, the Finnish mining industry has not stopped growing . Now, Finland is one of the main European countries to promote mining activity on its lands .
The old Outokumpu mine started to cause different environmental impacts from the beginning. A large area outside the mine was affected by waste and groundwater problems since the early ore beneficiation process (between 1913 and 1929) as the company and the government did not bother in finding a proper place to throw all the waste generated by the mine. Consequently, since 1910 most of the waste was tossed into the Outolampi lake, located right below the Outokumpu mine, converting it into a tailing pond .
Only in the first years, tens of thousands of tons of waste liquid were allowed to flow into the pond. The wastewater contained sulphuric acid and cyanide chemicals, and also solid waste. Furthermore, the water pumped from the mine contained heavy metals and acidic water. All these toxic components got mixed and created reactions. Since then, the pond was known by local people as “Sumppi”, meaning coffee, for its brown colour .
The tailings impoundment in the Outolampi area reached a volume of 4.5 million m3 . The company, however, justified their action by saying that the pond would be used as a container and the waste would sink to the bottom. They assured that only clean water would run into other water bodies whilst all the polluted materials would stay underground. This ended up not being the case. The polluted wastewater started to flow into the soil and move between different water sources. Even the dams could not stop the flow, which made the toxics spread further .
1918 was the year where citizens expressed their concern for the first time regarding the connection between the Outokumpu mine and environmental degradation. From that year on, local people requested multiple times to talk with the director of the mine. They wanted to encourage a change related to the execution of the mine, as they were the ones suffering the contamination caused by the mine. However, the mining company did not make an effort and citizens stated that they only received rude answers . Among the negative impacts local people, the agricultural sector and the forestry sector had to face, there was the increase in emissions around the area, the polluted drinking water, and the growing polluted lakes. In the 1940s some of the dams around the Outokumpu mine, polluted with toxins, started to overflow, which worsen the initial situation even more. Groundwater and soil pollution would only continue. Furthermore, at that time, it was even forbidden to swim in close by lakes, as people started to get rashes when being in contact with the water, which was acidic. Life inside these lakes was also slowly dying out.
However, it was not until 1948 when the groundwater was officially confirmed as unusable. Finally, in order to solve the polluted drinking water problem, the authorities obligated the mining company to give local people new access to clean drinking water. Therefore, kilometres of new pipes were built. However, this did not eliminate the problem, as the bitterness of the water did not disappear .
After numerous complaints about the wastewater issue, in the 1960s the situation was at its worst. During that time, cyanide was found in the groundwater and the Lake Sysmäjärvi, which was caused by the wastewater of the mine . However, authorities did not seem to care. Likewise, the company did not acknowledge that the groundwater was polluted with cyanide. On the contrary, according to them, the analysis that found this toxic component was not accurate. For them, the wastewater could not possibly reach so far. Therefore, with all this denial, local people were told that there was nothing to worry about. In fact, they were told that there was no danger. Nevertheless, the Water Rights Court sentenced the mining company for introducing cyanide in the groundwaters. Outokumpu Ltd appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court, where the company was found not responsible. Accordingly, wastewater spills continued and Outokumpu Ltd kept justifying that the amount of cyanide found could not be traced to the company’s activity. At one point, they even justified, with the support of the director of the Institute of Agriculture, that it was due to the agrarian sector and blamed the farmers for using too many fertilizers .
In 1964 a new water law came out in eastern Finland. However, many citizens continued complaining, as for them, the law was favouring the company and not their rights of access to clean water and a clean environment. At one point, as a result of the new law which forbids the pollution of groundwater, the Deputy Chancellor of Justice recommended to Outokumpu Ltd. starting to treat the water. The company began to do different experiments in order to see what is the most effective way of neutralizing water. The cheapest option was to introduce lime, which would neutralize ferrous wastewaters. Therefore, ten to fourteen tons of lime were added to the polluted wastewater each day. The idea was to reduce the level of toxins going into the soil and water sources. With this strategy, it was believed that the lake Sysmäjärvi could be saved. However, it did not work and the company was charged for contaminating the waters on purpose, since introducing high concentrations of lime is also very dangerous for the natural habitat of the lakes. A court process began and at first Outokumpu Ltd. played the role of having acted legally at all times. The wastewater spills occurred before the law that forbids groundwater pollution came out, which makes Outokumpu Ltd, according to them, innocent. Yet, as a resolution of the court process in 1966, the company had to monetarily compensate all those impacted and compensate for all the environmental damage done resulting from its activity . Today, 32 years after the Outokumpu closed down, it is still possible to find traces of the high environmental damages caused by the mine, such as the acidic water in the lake Sysmäjärvi .
The old Outokumpu mine case was so controversial for its high environmental impacts that it intensified the awareness among citizens. Since then, due to the bad reputation mining had in Finland, many movements around the country against this activity emerged. Three examples are the “Pro Polvijärvi”, the “Ei Kaavivaaraa” and the “Stop Talvivaara” movements. These criticize actions of the different mine operations, and try to prevent the mistakes of the old Outokumpu mine. They all highlighted the environmental impacts of the previous Outokumpu mine as prove of the high damages mining activity causes .
Since 1989, the Finnish Government established a Ministry of Environment which has the role of, among others, protecting the environment and human rights against the mining industry. However, as can be seen with the most recent cases , the government has constantly “undermined and eroded the power of NGOs and environmental authorities as part of a wider neoliberal agenda”  and prioritized mining for its high revenue generation. Ironically, Finland is still known for its reputation as a world leader in clean and responsible mining .