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Kumtor Gold Mine, Kyrgyzstan

The Kumtor Gold mine - Background

Quick facts

  • owned by Canadian mining company Centerra Gold Inc.
  • largest gold deposit project managed by a Western company in Central Asia
  • produced 17,66 tons of gold (2010), plans are to further expand operations
  • generates appr. 10 per cent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP [1], but also significant environmental and social threats
  • the Kyrgyz Republic now owns 33 per cent of Centerra Gold Inc.

Fragile surrounding

The Kumtor open pit gold mine is located in a remote area of the Tian-Shan mountain range in Kyrgyzstan at an altitude of 4000 metres, next to the Sarychat-Ertash reserve and not far from the Issyk-Kul lake, an important regional tourist attraction.

The mine is being developed in fragile conditions of permafrost and in the vicinity of glaciers that feed fresh waters into the transboundary Naryn River. It is an area of surreal beauty.


Waste rock on the glaciers


Dangers for the environment

Damage to glaciers

The mine pit slices through two glaciers (Lysyi and Davidov). This vicinity and the practice of storing waste rock directly on the glaciers damages these enormous natural ice sheets.

The glaciers, already suffering from the impacts of climate change, are melting much faster and have shrunk tremendously in recent years, as Kyrgyz scientists have confirmed us.

Potential for catastrophic events

Lake Petrov and its glacier

The mine's tailings (i.e. chemically polluted leftovers) are located below Lake Petrov. The lake grew by more than 92,000 square metres annually in recent years due to a melting glacier. The lake's natural dam has become less and less stable (according to Torgoev Isakbek, author of a State Commission report on the subject).

Although there is no imminent danger, the lake's tremendous growth might cause it to break out at some point. In a worst-case scenario, the downstream tailings could then be washed away, with unforeseeable impacts on the environment.

The tailings dam foundation is also experiencing horizontal deformations and is moving down the slope [2].

Inspite of measures to stabilise the dam in 2003 and 2006 (so-called shear keys and toe berm), the dam is still continuing to move. Kyrgyz scientists believe it is caused by the facts that it has been built on an uneven slope and that the dam never freezes.

Water pollution

Likely the most serious problem at Kumtor is the slow long-term release of contaminants from current and future mining operations.

During summer operations (May through October) some five million cubic metres of waste water from the tailings are treated and discharged into the Kumtor River and eventually flow into the Naryn River (later Syrdarya) towards Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan.

While Centerra Gold Inc. does not publicise data on the quality of the discharged water, people living near the Kumtor River observed an enormous decrease in fish stock in recent years and suspect that the river has already been polluted.

The seasonal glacier melt-waters and the ground water flow into the mine’s open pit at a rate up to 1000 liters/sec [3]. After contact with the rock, the water becomes chemically-degraded and is then pumped out and discharged to the environment.

See photos from our investigations in Kyrgyzstan on flickr.

Download the report by hydrogeologist Dr. Robert Moran Kumtor gold facilities, Kyrgyzstan: Comments on water, environmental and related issues (pdf).

Accidents at the mine


A blockade by villagers demanding proper compensation for the 1998 accident at the Kumtor mine

Centerra Gold has been the client of the EBRD since 1995 and the bank has failed to ensure that its client respects public social environmental concerns and social needs.

Throughout the mine’s operation, several accidents occurred, leaving several people dead and hundreds in need of treatment:

  • a cyanide and sodium cyanide spill into the Barskoon River in May 1998
  • a spill of 70 liters nitric acid in July 1998
  • an ammonium nitrate spill in January 2000
  • collapses of a 200 metre high pit walls at the mine in 2002 and 2006.

While the company plays down the cyanide spill in 1998, more than 1000 people have turned to the Barskoon local public association “Karek” in need of assistance to protect their rights and to claim compensations for the damages caused by the spill.

A law suit is ongoing since 2005. 24 Barskoon villagers with documented proofs of poisoning demand compensation for moral and health impacts from the mining company.

