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Chelopech cyanide gold project, Bulgaria

The Chelopech project is being implemented by the Canadian company Dundee Precious Metals (DPM) and its Bulgarian branch Chelopech Mining. It has two phases: Phase 1 was supported by the EBRD with a USD 10 million credit in 2004 and a follow-up USD 15 million credit in 2008; and Phase 2, which is expected to be officially submitted to the EBRD for financing once the complex permit is acquired. Phase 1 of the project received a 'B' categorisation from the EBRD, however the activities proposed under Phase 2 – i.e. the introduction of cyanide leaching of gold – carry risks for human health and the environment, thus should eventually require a category 'A' designation.

After the project was blocked for two years [1], the Environmental Impact Assessment for Phase 2 was approved by the Minister of Environment and Water, in spite of the lack of proper information and consultations with communities living downstream from the mine along the Topolnitsa and Maritsa Rivers [2]. The Ministry of Health also took a controversial decision to accommodate the investment proposal: Contrary to previous legislative requirements, it decreased the two kilometre distance of the health protection zones from the tailings management facility to the nearest villages of Chelopech, Chavdar and Karlievo.

In March 2009, Chelopech Mining applied for an Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) permit for Phase 2. The procedure had the same failures as the EIA – timely access to the technical documentation was limited and interested environmental organisations, trying to prepare their statements, were denied more copies from the Ministry of Environment and Waters.

The proposed method of cyanide leaching for gold extraction is not currently in use in Bulgaria. DPM's projects would set a precedent, opening the door to this risky technology in the mining sector across the country. According to independent experts, hydro-geological conditions in Bulgaria do not allow for the safe application of cyanide leaching. Excessive rainfall in recent years has caused severe flooding in Bulgaria and its southern neighbours, adding further weight to the concerns of independent scientists and environmental NGOs about the risks of using cyanide leaching in gold mining.

Decision by the Bulgarian Higher Administrative Court

On November 4 2009 the Higher Administrative Court has cancelled the EIA's approval by the Minister of Environment and Waters and prohibited the introduction of cyanide leaching technology at the Chelopech mine.

The Court's recognition of most of our arguments, is a confirmation of four years of continued objection to the quality of the Chelopech EIA Report:

  • The EIA Report does not properly consider the impact of cyanide leaching installation and the tailings dam on the heavily polluted surroundings;
  • The Ministry of Environment and Waters incorrectly specified that the public hearings should be held only in the closest villages Chelopech and Chavdar - with a total population of 3000 inhabitants - while the investment proposal will affect a clearly larger territory. This decision impeded the organization of public hearings in all affected communities and violated their right to participate in the decision making.
  • The cyanide leaching technology proposed by the investor cannot be classified as Best Available Technique (BAT): The only cyanide leaching installation for ore with a comparably high Arsenic concentration as in Chelopech has merely been built as an experimental facility by Dodge Phelps in Arisona, USA, with a capacity significantly smaller than Chelopech.

The Court's decision underlines the responsibility of national institutions to provide civil society with a significant role in the decision making process and to take its arguments into account.

The interest by investors to transform Bulgaria into the most cyanide-prone country in the European Union has now hopefully cooled down.


For more information, contact Daniel Popov, the Bankwatcher from Centre for Environmental Information & Education (CEIE), Bulgaria, monitoring the project's development.

Notes

[1] Phase 2 of the project was blocked at the environmental impact assessment (EIA) stage in 2006 due to concerns from local communities and controversy about the low concession fee that the Canadian owner was to pay to the state, i.e. 0.75 percent of the cost of extracted metals. After two years of negotiations, in March 2008 the Bulgarian state regained a 25 percent stake in the new concession and became a co-investor in Phase 2 of the project.

[2] The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for Phase 2 of the Chelopech project involved only very limited public consultation with people living in the areas immediately surrounding the mine. Other communities living downstream of the Topolnitsa and Maritsa rivers were completely unaware of the proposed gold project upstream, although their health and environment will be at significant risk in the event of a cyanide accident. The regions of Pazardhik, Plovdiv and Haskovo (situated in the Thracian valley, the best horticultural land in the country) have a population of around one million people, and these communities are heavily dependent on water from the River Maritsa for drinking and irrigation purposes.

In 2006 Greek communities also expressed interest in the consultations, citing the Espoo Convention on EIA in a transboundary context. They have sent numerous requests to the relevant Bulgarian and European institutions and have declared their strong opposition to the introduction of cyanide mining upstream in Bulgaria.

To guarantee communities' health and safety and to ensure adequate mitigation measures in case of accidents, DPM should have presented and agreed upon an emergency strategy and action plan with concerned stakeholders downstream, including those in neighbouring countries, prior to receiving a project permit.

The inadequate response to cyanide pollution in the infamous Kumtor case in Kyrgyzstan, where the EBRD was involved, is a clear example of why such strategies and action plans are necessary.


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