Turkey: Cyanide spill in Euphrates

Ecehan Balta

The pipeline carrying the cyanide used in the Çöpler Gold Mine operations burst on the night of June 21. According to the incident report of the gendarmery, the explosion that occurred that night was only noticed at around 05:00 in the morning and the pipeline was turned off. 

However, until the valves were closed, approximately 20 tons of liquid containing cyanide, sulfuric acid and many other toxic chemicals mixed with the stream under the mine and then into the Euphrates River reaching the İliç Dam in Erzincan province. 

After the news came out that the Euphrates River and the İliç Dam on it were contaminated with cyanide, the mine operator Anagold Madencilik argued that the spill was not cyanide, but diluted cyanide leaching solution. They claimed that the total amount of cyanide in the spill was 8 kg and was cleaned immediately, so it did not reach the İliç Dam or the Euphrates River.

The Turkish Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change filed a criminal complaint with the prosecutor’s office on the allegations. The ministry acknowledged that the leak went beyond the mining area, but said there is no evidence yet that proves it had reached the waters of Euphrates. The Erzincan Governorate also announced that the leak did not reach the Euphrates River. The ministry fined Anagold Madencilik with 16 million TL (approximately €880,000) for the leak. For a company of this size, this amount is actually peanuts. And, of course, the Turkish state is not to be trusted when it comes to decisions concerning the environment.

Who is Anagold Mining?

Anagold Madencilik (Anagold Mining) is a company established to operate the Çöpler gold mine, and is a joint venture between SSR Mining (a Canadian-US multinational) and the Turkish Çalık Holding (which owns Lidya Madencilik). 

SSR Mining runs the Çöpler mine, located in the Tethys belt in Turkey; the Marigold gold mine in Battle Mountain, Nevada, USA; the Seabee mine near Laonil Lake, Saskatchewan, Canada; Puna Operations in the Jujuy Province, Argentina, which runs along the Andean tin belt. The company is traded on the NASDAQ, Toronto and Australian Gold and Stock Exchanges, putting forward the buzzwords used by almost all companies such as sustainability, occupational safety, environmental safety and business excellence. The company stock dipped around 21 percent on the Toronto stock exchange after the news of the leak was heard

Lidya Madencilik (Lidya Mining), on the other hand, is part of a Turkish giant conglomerate, Çalık Holding, which is very close to Erdogan’s AKP regime, and also owns some of the AKP media. Berat Albayrak, Erdoğan’s son-in-law and the ex Minister of Energy, served as the CEO of Çalık Holding for a while. Albayrak had been the CEO of Çalık Holding in 2009, when the joint venture of Lidya Madencilik – SSR Mining took shape. 

An “accident” with hundreds of warnings

It has been reported by the people of the region that leaks in the tailing dam have been continuous in the last two months, so what happened on June 21 could actually be predicted. The difference this time is that it took undeniable proportions and they couldn’t hide the fact, but try to cover it up. In fact, for the last 7,5 years, there have been a lot of people who came forward to demand the closing down of the gold mine in the region. On April 13, 90 platforms, initiatives and associations, of which the Turkish Climate Justice Coalition is also a signatory, came together to stop the exponential increase in the destruction of nature and life in İliç, and went to support the resistance in the Erzincan province. 

Cyanide leaching is an easy and low-cost method used in low-grade gold mines. Since the 1960s, when ‘cyanide heap leaching’ entered the mining process, the toxic impact of gold mining has grown rapidly. The process involves pouring a solution of cyanide over the crushed ore. The cyanide solution is filtered, dissolves the gold and carries it into the solution pools. This technique requires the use of large quantities of highly toxic cyanide. The cyanide solution is either reused, stored in a dam, or discharged directly into rivers or the sea. Toxic heavy metals and metalloids such as arsenic are often found in ores and can be released by the process of cracking and leaching.

The European Parliament on May 5, 2010, voted that the use of cyanide in the mining sector should be strictly prohibited, and as of 2011, demanded that all European Union countries start implementations in this direction. What led to this decision was evidence of the direct damage to human health and the large-scale destruction to nature caused by the use of cyanide as a mining method. As a matter of fact, in 2000 in Romania, the Baia Mare accident that occurred in the Danube River, has been characterized as the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl. The Mining Waste Directive and the Water Framework Directive were brought by the European Union to contain in some way the environmental impact of mining. However, the Turkish government chooses to dismiss this evidence and continues to allow the use of cyanide in mining.

Who will be affected?

Gold mining, along with cyanide leaching, is causing great cross-border ecological destruction. Cyanide is highly toxic and fatal to humans and other species even in very small doses. It is difficult to predict what the exact consequences will be for the people living in the Ilic region. At the same time, the effects on the species living in the river need to be studied over a period of time. In all regions where the Euphrates is irrigated and used as a source of drinking water, regular analyses by independent institutions must be made. 

At the same time, it must be noted that among the basin countries of the Euphrates, besides Turkey, are also Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Iraq. It is therefore necessary to warn the ecology organizations of these countries about the cyanide carried by the Euphrates and to appeal to them to fight together on this agenda, which is a common health problem.

Gold is a value that can only be converted into money, except for limited and small amounts of use in the medical and technology fields. The amount of gold actually needed to cover essential functions for modern production can be found in the liquidation of the huge gold reserves in bank vaults, in recycling and in replacement by innovations. Gold is inedible, cannot produce heat, and does not provide shelter. Gold only makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. We are living in a situation where gold production has no benefits for humanity or nature, but it brings about huge destruction. 

We should demand:

  • An immediate operation by independent institutions to research the effects of the splil in Turkey and all surrounding countries
  • Anagold’s application for field expansion is rejected
  • Çöpler Gold Mine is closed and all its assets nationalised in order to be used for the restoration of the area
  • Cyanide use in mining should banned 
  • Gold mining is stopped everywhere in the world- all the assets and workers of the industry should be redirected to promote a real green transition 

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