Cyanide spill in Turkey highlights environmental toll of mining | Environment | All topics from climate change to conservation | DW

When a pipe carrying cyanide solution burst at a gold mine in Erzincan province in eastern Turkey earlier this month, it did not attract media attention. Yet with 20 cubic meters (706 cubic feet) of toxic solution spilled into the Karasu River, it is a major environmental disaster.

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

The incident happened at the Copler gold mine, which uses cyanide in its mining process. Located in the province’s Ilic district, the mine has long been criticized by environmental organizations and opposition political parties for polluting the environment and killing local wildlife.

Confirmation of the company

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 was “cleaned up immediately”. In a statement, the company also highlighted its contribution to the Turkish economy.

Anagold Madencilik is a joint venture between Canadian company SSR Mining and Lidya Madencilik, a Calik Group subsidiary known for its close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Ministry of Environment, Urban Planning and Climate Change first reacted to the leak by fining the operators 16.4 million Turkish liras (€945,378; $987,654), then on Monday , posting a statement via Twitter that operations had been suspended. The unions representing the miners, however, indicated that they were continuing to work.

Millions in state royalties

The Copler Gold Mine began gold production in 2010. After receiving positive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports in 2019 and 2021, the company has expanded and deepened its mines to open pit, increasing the size of the mine to 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 nearest waterway.

The Karasu River is rich in biodiversity

According to the 2021 EIA report, operations at the mine site will continue until 2027, with a total of 38.1 million tonnes of ore expected to be mined. The company is expected to generate an operating profit of $4.8 billion and a net profit of $2 billion after 10 years of operation. Royalties payable to the state over the life of the mine will be approximately $198 million.

Profits versus environmental destruction

Even if ore production at the site ends in 2027, it will have caused lasting environmental destruction, experts say.

Metallurgical engineer Cemalettin Kucuk told DW that even before the recent dumping of cyanide waste in Karasu, mining activities had taken a heavy toll on the environment.

He said groundwater had been contaminated by the storage of oxidized ore and mining activity had devastated forests, farmland, flora and fauna. He also said that heavy metals such as arsenic that are part of the mining process are released which also harms the environment.

“A 200-meter-high (656-foot) mountain containing heavy metals has formed in the area. We are talking about a mining pit that descends to a depth of 5,600 meters. The topography changes. ecological effects of all this, we are facing great destruction,” he said.

Agriculture and food security

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

A satellite image of an open pit gold mine.  A pool of cyanide is visible.

Hazardous chemicals are stored in cyanide pools like the one seen in this satellite image

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

Agricultural production and livestock have been damaged by mining, Yuksel said.

Nearly 80 hectares (198 acres) of the overall mining area was made up of agricultural land, most of which, according to the 2021 EIA report, was purchased by Anagold. Prior to the commencement of mining activities, non-agricultural use permits were obtained in accordance with applicable laws.

Public health effects

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

Ahmet Soysal of the Association of Public Health Specialists said pollution from heavy metal mining stays in 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 water, those heavy metals can’t be filtered out,” he explained. “They accumulate in the body. This causes various health problems, including cancers, neurological diseases or autism in developing children.”

This article was originally written in Turkish.

Sharon P. Juarez