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The region at the crossroads – for or against the heavy mining industry

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In the shadow of the daily political problems, the countries of the region avoid adopting a strategic decision, based on a basic consensus – will their countries move forward with the development of agriculture and eco-tourism or heavy mining industries?

Ilovica-Štuka “Gordian Knot”

This issue is especially important in Macedonia, where citizens in a local referendum stopped the mining of gold mines on the Kožuf mountain, in Gevgelija. However, Macedonia’s trials and tribulations did not end with this – they are now asking how to cut the “Gordian knot” of Ilovica-Štuka?

From the very beginning, there were numerous problems, dilemmas, even serious accusations by activists and experts on the one hand, and Euromax Resources on the other hand, when it comes to the gold mine Ilovica-Štuka. Will the mine cause contamination of soil, water and air, whether there will be problems with the quality of agricultural products, has the protection of the entire tailings pond area been foreseen, in order to preserve groundwater against degradation caused by partial seepage of tailings; all these issues have lately generated great public interest.

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Angel Nakov, the president of the Citizens’ Association Spas Za Nas, told the newspaper Nova Makedonija that the opening of the mine would devastate the natural relief on the site, with the formation of a huge crater, 700 meters deep, on the one hand, and a huge plateau from excavated ore and a tailings pond dam, on the other hand. According to him, this will mean disruption of soil, ground and surface waters. He said that the Government and the competent institutions are responsible for providing a reasoned explanation on this issue, relying on fundamental research. Nakov emphasizes that the Government should take an objective view, since it has the widest resources (information, facts, scientific studies, material and human resources), which can be used for the greater good, in order to take a clear stance and answer the questions of the public.

“I believe that the Macedonian Government should answer the citizens whether it will initially cut 1,500 hectares of forest in Ilovica, will a crater of seven square kilometres and 700 meters deep be opened, whether a lake with 200 million cubic meters of tailings will be formed, will a tailings pond with an area of over eight square kilometres be formed? Is there a mine anywhere in the world sitting amidst a pure agricultural region with 80,000 farmers?” Nakov asks.

He says that, apart from the salaries and contributions of employees, the tax on oil consumption and two percent of the gold and copper obtained, there is no other share in Macedonia’s GDP.

“This, calculated according to the data given in the Euromax study, will amount to 0.2% of Macedonia’s GDP, while agriculture makes up 10% of GDP and employs 100,000 people. Open-cast mines are being opened in desert areas, uninhabited areas, and never ever in agricultural regions, forest areas, freshwater and groundwater sources, tourist destinations,” Nakov explains.

On the other hand, from a scientific perspective, the professor of the Goce Delcev University in Stip, Dejan Mirakovski, claims that with today’s technology mines do not have to cause environmental pollution, which should be explained in detail to the citizens.

“Particle emissions from future coal and associated processes are elaborated in detail in the Environmental Impact Assessment Study, developed by renowned international consultants. This document has a special appendix describing the assessment procedures, the current air quality in the project area and the expected impact of the planned activities. Models show negligible impact on air quality, both directly on the mine, and in a wider area affected by mining operations, without exceeding the value of any pollutant,” Mirkovski explains.

Another independent expert in this field, Professor Blagoj Golomeov, says that the technological process in the Ilovica-Štuka mine, designed to enrich useful mineral components in the form of copper concentrates with gold content, is a process of flotation concentration with a wide international application.

“Since this is a mono-mineral raw material, the applied reagent regime is very simple and with a small number of components. This process consists of the concentration of useful minerals, copper carriers, whereby the chemical composition of the mineral resource does not change at all. In principle, the reagent regime consists of adding xanthates (collectors) and slaked lime. Xanthate is almost entirely absorbed on the surface of useful mineral grains. In this way, their bonding to the air bubbles created in the pulp by injection of air is allowed, and as the complex air bubble-mineral grain flows onto the surface of the flotation cell, it is converted into a concentrate with enriched copper content, which is the final product being transported in a copper smelter,” Golemov explains.

He adds that water recirculation is necessary, since about 23 million cubic meters of water is needed for about 10 million tons of ore per year.

„It is impossible and unprofitable to purchase such amount of fresh water every year. Therefore, the process is designed to avoid any discharge of water into the environment and to allow recirculation. Only three million cubic meters of water will be used annually. This amount of water will annually remain in the tailings of the tailings pond,” professor explains.

