MAC: Mines and Communities

Armenian & Serbs oppose revival of mining plans

Published by MAC on 2010-09-27
Source: Environmental News Service, PlanetArk (2010-09-21)

Armenians aren't taking recent attempts to revive mining in their country lying down.

They're protesting against the re-opening of a copper waste plant, just as fellow citizens have taken issue against a proposed copper-molybdenum mine in the same region. See: Environmental activists picket bank over mining project, Armenia

Coincidentally, some Serbs are also opposing a plan to resurrect one of Eastern Europe's most toxic of closed mines.

During the 1980s, state-owned RTB Bor (RTB) dumped each year around 5,000 tonnes of sulphuric acid, 350 tonnes of arsenic and 35 tonnes of zinc.

In June 2010 the company signed a 175 million euro ($210.7 million) contract with Canada's SNC Lavelin, to build a copper smelter and sulphuric acid factory in the south east of the country.

Canada's export credit agency (EDC) is expected to loan around 135 million euros to the project. And the World Bank has also granted RTB Bor a 10-year, interest-free, 35 million euro loan - on condition that 25 million euros are allocated to "resolving the most urgent problems".

There is a case to be made for "cleaning" up abandoned and heavily polluting sites by processing the materials left behind. (The huge Kolwezi copper-cobalt mine tailings' processing project in DR Congo is a current example of this).

However, the re-opening of the RTB mine, carrying with it such a daunting legacy of environmental destruction, might only serve to postpone a thorough rehabilitation of a vastly-damaged area, while further extraction will compound existing problems.

A representative of Serbia's Agenda 21 environmental group predicts that: "If toxic waste from processed ore dumps goes into the Danube Basin through the Borska Reka riverbed, the damage could be disastrous".

To boost employment (and secure votes from the region ahead of the 2012 Serbian elections) the present government is vociferously backing the scheme.

However, some in the administration seem doubtful of its wisdom.

Trade Minister Slobodan Milosavljevic (not to be confused with war criminal, Slobodan Milosevic) says that:

"The key issue is, do we have more reserves of copper or not there or in the vicinity. If not, there's no justification for investments ..."

[Comment by Nostromo Research, 24 September 2010]

Armenian Greens Alarmed at Mining Waste Dump Plan

By Gayane Mkrtchyan

Environmental News Service (ENS)

14 September 2010

AKHTALA, Armenia - Environmentalists in Armenia say the planned re-opening of a mining waste dump could present a health risk for people living nearby.

The Nahatak storage facility was built 35 years ago to house chemical waste and tailings from a copper ore enrichment plant at Akhtala in northeast Armenia. It was closed at the end of the Soviet period.

Metal Prince Ltd., the firm that owns the Akhtala plant, is planning to start using the storage site again.

Local residents say they have not been consulted about the plan or warned of any possible risks.

"The company has, above all, an obligation to hold public discussion groups and to ask local farmers whether they agree to having a dangerous new facility right under their noses," said Inga Zarafyan, head of the environmental group Ekolur. She says the firm should publicize plans for how the dump would be refurbished and run.

Local residents complain that material from the dump has been contaminating their land for years.

"Sometimes water from the dump seeps into the irrigation system that waters our land, and flows into a field near the dump," said Samvel Gigloyan, local government chief in Chochkan, one of two villages bordering the dump site. "I don't know what basis they have for deciding to start using it again."

Villagers in the area complain that they have received no information about Metal Prince's plans for restoring the site.

"We live directly near the dump so we'll be the first to be harmed. But no one has time for us; they don't even ask us," said Chochkan resident Anahit Vahramyan.

Residents of Tchochkan and Ayrum villages are also worried. The villagers' main concern is that cattle pasture and children play in dangerous proximity to the tailings depot.

Tchotchkan resident Mher Lorsabyan recalls how his livestock died after grazing near the tailings a few years ago. "Once I used the water of the tailings depot to irrigate my land, and the whole harvest was spoiled," he said.

Metal Prince has expressed surprise at the concerns now being raised. It says no one raised concerns about the dump although lay abandoned for two decades, and environmentalists have only started talking about it now that the company is startping to refurbish it.

Armenia's environment ministry is concerned about the current situation at the dump in its unrepaired state.

Seyran Minasyan, deputy head of the ministry's Environmental Impact Monitoring Centre, says drainage channels underneath the site have become blocked.

"As a result, water remains there, creating a fluid mass," he said. "During heavy rain or an earthquake, there could be a landslip which could cause environmental pollution."

Minasyan said the dump needs to be refurbished to the highest possible standards, adding that if this does not happen, "the contents - 22 million cubic metres of toxic chemicals - could fall into the River Debed at any time, closing the road and the railway."

Vladimir Abelyan, a consultant working for the Akhtala ore-enrichment plant, said concerns about the re-opening of the dump are unfounded.

He said there is nothing like as much as 22 million cubic metres of waste at the site, and there is no chance of material sliding into the River Debed.

Abelyan said the site has nearly two million cubic metres of spare space, and given current levels of ore production, it could be in use for another six or seven years.

