Price rise drags Estonian phosphate rock back into limelight

Andres Reimer
, business journalist
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Recently, global price for the ancient rock suddenly skyrocketed and suddenly our deposits are flashing signs of us getting rich quick and Estonia eradicating world hunger.

Last year, European Commission declared phosphorite, a raw material used in fertiliser industry, a natural resource critically important for the European Union. Europe’s largest phosphate rock deposit engulfs almost a half of Western Viru County, Estonia.

«In 1994 it became clear to me that mining costs would be thrice more expensive than would be economically profitable,» said Ingo Valgma, director of mining institute at Tallinn University of Technology, in 2009. «Until demand significantly rises or the engineering though substantially develops, nobody in Estonia will be dreaming about phosphorite unless public order or political situation changes,» he shared in his presentation at Geological Survey of Estonia conference «Forgotten mineral resources» on April 17th.

By now, the first of the criteria cited by the scientist – demand after phosphate – has dramatically risen, thus threatening to affect the third, the political situation.

In April 1994, a tonne of phosphorite ore mined in Morocco cost $33. By the time Mr Valgma’s presentation was published, it was up at $125.5. Having just thus rallied like crazy rising to $430 in September of 2008, and was freefalling at the moment, no rising demand could be predicted to the backdrop of the financial crisis in 2009.

However, a tonne did cost $115 in Morocco this February and this has basically been the price level for over two years.

Initial signs of political are evident in environmental ministry. While during the Reformist minister Keit Pentus-Rosimannus it was anathema as much as to mention renewed explorations of phosphorite resources, he mantle bearer from IRL Marko Pomerants thinks it altogether praiseworthy for geologists to hunger to find out more.

As a variant, the ministry sees changing Geological Survey of Estonia Estonian Geology Centre from a company to state agency aimed at exploring mineral resources of the future, primarily phosphate rock.  

By as early as 2032, the mining of phosphorite may turn into a very vital source of enrichment for Estonia, University of Tartu macroeconomics professor Raul Eamets published two years ago at public broadcasting portal

That despite the fact that Estonian phosphate rock is not among the best in the world really. For industrialists, of most interest is the ore where the shells of ancient creatures contain about 35 percent of the useful component phosphorus.

Even so, the rapidly rising demand in agriculture has led to a situation where ore of such high quality is becoming a rarity and according to data of the Canadian miner GB Minerals the useful component percentage is now down at 28.5.  

The statistics have been shaped by deposits far away from us indeed: the bulk of the phosphorite in the world is produced in China, Morocco, and Western Sahara where the main known deposits are located.  

Estonian Mining Society data says our ore is mostly below 10 percent of phosphorus; only in Ida-Kabala and Toolse it is a bit higher than that.

Meanwhile, Estonian GDP per capita in 2015 exceeded that of Morocco by nearly 3.5 times though we are not mining phosphate rock and ours is way worse than theirs.

Despite the great global price rise, the effect of mining technology on nature is the same as in Soviet times. Probably, our faith in the enriching power of phosphorite is fed by the example of our wealthy neighbour named Finland where the Norwegian chemical corporation Yara is operating Europe’s only phosphorite mine and processing plant.

According to data available at the Finnish portal, their phosphorite contains even less phosphorus – averaging mere 4 percent. Despite the low level, Yara not only continues investing into its Siilinjärvi production unit 400 kilometres north of Helsinki, but is expanding briskly into Lapland where it encompassed the Sokli phosphorite deposits.  

Asked by Postimees if we could visit the Siilinjärvi production area, Yara said no. Such un-Nordic lack of hospitality was substantiated by large-scale construction works wherefore they were unable to guarantee safety of guests.

The «no» was disheartening as the Norwegian corporation has dug the deepest man-made hole between the lakes in Central Finland and we would have liked to take a look.

In a public brochure, Yara describes the two mines at Siilijärvi with rather imposing figures. The Särkijärvi mine is nearly three kilometres in length, 750 metres in width and 250 metres in depth. For a comparison, we might picture the highest artificial hill of all Baltics in Kiviõli, Estonia with absolute height of mere 88 metres. Nearby lies the smaller Saarinen mine which has 25 metres of depth to it and dimensions of 750 x 350 metres only.

As one surveys the map displayed by Geological Survey of Finland, both holes look larger. To avoid making a mistake, I prefer to not come public with my measurements.

When reading Yara’s own materials, it become evident that the hole has a potential to stretch 14.5 kilometres long and go to the depth of 650 metres.  

Despite the enormous hole at Siilinjärvi, the Finns are inclined to advertise their fatherland as Nordic crisp and clean – not the place for the biggest manmade crater in Europe. Googling «Siilinjärvi uutiset» (news – edit), however, conjure up a tale on a crowded motocross event as well a police detaining five people as related to shooting a guy in the leg.

