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Cyanide spill highlights environmental toll of mining

Pelin Ünker
June 30, 2022

Large quantities of cyanide solution have spilled into the Karasu River in Turkey after a pipe carrying cyanide exploded in a gold mine. But experts say the mine has always caused heavy environmental damage.

Gold mine in Erzincan in Turkey
A recent cyanide spill from a gold mine in Turkey highlights the dangers of mining pollution to the environment Image: DHA

When a pipe carrying a cyanide solution burst at a gold mine in Turkey's eastern Erzincan province earlier this month, it failed to attract widespread media attention. Yet, with 20 cubic meters (706 cubic feet) of toxic solution spilling into the Karasu River, it is a major environmental disaster.

The 450-kilometer-long (280-mile-long) Karasu is one of the two sources of the Euphrates, the longest river in western Asia.

The incident occurred at the Copler Gold Mine, which uses cyanide in its extraction process. Located in the Ilic district of the province, the mine has long been criticized by environmental organizations and opposition political parties for polluting the environment and killing local wildlife.

Company confirmation

Mine operator Anagold Madencilik has since confirmed reports of the leak but said the solution contained only 8 kilograms (17.6 pounds) of cyanide and that it was "cleaned immediately." In a statement, the company also emphasized its contribution to the Turkish economy.

Anagold Madencilik is a joint venture corporation between Canada-based SSR Mining and Lidya Madencilik, a subsidiary of the Calik Group that is known for its close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change responded to the leak first by fining the operators 16.4 million Turkish lira (€945,378; $987,654), and then, on Monday, by issuing a statement via Twitter that operations had been suspended. Unions representing the miners, however, have reported that they are continuing to work.

Millions in royalties to the state

The Copler Gold Mine began gold production in 2010. After receiving positive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports in 2019 and 2021, the company expanded and deepened its open pits, increasing the mine to the size of nearly 2,445 football pitches.

According to cadastral surveys, before mining began, 45% of the site was forest, 43% public land and 5% pasture. In the latest EIA report, the Karasu River is cited as the closest waterway.

A bird wading in a wetland
The Karasu River is highly biodiverseImage: Huseyin Yildiz/AA/picture alliance

According to the 2021 EIA report, operations at the mine site will continue until 2027, with a total of 38.1 million tons of ore expected to be extracted. The company is predicted to generate $4.8 billion in operating income and $2 billion in net profit after 10 years in operation. The royalties to be paid to the state over the life of the mine will be approximately $198 million.  

Profits vs environmental destruction

Even if ore production on the site wraps up in 2027, it will have caused lasting environmental destruction, say experts. 

Metallurgical engineer Cemalettin Kucuk told DW that even before the recent cyanide waste spill into the Karasu, the mine's activities had taken a heavy toll on the environment.

He said groundwater has become contaminated through the storage of oxidized ore and that mining activity had devastated forests, agricultural land, flora, and fauna. He also said heavy metals such as arsenic that are a part of the mining process are being discarded, also harming the environment.

"A 200-meter-high (656-foot-high) mountain containing heavy metals has formed in the region. We are talking about a mine pit that goes down to a depth of 5,600 meters. The topography is changing. When we evaluate the ecological effects of all this, we are faced with great destruction," he said. 

Agriculture and food safety

The mine also poses risks to agriculture and food safety in the Karasu and Euphrates basins.

A satellite image of an open pit gold mine. A cyanide pool is visible.
Hazardous chemicals are stored in cyanide pools like that seen in this satellite picture Image: Airbus/Google Earth

According to a study conducted by Environmental Engineer Ahmet Yuksel, around 1,500 tons of vegetables and 1,200 tons of fruit are produced in the Ilic district annually. It is also the site of animal feed production, beekeeping and poultry farming.

Both agricultural production and animal husbandry have been damaged by mining, Yuksel said.

Nearly 80 hectares (198 acres) of the overall mining area were comprised of agricultural lands, most of which the 2021 EIA report says were purchased by Anagold. Before the mining activities began, non-agricultural use permits were obtained in accordance with applicable laws.

Effects on public health

There are also impacts for people. When gold is extracted using cyanide, other heavy metals such as zinc, nickel, copper, iron and arsenic are also extracted as a result. They are toxic for the environment and also have serious effects on human health. The spill in the Karasu River has further highlighted dangers associated with mining, experts say.

Ahmet Soysal from the Association of Public Health Specialists said pollution from heavy metal mining remains in the soil and groundwater for years.

According to Soysal, mines that use cyanide have been causing heavy metal contamination in the region for decades. And these pollutants end up in food.

"When people take in heavy metals through food, through the water, these heavy metals cannot be filtered out," he explained. "They accumulate in the body. It causes various health problems, especially cancers, neurological diseases, or autism in the development of children."

This article was originally written in Turkish.