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Kyrgyz mine collapse spurs calls for review

Inter Press Service News Agency
July 11, 2002

A coalition of environmental and civic groups is calling for an independent investigation of an open-pit gold mine in Kyrgyzstan where a worker was buried and presumed killed when a 200-metre mine wall collapsed on him.


WASHINGTON — A coalition of environmental and civic groups is calling for an independent investigation of an open-pit gold mine in Kyrgyzstan where a worker was buried and presumed killed when a 200-metre mine wall collapsed on him.

Monday’s incident followed a series of toxic spills at the Kumtor mine, believed to be the world’s eight largest gold field. The spills date back to 1998, one year after the Kumtor Operating Company (KOC), a wholly owned subsidiary of Canada’s Cameco Corporation, launched commercial production there.

The mine project, in which Cameco and Kyrgyz government have a 30 percent and 70 percent stake, respectively, is backed by loans and guarantees from a number of public financial institutions (IFIs), including 40 million dollars each from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the European Bank for Development and Reconstruction (EBRD), as well as additional support from U.S. and Canadian export credit agencies.

“We must remember the troubled history of this mine. Cameco must allow an independent investigation of the mine’s safety and environmental practices,” said Kalia Moldogazieva of the Human Development Centre of Kyrgyzstan. “Any responsible operator would welcome such an audit; they should have nothing to hide.”

Her appeal was backed by the Mineral Policy Center (MPC), MiningWatch of Canada, and Budapest-based CEE Bankwatch, which have all called on KOC in the past to permit an independent assessment of the mine.

Cameco spokesperson Jamie McIntyre said it was unlikely the company would change its mind. “We appreciate the offer of support in this regard, but we’re really focused on the government of Kyrgyzstan and the investigation by its state inspector. They have the authority to investigate this incident, as they have in the past.”

“Nobody is more motivated to understand what happened than we and the government of Kyrgyzstan are,” added McIntyre, who described Monday’s accident as a significant pit wall failure. “Our first concern is to locate the missing person (identified by the company as 25-year-old Almaz Jakishev) in a way that won’t risk the health and safety of others.”

Cameco said it could take several months to clear the rubble and that mining operations would continue at about 60 percent of capacity until then. Last year, the mine produced more than 750,000 ounces of gold and employed more than 1,500 people.

In addition to scoring the mine’s environmental and social impact, some critics have questioned its economics. “I’ve always thought this was a harebrained mine,” said Joan Kuyek of MiningWatch. “They get a half thimbleful of gold for a tonne of rock.”

Located at almost 4,000 metres above sea level in the remote Tien Shen mountains, the 360 million dollar mine, one of Kyrgyzstan’s biggest foreign investments, sits on permafrost in an earthquake zone.

“We don’t think that’s very safe,” said MPC’s Clare Stark, who added this is why environmental and mining watchdog groups have been eager to gain access to the mine to make an independent assessment.

In May 1998, a mine truck spilled nearly two tonnes of deadly cyanide, which is used to leach the gold from the rock, into the Barksoon River, which supplies drinking and irrigation water for communities downstream and flows into Lake Issy Kul, the country’s premier tourist attraction.

The company held off reporting the incident until a Russian border guard, who chanced upon the accident, ordered them to do so at least four hours after the spill, according to local non-governmental groups. By that time, the cyanide had flowed far downstream.

Estimates as to how many deaths were caused by the spill remain in dispute – accounts vary from none to four but some 2,600 people sought treatment for rashes, sores and other ailments, and more than 1,000 were hospitalised. Subsequent studies showed a doubling of mortality and morbidity rates in the Barksoon area compared to previous years.

In addition to the health consequences and economic losses resulting from contaminated produce and the decline in tourism at Lake Issy Kul, the spill and the way it was handled sowed distrust between the local population and the Kumtor operators, according to the Washington-based Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL).

Local civic and international environmental groups pressed the company to open access to the mine and publicly release key documents, including its emergency response plans, environmental and safety monitoring data, studies on the impact of mine tailings on local streams and rivers, and its plans for cleaning up the site when production was expected to end around 2008.

Concern deepened after two more spills – one of 70 litres of nitric acid in July 1998 and another of 1.65 tonnes of ammonium nitrate dumped by a mine truck in January 2000, an incident which the company did not report to the authorities until the following day. Although neither caused significant damage, they intensified calls for an independent assessment of the project’s safety.

Monday’s wall collapse, according to Kuyek, “means there could be something very wrong with (the company’s) geological studies around the mine. And if that’s the case, what else is wrong? If the tailings dam (where the cyanide-processed waste is stored) had collapsed, this could have been catastrophic.”


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