A few days before that, at a Siilinjärvi railway crossing, two died as car and train collided. We are also told that Soldiers of Odin have launched patrols on the streets of Siilinjärvi featuring six men, two women and a dog. A tough industrial area, thus.

Though those favouring phosphorite mining cite the Finnish experience and talk about new and unseen-in-Estonia technologies, the public materials leave an impression of nothing new to be expected in the industry. By beginning to mine for phosphorite, we’d copy the Eastern Viru County economic model unto Western Viru County and the question marks – considering the law requiring the exhaustion of all mineral resources on top of the phosphate – may concern nothing but the depth of the hole. Meanwhile, the phosphorite mine has potential to cover close to half of Lääne-Virumaa.


University of Technology: phosphorite mining might begin near Kunda

University of Tallinn mining institute phosphorite related website says that when it comes to depth suitable for mining, we only have phosphorite available in North-Estonia, south from the limestone shore. Thin layers of up to a metre lie east of Tallinn in Maardu, Valkla, Tsitre. A did-thickness layer – up to three metres – is south of Kunda, at the Toolse field. A very thick layer up to ten metres id South-East of Rakvere, at the Kabala field. In the Northern part of Ida-Virumaa till Narva, the layer is of average thickness.  

The most productive phosphorite area is the so-called Rakvere range made up of the Toolse and Kabala deposits. In the Toolse deposit laying between Rakvere and Kunda, the layer is in up to 20 metres of depth thus allowing open mining. At the Kabala fields South-East of Rakvere, the layer is thicker but is up to 100 metres below the ground.

In the Eastern part of Kabala area – of interest as related to oil shale mining – a layer of phosphorite averaging 6 metres in thickness is at 60–80 metres of depth. The average content of useful substance is 15 percent and the potential store of phosphorus about 25 million tonnes. However, the mining is made difficult by the depth, the abundance of water, and by other deposits. On the Kabala field, phosphorite layer and oil shale deposit overlay with the oil shale on top of phosphorite at about 35 metres of depth.

To evaluate safe mining and its costs, in 1993–1994 the Tallinn Tech mining institute compiled a technological scheme for open mining in Toolse deposit. For the best place to open the quarry, they pointed to Aru limestone mine of Kunda cement plant from the bottom of which it is 15–18 metres to phosphorite. The technology would dictate that the rocks would be extracted layer by layer and a kind of a tub would be created for graptolite  argillite (dictyonema). The bottom and the sides of the tub would be overlaid with aleurolite clay found in the surface. The potentially hazardous argillite would be hauled into the tub, pressed down, and covered with a layer of clay.

The «pie» would then be pressed together by limestone laid on top. The cost effectiveness evaluation said the mining might pay off of the concentrate tonne would stand at a minimum of $250 on global market, says the mining institute website.



Marko Pomerants, environment minister

While at one end of the spectre we find those who say me may not utter the word phosphorite, and the other end has the people who say we must mine ourselves rich, then I stand at the spot with the following explanation: «We might, or must if you would, possess better knowledge of the mineral resources in our soil in case we may need them, to then know which problems and potential would come with them.»

Secondly, knowledge help reduce the overall condition of panic and stress linked to the word phosphorite. People have enough to worry about, they must not be intimidated by loss of homes and water. I have, by the way, lots of people I know well around Rägavere. I care about their homeplace.  

Same goes about Toolse. It is quite stupid to paint before eyes of people a hole with the outer edges of the mine as contours on the map. When it comes to creation of state organisation to research phosphorite, there is no such plan.

During the discussions of basic policy document for subsurface policy, we are deliberating which geological competency we ought to possess and which tasks the state should solve via a so-called national geological agency. Here, again, difference must be made between two things. One is financing of geological research tasks; the other is execution thereof.

Basically, exploration or drilling may be done by a University of Tartu graduate working at a state agency or his fellow student and owner of a geology company. It’s just that the state must possess control. I might find the money in the budget to order a plaque reading State Geological Survey of Estonia instead of Geological Survey of Estonia.  

But what I do not have to offer them is the change of financing and at the moment I do not see where it could come from. I have just sent, based on cabinet decision, Environmental Charges Act amendment bill which will cut Environmental Investment Centre (KIK) income to the tune of €10m in 2017. That the subsurface issues are undergoing analysis is altogether praiseworthy and, in this situation of limited resources, takes us towards a more systemic treatment.


Meelis Einstein, director of Kunda Nordic Tsement

Officially they have not approached us regarding launching phosphorite explorations in the Aru limestone quarries of out cement plant. We have heard unofficial claims that our quarry fits best to begin the mining, as in other areas up to 30 metres of top layers would need to be carried away. At the bottom of Aru quarries there are 10 more metres of limestone, then the dictyonema layer and then the phosphorite. The phosphorite explorations would not hinder our mining at all as we can keep on mining next to it. Meanwhile, our company is not at all interested in phosphorite, having an altogether other profile. We will exhaust the limestone quarry and return it to the state.