He says that such a technological process for copper concentration is the most widespread internationally.

“Only in the immediate neighbourhood we have Bor and Majdanpek in Serbia, with a capacity of 20 million tons per year, Elacite in Bulgaria with 40 million tons a year, etc.,” Golemov says.

The professor of the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Skopje, Ljupco Petkovski, spoke about the problem of the dam. He says that the dam has a cross-section in the form of a trapeze, meaning that there is no vertical wall similar to the concrete dams.

According to the International Dam Commission, around 60,000 dams are registered in the world, although the number of dams built is much higher. These are structures with the highest level of reliability. It is more likely that the Vodno Mountain will fall on Skopje than that the Stuka dam will collapse.

He added that the dam is a structure used for storing waste stone from the mine.

Greece can (not) do without Eldorado

Two gold mines in Halkidiki, Greece, have been a subject of a heated discussion between tourism officials and representatives of the mining industry, but also a cause for mass demonstrations and even violent protests, which will end in court.

The little Greek city of Jerisos is a centre of protest against the Canadian company Eldorado, which owns two mines in the vicinity, Skoruies and Olympias.

Conflicts caused by the coal mines started in 2012, in the wake of the Greek debt crisis. A year later, police used extraordinary force during local protests against gold mines. Tensions peaked in November 2017 when Eldorado threatened to withdraw all of its Greek investments, before entering into arbitration with the Greek Government for its mining activities. In the meantime, legal proceedings have been initiated against 450 activists.

The dispute centres on the metal production technique, professionally called Flash-Smelting. Thanks to this process, gold is obtained from crude material, but the raw material contains arsenic. “Flash-Smelting is suitable for raw materials with a small amount of arsenic. In the case of these mines, the concentration of arsenic amounts to more than nine percent,” the physicist Amyi Kadoglu explained for DW.

During this process, arsenic dust is produced – up to 20,000 tons per year. However, the maximum allowed value is 20 kilograms. Kadoglu says there is no air purification technique. Additionally, the mine is located on a precipice – in the event of an earthquake, millions of tons of toxic waste will, as the locals fear, reach the air.

“For such a mine to work, the soil first needs to be dry. That is why they had to lower the groundwater level,” while the said soil is the most important drinking water source in otherwise dry Chalkida. However, the Ministry of Environment remains silent.

These are, therefore, three issues that Eldorado, in the opinion of the mine opponents, failed to consider: water, air and waste. The main argument of the mine supporters are – jobs. “Several generations of people of these mountain villages have already been working in the mines. They are not thinking about the potential consequences of industrial mining of gold ore,” Jota Sisopol complains, one of the demonstrators. “We in Jerisos live almost entirely from tourism. Who would then vacation here? What will happen with our livelihood?”

The entire issue was further complicated in September 2018, when Eldorado requested from the Greek Government to pay EUR 750 million due to the delays in issuing the Skouries project permit in order to avoid the arbitration process.

This is not the first Eldorado dispute with Greece, given that in 2017, the company froze investments and suspended operations in Skouries seeking the issuance of all necessary approvals.

The company submitted a new technical report for the gold project in 2018, which should “significantly” reduce the environmental impact. Shortly thereafter, the arbitration panel ruled that the Eldorado technical plan for the construction of a concentrate processing plant mined out in the Skouries and Olympias mines is valid. However, the company has yet to obtain the necessary permits to start construction.

Since 2012, Eldorado Gold has invested about USD 3 billion in Greece, and these figures would be doubled, the company said, if it is allowed to fully develop all its Greek projects.

Environmental disaster in Romania, a reason for banning cyanide technology

One of the biggest environmental incidents in Europe, after Chernobyl, occurred in January 2000 in Romania when a tailings pond dam operated by the Aurul SA Company in Baia Mare in the north-west of the country collapsed. On this occasion, about 100,000 cubic meters of deposited tailings leaked, containing between 50 and 100 tons of cyanide as well as heavy metals, including copper.

The dam broke due to certain mistakes made during dam design and development, as well as due to unforeseen operating conditions, in highly unfavourable weather conditions. The toxic wave travelled to the Saar, Lapo, Some, Tisa and Danube rivers about four weeks before reaching the Black Sea. Thus, about 2,000 kilometres of the Danube River Basin was affected by the discharge of toxic waste.

