Kyrgyzstan: The Gold Mine Reports Bishkek Doesn’t Want You to See
A state commission in Kyrgyzstan has used claims of environmental damage at the country’s largest, most lucrative gold mine, Kumtor, to argue for a new agreement with the company operating the mine, Toronto-based Centerra Gold, and to fine Centerra almost half a billion dollars.
Economics Minister Temir Sariev, who headed the commission, says he has evidence, including two reports by European scientists, that the mine is inflicting “colossal damage” on the environment.
But, until now, hardly anyone in Kyrgyzstan has seen those scientists’ supposedly damning reports.
In December and February the commission, acting, respectively, through two state agencies – the State Inspectorate for Environmental and Technical Safety (SIETS) and the State Agency for Environmental Protection and Forestry (SAEPF) – fined Centerra approximately $467 million for alleged environmental damages, waste disposal and water treatment violations dating back to 1996. Centerra calls the claims “exaggerated or without merit.”
In its report for the state commission, SIETS said discharge from Kumtor is a "serious contamination threat" leading to "irreversible environmental impact on water resources."
Yet the two independent environmental audits Sariev commissioned, carried out by Slovene and German researchers last fall, found nothing unusual in Kumtor’s discharge. The Slovenes said water samples do not “indicate an environmental pollution or contamination situation.” The Germans said cyanide (used in the gold milling process) and heavy metals in Kumtor effluent “are significantly below the limit values of the German Ordinance on Waste Water.”
Basically, the reports – which EurasiaNet.org has seen – do not support the state commission’s environmental claims.
Sariev told me the reports are available on the Economics Ministry’s website, together with the commission’s report. When I could not find them on the site, his office repeatedly promised to share them. After weeks of requests, Sariev has still not shared. SIETS gave me nine pages of tables without interpretation – enough to confirm the reports I have, which together total almost 100 pages, are authentic – but refused to provide more information.
Allegations of environmental misconduct have dogged the Kumtor gold mine almost since operations there began in 1997. There have been real problems, such as a 1998 cyanide spill into the Barskoon River. And there’ve been a lot of accusations and conjecture.
Are Sariev’s claims merited? Judge for yourself. Below are the two reports’ executive summaries reprinted in their entirety.
The Institute for Environmental Hygiene and Toxicology in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, submitted its findings to the Kyrgyz government on November 29:
The objective of the present study was to collect and to analyse samples of surface water, waste water, sediment, landfill and sludge that were collected at selected sampling locations inside and outside the area of the Kumtor Gold Mine in October 2012.
Sampling and analyses were performed by independent experts from Germany according to current guidelines and standard procedures established in the European Union and in Germany. The samples of water, waste water, sediment and landfill were analysed for the following parameters: antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, copper, chromium, cobalt, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, silver, thallium, vanadium, zinc, total and free cyanide, sulfate, nitrate, ammonia, boron, fluoride and chloride. Regarding the samples of sediment, landfill and sludge the aforementioned parameters were measured in the dried solid material as well as in the aqueous eluates.
The element concentrations and the cyanide and fluoride concentrations of the water samples collected largely correspond to the natural geochemical background levels. The analytical data do not provide evidence of the presence of undue high concentrations of cyanide and toxic elements in surface water at the sampling locations of this study. However, the concentrations of sulfate, nitrate, and ammonia were significantly increased when compared to natural background levels. The increased levels of sulfate presumably are related to the oxidation of sulfidic minerals such as pyrite, which are constituents of rocks and sediments in this area, and which are mobilized by mining and milling. The origin of the increased levels of nitrate and ammonia could not be clarified.
An ecotoxicological assessment of the quality of surface water was not part of this study. This would require a more comprehensive analysis of samples of surface water in areas, where aquatic organisms occur in surface water. The increased levels of sulfate, nitrate and ammonia in the water of the Kumtor river about 5 km downwards of the Kumtor Gold Mine appear to require a closer examination with regard to possible adverse effects on sensitive aquatic organisms. It should be noted, however, that other sources may cause or contribute to the increased levels of sulfate, nitrate and ammonia in this section of the river.
The sample of waste water from the waste water treatment plant was found to have a higher electric conductivity and increased concentrations of antimony, arsenic, copper, cobalt, molybdenum, ammonia, sulfate, boron and fluoride when compared with the surface water samples. According to the analytical results there is no evidence of the presence of undue high concentrations of cyanide and toxic elements in the analysed waste water sample. The concentration of elements and cyanide measured in this waste water sample are significantly below the limit values of the German Ordinance on Waste Water, Annex 51.
The samples of sediment and landfill that were collected predominantly exhibit element and cyanide concentrations in the range of the natural geochemical background concentrations, which are typical for the Tien Shan Mountains. The analytical results do not provide evidence of the presence of sediments and landfill with undue high concentrations of toxic elements and cyanide at the sampling locations of this study. The aqueous eluates of the samples of sediment and landfill that were collected exhibit very low concentrations of elements and anions. Solely sulfate was increased in some samples.
A sample of sludge that was collected from the tailings pond does not exhibit undue high concentrations of cyanide and toxic elements. Likewise the aqueous eluate prepared from this sample does not exhibit undue high concentrations of cyanide and toxic elements. With regard to the great extension of the tailings pond a general conclusion cannot be drawn from the analysis of solely one spot sample.
Ljubljana-based Technomedica at the Jozef Stefan Institute submitted its findings on December 16:
In this report, the analyses of river and stream sediments as indicators for environmental pollution from the Kumtor industrial area are provided. The total concentrations of 36 chemical elements were determined in sediments at 10 representatively sampling locations. The results obtained showed a tendency of increasing element levels at the sampling points affected by the Kumtor milling and ore processing operations over an extended period of time. It should be noted that the concentrations levels of the analyzed elements in the environment were within the limits typical for such industrial operations and were below the values, which indicate an environmental pollution or contamination situation.
The obtained results reveal the situation present only at this sampling campaign carried out under climatologically specific conditions and cannot be used for direct comparison with the data obtained at any other times and under different conditions. Also, a direct comparison of analytical results obtained by different sample preparation techniques and distinct analytical methods should be avoided without considering careful evaluation of the methods used.
David Trilling is Eurasianet’s managing editor.