    “The company did not notify residents of Barskaun, who use the water for drinking and irrigation, until 5 hours after the accident. As a result, over 2,500 people were poisoned, 850 people were hospitalized and at least four of those patients died.”

    Source: Earthworks


Notes

1. EBRD Country Strategy for Kyrgyzstan, 2011

2. Centerra Technical Report 2011

3. ibid.


For more information, contact our Central Asia officer Vladlena Martsynkevych.

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Latest developments


 

Bankwatch in the media | July 13, 2016

Die Kumtor-Mine verseucht das Land. Die Europäische Entwicklungsbank ist daran beteiligt. Das könnte Merkel in Kirgistan ansprechen.

BERLIN taz | Noch nie war ein deutscher Regierungschef in der kirgisischen Hauptstadt Bisch­kek, insofern betritt Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel (CDU) auf ihrer Reise Neuland.

Bankwatch in the media | April 20, 2016

The most controversial gold mining project in Central Asia is back in the spotlight again this month. Canadian mining company Centerra Gold has re-launched its public relations campaign in Kyrgyzstan to improve the company’s image over the status of glaciers at the Kumtor gold mine, one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines and a flagship project that accounts for 90 percent of company’s profits.

Bankwatch in the media | February 19, 2016

The Kumtor mine, built on a glacier high in the Tian Shan mountains, continues to attract fierce criticism from locals.

Tian Shan mountain range, Kyrgyzstan - Hidden in a valley in Kyrgyzstan's Tian Shan mountains lies the magnificent Issyk-Kul Lake, one of the highest and deepest lakes in the world and a top tourist destination in the region.

Bankwatch in the media | January 5, 2016

The remote Issyk Kul province in eastern Kyrgyzstan, on the border with China, is home to some of the most stunning vistas of the rugged Tian Shan mountain range that cuts through much of Central Asia. Mountain goats and endangered snow leopards roam the rocky slopes, while rare species of dandelion and wild tulip bloom in alpine meadows.

Bankwatch in the media | December 29, 2015

A gold mine is creating big profits in Kyrgyzstan, but there are many who say they are not seeing any of the profits. People in areas surrounding the Kumtor gold mine say they want better facilities like schools and hospitals.

Publications

Advocacy letter | December 14, 2015

An update on the contentious EBRD project and its client, following a field visit by Bankwatch and partners to the mining site in October 2015

Briefing | May 14, 2015

This interview was conducted during the EBRD annual meeting and business forum, 14-15 May 2015 in Tbilisi. The interview was led by Ryskeldi Satke (RS) with Dr. Alistair Clark (AC), EBRD’s Managing Director Environment and Sustainability Department; Michaela Bergman (MB), EBRD’s Chief Counselor for Social Issues Environment and Sustainability Department; and Dr. Dariusz Prasek (DP), Director, Project Appraisal Environment Department.

Study | October 31, 2014

Land, forests, water and raw materials are valuable resources that increasingly interest the major players of the economy of our planet. This report collects 16 case studies from around the world in order to better understand the impacts of natural resource grabbing on the local communities, clarify the responsibilities of the European Union and, in conclusion, examine actions to be undertaken to invert this phenomenon.

Study | June 20, 2014

'Kyrgyzstan: a song in the mountains' is photographic travelogue to the source of the nomadic Kyrgyz people, their traditions and environment. The book explores people's relationship to the Kumtor gold mine in the mountains of Central Asia, which is slowly degrading the environment of the area. The reader takes a journey past high mountain lakes, the lost caravanserai of the Great Silk Road and developing farms. Farmers and mountain locals tell the traveler secrets about the lives of their ancestors and their hopes for the future of this beautiful place.

Study | July 29, 2013

Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country rich in water and natural resources. The country is one of 2000 priority ecological regions of the planet with unique ecosystems and biodiversity and is considered the “water tower” of Central Asia due to its Tien Shan glacier reserves. The management of Kyrgyzstan’s natural resources is crucial to the future sustainability of the country. However in a region where poverty is widespread, the primacy placed on economic development seriously threats sustainability.