Romanian sources say that in Romania this spill caused water supply interruptions to 24 cities, as well as the production suspension in many factories due to the lack of water necessary for production.

The Aurul mine operator, owned by the Australian company Esmeralda and the Romanian company Remin, used a completely new process and technology of extracting precious metals in Romania, expected to be safe.

The plant in Baja Mare was designed to process 2.5 million tons of tailings annually, resulting in about 1.6 tons of gold and 9 tons of silver a year. According plans, the project would last 10 to 12 years, with possible extensions.

The entire technology is based on the use of highly concentrated cyanide used to extract precious metal from tailings. As part of the process, tailings were transported from a distance of 6.5 km from Baja Mare to a new stop dam near the village of Bozanto Mare.

The entire process is designed to prevent any waste discharge into the environment.

However, as early as 1999, as soon as the system was commissioned, two cases of leakage on the pipeline system were registered and reported.

In 2017, Romania decided to ban cyanide-based technology at all stages of silver and gold extraction for a period of ten years.

Environmental risks and regulations

The major risks in mining, as one of the high-risk industrial branches, are: health risks and safety of employees; environmental risks; social risks; land use risks; legal and financial risks; and technical risks.

Mining and mining operations are inherently the biggest environmental hotspot, as they have a dangerous impact on the environment, air, water, soil. Additionally, ore processing facilities fall into category G1 – heavy and polluting industries.

Environmental risks cannot be completely eliminated from mining projects. It is therefore necessary to carry out a risk assessment at all stages of the project.

The main reason for this is to define risk management possibilities, their mitigation or elimination. It is generally accepted that the risk assessment process should be separate from managerial decisions.

Environmental risks associated with the mining projects involve an entire range of negative environmental impacts, starting with problems at the mine site (ore extraction effects, erosion, rehabilitation of abandoned mines), through the challenges associated with infrastructure and mining waste to the transport of ores and chemicals and the ore treatment process. These problems, as a rule, are most pronounced in low- and middle-income countries.

One of the greatest risks, as we have seen, is the processing of gold and copper ore, and especially the suspicion is caused by the application of cyanide or sulphuric acid leaching technology.

Pollution is most expected from the treatment of ore with sulphuric acid solution. Sulphuric acid is one of the most toxic and most corrosive sulphur compounds. The treatment of ore with sulphuric acid is aimed at extracting copper and other elements of the ore based on a chemical reaction, by forming an aqueous solution of copper-sulphate. This solution is subjected to an electrolysis process to separate the copper from the aqueous solution. After treating ore with sulphuric acid, it evaporates, with local acidic dews and even acid rain occurring, local environmental consultant Stole Georgiev explains.

In addition, a large amount of water is needed for the process of electrolysis and washing of the ore material, which is why river and stream water is captured.

Including watercourses will impact the availability of irrigation water used for agricultural land in the mine area. The use of polluted water in agriculture can cause destruction of microflora and microfauna and contaminate agricultural products with heavy toxic metals.

Blasting (use of explosives), in addition to vibrations, often disrupts the groundwater regime. There are cases of complete or partial drying of wells due to mining vibrations.

Dust occurring during ore extraction, as well as sulphuric acid solution and copper sulphate, pose a threat to soil contamination.

There is also a high risk of accidents or disasters, especially when it comes to seismically active areas, as is the case with Valandovo in Macedonia.

Similarly, the storage and delivery of sulphuric acid is always a risky operation and an environmental time-bomb. Storage of sulphuric acid in the mine vicinity is also a potential hazard, and can cause serious consequences in case of spillage, Georgiev adds.

When it comes to cyanide, after the disaster in Romania, the EU has tightened laws, while the use of cyanide in ore mining is permitted under very strict conditions. Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic have completely prohibited the use of cyanide in mining, and the European Parliament has requested that the ban be extended to the whole of Europe in order to protect water resources and biodiversity.

Today, the so-called flotation concentration has taken over the lead from this method, and is considered as less risky for the environment.

Environmental regulations governing the mining sector are wide-ranging. In addition to the umbrella environmental protection law, this area is regulated by a number of laws related to waste management, environmental impact assessment, air protection, land and water protection, as well as a number of by-laws.

In addition to the Environmental Impact Assessment Study, which is mandatory for mining projects and is carried out in accordance with national legislation, international financial institutions require an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA), which at the level of individual projects can prevent and eliminate numerous problems and impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity.

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