Budapest Telegraph

Controversy over cyanide mining technology rages on

Thursday Jul 4, 2013

Bálint Ablonczy | Source: Heti Válasz

Several gold mines employing cyanide technology might open in the region around Hungary. Hungary has been looking at such projects with concern since an environmental disaster on the Tisza River in 2000. Although the European Parliament has passed a resolution on banning cyanide mining technologies in Europe, the European Commission seems to be satisfied with the effectiveness of present environmental directives.

The tiniest gold nugget is much more valuable than the biggest peach yet the residents of the village of Muzhieve (Nagymuzsaly) near Beregove (Beregszász) in Ukraine prefer the fruit. In Ukraine peach can only be grown at and around Muzhieve and in the Crimea. The villagers of Muzhieve are now afraid that a planned project might endanger both their fruit business and their very health. A Ukrainian company is planning to open a gold mine using the cyanide technology on a mountain close to the village. Ever since the Baia Mare (Nagybánya, Romania) cyanide spill in 2000, when the fauna of the Tisza River was all but wiped out we know that natural disasters do not stop at national frontiers. Moreover, establishing several such gold mines using the cyanide technology is contemplated in the Carpathian Basin. The most notorious among them is planned at Roşia Montană (Verespatak) in Romania. The motivation is obvious: although the world market price of gold has been decreasing since the end of last year, it had kept increasing for ten years. Gold is a crucial reserve currency, only preceded in importance by the dollar and the euro, and in a crisis-ridden era it is a secure investment.

A mysterious chemical technology
The dangerous sludge reservoirs that come alongside the use of the cyanide technology horrify the residents of Muzhieve and people in all the localities concerned. Says Erika Jakab, chairperson for Muzhieve of the Cultural Association of Hungarians in Subcarpathia and a councilor in the Beregove district:  “The village is still suffering from the damage done by a former mine. Gold was mined here between 1999 and 2006 – at that time gold was washed with water. The residue of mining was transported across the village by a hundred uncovered trucks daily and the dangerous dust spread all over the village. Vibration has caused creeks on the walls of our houses and laboratory tests done in Germany have proved that our drinking water has become polluted with heavy metals.” Later on that mine then went bankrupt. A referendum was held in the village and 90 percent of the villagers said no to any such project in the future. Since then another company has bought the right of mining and the authorities have already approved extraction with an unspecified “chemical method.” The euphemistic expression has not calmed down the locals. The so-called “chemical method” means cyanide technology. Erika Jakab is concerned because preparatory work has started at the former mine. She says it is not an issue of her village alone: the Hungarian border is at a distance of just 4 km and the Romanian and Slovak borders are not far either.

Even though Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, potentially three EU members are affected by the project, which means the EU should address this problem. However there is no consensus among the EU institutions on how to approach that technology. Although in 2010 the large majority of the Members of the European Parliament voted to ban the cyanide mining technologies (the resolution being proposed by two Hungarian European People’s Party MEPs: László Tőkés and János Áder), the European Commission has not followed it up with concrete measures. The European Commission is confident in the effectiveness of the relevant environmental rules of the EU even though several EU member countries have already banned the use of cyanide.

The painful dilemma is whether or not the directives of the EU can prevent a disaster if the walls of the sludge reservoirs become dysfunctional and poison gets out. Ana Miranda, MEP, Greens, is questions that. She has recently voiced concerns in the European Parliament: a mine to use the cyanide technology in La Coruña in Galicia, Spain, is at a distance of just 140 meters from an area that has “Natura 2000” protection. Hence it follows that the issue does not affect the Carpathian Basin alone. We have asked MEP László Tőkés about the expected steps of the European Commission. “As the European Commission is not responding, we plan to organize a public hearing in the European Parliament this fall. Furthermore, we want to meet environmental commissioner Janez Potoċnik and plan to submit a memorandum to European Commission President Manuel Barroso.” Not long ago Tőkés convened representatives and environmentalists of several localities concerned to coordinate joint action. The interested localities included Muzhieve, Kremnica (Körmöcbánya) in Slovakia and Roşia Montană (Verespatak).

Will Roşia Montană become an example?
It is hardly surprising that Transylvanians are the driving force of this movement. For several years now the Canadian Rosia Montana Gold Corporation (RMGC) has been working hard to launch a gold mine at Roşia Montană in Alba county, Romania, which poses a serious potential danger to that town. The attitude of the Romanian authorities can be described as ambiguous at best. Citing job creation and increased state treasury revenues President Traian Băsescu is supporting the project. However at the end of May Prime Minister Victor Ponta dismissed news that his government had already issued final approval to the mine. The plan of the project gained momentum when late last year in a non-binding local referendum almost 80 percent of the (remaining) residents of Roşia Montană voted in favor of opening the mine.

Soon we might have to learn the name of another village in Romania. Another Canadian company, Eldorado Gold Corporation, wishes to open a gold mine at Certeju de Sus (Felsőcsertés) near the town of Deva (Déva). At that mine 45 million tons of ore would be ground using 1600 tons of sodium cyanide in 16 years to obtain 80 tons of gold. That planned project has attracted less attention than the one at Roşia Montană because the latter is richer in historical buildings and other components of cultural heritage.

“Silent” dynamite
Roşia Montană, a small town in southern Transylvania has attained symbolic importance in the eyes of both the critics and advocates of the cyanide technology. Twice the body of councilors of Kremnica voted against the proposed gold mine – which is just a kilometer off the center of that town – and yet Ortac, a company in British ownership has still not given up. A communications firm called Aston Eco Management is in charge of popularizing the mining of precious metals with the cyanide technology. Aston’s CEO, John Aston worked for RMGC for two years as the vice-president in charge of greenwashing grey cyanide sludge. Those trying to sell the idea of the project proposed for Kremnica are generous in promises. The British firm holds out the possibility of developing “eco tourism” and making extraction “responsible.”

Ĺuboš Kürthy, head of the civil society organization called Kremnica Nad Zlato (Kremnica is worth more than gold) dismisses the advertising campaign of the EUR 750 million project as absurd. “Ortac admits that they plan to use dynamite and cyanide in an area close to the town. But they claim that explosions will be quiet and the extraction technology will not be dangerous,” said Kürthy this weekly. He describes the promises about touristic projects as unrealistic. In 2011 Kremnica was named European capital of biodiversity. Could anyone with a sane mind think that a town can retain touristic appeal in the neighborhood of a pit 450 meters deep and a reservoir filled with cyanide sludge? Thus the future of the peach of Muzhieve and the touristic appeal of Kremnica are doubtful under the shadow of the planned mines.

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