He also said the pipes taking water to and from the waste storage site are being restored to prevent any chance of polluting neighboring fields.

Local residents said they have not been informed of this work and expressed concern that the company had not thought to tell them.

Zarafyan asked, "Couldn't they have held discussions before they started work, to agree it with the local community?"

American-Armenian businessman Serob Ter-Poghosyan, director of the company, says that the pipeline connecting the interim tailings depot to the Nahatak tailings depot and associated water pipelines are currently under reconstruction.

Metal Prince has said it plans to hold public hearings after the tailings depot reconstruction is complete.

(Gayane Mkrtchyan is a correspondent for ArmeniaNow. This article was originally published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.)


Serb Copper Mine Seeks Investment, Clean Up

By Aleksandar Vasovic

PlanetArk

21 September 2010

A source of wealth for more than a century as home to one of Europe's largest copper mines, Serbia's Bor has struggled for years to attract foreign investment and heal its soiled environment.

RTB Bor, the state-owned company that thrived two decades ago as Yugoslavia's largest copper mine and smelter, fell into disrepair during the 1990s wars, international embargo and mismanagement under President Slobodan Milosevic.

"Our technology dates from 1961 and 1971 and we are in dire need of renewing it," Chief Executive Blagoje Spaskovski told Reuters.

Decades of mining with Soviet-era technology have scarred the region, home to about 60,000 people and around 250 km (155.3 miles) southeast of Belgrade.

"We went decades without investment, without new mines and technology such as a new foundry," Slobodan Milosavljevic, Serbia's trade minister, told Reuters.

Serbia's efforts to sell RTB Bor failed in 2007 and 2008 as two potential buyers, Romania's Cuprom and Austria's A-Tec, failed to meet terms of the tender.

In June, the RTB Bor and Canada's SNC Lavalin signed a 175 million euro ($210.7 million) contract to build a copper smelter and a sulphuric acid factory. About 135 million euros will come from a loan from Export Development Canada, Canada's export credit agency.

Serbia has pledged the remaining 40 million euros as well as another 27 million euros in mining equipment.

"Without 400 or 500 million euros (from privatization) , plus investments in the smelter, we will rather continue to dig and process (copper) alone," Milosavljevic said.

Tonnes of Trouble

In the 1980s, RTB Bor had an annual output of about 180,000 tonnes and disposal of about 5,000 tonnes of sulphuric acid, 350 tonnes of arsenic and 35 tonnes of zinc in vast dumps of processed ore.

Studies of the Borska Reka river show its riverbed is now so heavily polluted with copper, iron, aluminum, lead and cadmium, that more than 60 percent of Bor's fertile soil is irreparably damaged, said Dragan Jankucic of the Agenda 21 environmental group.

Environmentalists fear the Borska Reka could poison more than just its immediate surroundings.

"It flows to the Timok River and then to the Danube. If toxic waste from processed ore dumps goes into the Danube Basin through the Borska Reka riverbed, the damage could be disastrous," Jankucic said.

Rosa Milojkovic from the village of Slatina, just outside Bor said her cattle would die immediately if they drank the river's brown and grey water.

"When the river flooded our fields, we had to remove all the soil and bring new dirt from kilometers away," she said.

According to 2007 research by the LEAP, an environmental group, samples from Bor's population showed excess levels of arsenic in their urine and blood, with most suffering from at least two recurring pollution-related diseases.

"There are so many young people sick in our village ... Women are dying from cancers and men from heart attacks," said villager Milojkovic.

Bor children are also more prone to illness than any other age group, with 71 percent diagnosed with related illnesses at some point, most often with respiratory diseases, another government-sponsored study showed.

"Women usually first notice sulphur dioxide pollution when it rains. With water it forms sulphuric acid and their stockings start to melt," Spaskovski said.

In an effort to boost environmental protection, the World Bank has granted RTB Bor a 10-year, interest-free loan of 35 million euros on condition that 25 million euros are allocated to resolving the most urgent problems.

"Some efforts have been made in 2009 and 2010 and things have improved a tad," said environmentalist Jankucic.

The development of a new smelter and sulphuric acid factory should also help. "Both projects will greatly improve environmental protection," Bor CEO Spaskovski said.

"Sulphur oxide ... kills in time. One of the first conditions from our tender that was accepted by the SNC Lavalin was that the usage of sulphur oxide must be at 98.5 percent and its emissions reduced."

Spaskovski also said that the company now wants "to return Borska Reka to a condition which was given to it by God or nature. Waste dumps for processed ore ... must be covered with a layer of greenery."

The future of Bor in the European Union applicant country remains a big question mark important for the wider economy.

The jobs at RTB Bor are vital in its impoverished area of eastern Serbia and the government wants to avoid stirring up protests ahead of 2012 elections. Yet government officials are also questioning its long-term feasibility.

"The key issue is do we have more reserves of copper or not there or in the vicinity. If not, there's no justification for investments ... if there's copper, then we need to invest much more," Trade Minister Milosavljevic said.

(Editing by Adam Tanner)

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