Calm Before the Storm
Vlasina, a pristine area in southeastern Serbia featuring a beautiful lake on the Jerma river, appears undisturbed by any possible transborder pollution from nearby Bulgaria. But while Serbian authorities appear compliant, local people in the Bulgarian town of Tran are increasingly concerned by the prospect of silver and gold excavation intended some dozen of miles from their homes.
The Jerma originates from the Vlasina Plateau in the vicinity of Vlasina Lake in Surdulica Municipality. It then flows across the border into Bulgaria for the first time near the village of Strezimirovci. After flowing 26 kilometres through Bulgarian territory, where it is known as Erma, the river crosses the border back into Serbia and empties into the Nišava River.
The area within Bulgaria is part of the EU’s Natura 2000 network and gets special protection under European legislation. But it has also been known for ages to be rich in gold, silver and other precious metals. This has led the company Euromax Exploration Services Ltd. (EES) to apply for permission to mine the area. Its plans involve eight mines, three of which will be open-pit while the remaining five will be underground. The mines will be accompanied by two tailings ponds and an ore concentration plant.
The owner of the project, EES, was formerly a Canadian company and was acquired by Bulgaria’s Assarel Medet holding, registered in Malta. It plans to extract 750,000 tons of gold and silver ore from the mountain over 26 years. A 320-hectare tailings pond will be lined to prevent chemicals contaminating the water supply, said Elitsa Georgieva, community relations officer for EES. She presented a company report, according to which all chemicals to be used in the ore extraction process are not dangerous. There is no reason to fear, Georgieva concluded with a smile.
In spite of the investor’s assurances that all will be safe and clean, independent experts and campaigners in Bulgaria have warned that the open-pit mining in Erul, a Bulgarian village located in the Pernik area less than a kilometre from the Serbia-Bulgaria border, will be a source of contamination for the Jerma River and will harm the pristine wildlife that surrounds it. Dimitur Vassilev, a biologist and active member of Bulgaria’s Cyanide-free civic coalition, pointed out that while some of the chemicals to be used for processing the ore are marked in the company’s report with their proper symbols, the rest are only marked with codes or trade names. “One should wonder if the company might be concealing the actual compounds to be used”, Vassilev commented.
In 2013 Bulgaria’s Executive Environment Agency halted the mine investment project and demanded a review by Water Management Directorate experts. Their assessment claimed that this mining project will utterly and irreversibly destroy all surface water and subterranean rivers in the region, especially the Jerma and the Jablanica, two rivers that cross the Serbian-Bulgarian border.
Borislav Sandov, a co-chair for the Balkan Greens Network, warned of possible transborder polluton as well. “Gold and silver mines pollute not only the rivers we see but also subterranean flows”, Sandov explained. Possible water pollution would deeply affect the river wildlife and the wider biological community throughout the Vlasina region, a landscape of exceptional features protected by Serbia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection and the country’s Institute for Nature Conservation. The Jerma area wthin Serbia is a nature reserve and home to many protected species such as stone crayfish, brown trout, gudgeon, European chub and brabus.
Currently, the opening of the mine is in the conciliation phase as Bulgarian law requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to giving the exploitation permit. Bulgaria dutifully kept its obligations under the EIA Convention from Espoo and announced the plans to open the mine to neighbouring Serbia. Already on July 6, 2015 Serbia’s minister of environment Snežana Bogosavljević Bošković notified her Bulgarian counterpart Ivelina Vasileva that Serbia will not take part in the assessment process. The only thing Serbia expects according to its reply is that the final decision about the project will take the present Jerma monitoring agreement into consideration.
But the proximity of the future mine remains a troubling fact to the local population across the Serbian border. Responding to BlueLink.info‘s inquiry, the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment Protection of Serbia confirmed that the Jerma could be polluted in case of an accident since its tributaries flow in the vicinity of the planned mine, and the river then crosses the border back into Serbia.
“Only in case of an accident can we talk about possible damage to ecology anywhere, the area of Vlasina included”, Bošković commented. She then added that “pollution is not expected in the boarding area if the mine is built and works according to the plans”. According to her, the plans include environmental protection measures for all stakeholders and facilities: the project owner, the mine, ore concentrator and tailing ponds. Bošković signed a document explaining that there will be no noise pollution or negative effects due to mining dust because “this is a highland area, with forest vegetation as a natural barrier”. The offician document signed states: “The prevailing wind in this area is west and north-west, which means it doesn’t blow towards the Serbia-Bulgaria border (…) According to the plan, the water will be collected and reused in the industrial process, which means that waste water will not go into rivers and subterranean rivers at any given stage”.
Bošković also pointed out that a possible earthquake in Bulgaria’s Pernik area in the coming 50 years could reach as high as 7 on Richter’s scale. An earthquake of this magnitude would certainly damage the tailing ponds and the Jerma tributaries, and thus the Jerma and the Nisava would be heavily polluted.
Transborder environmental issues in the area have a long history. The first gold mining feasibility studies in Tran’s area were conducted in 1939, and the first gold mine, Zlata, operated in the 1970s. Viktor Shishkov, 76, former head technologist in the old mine remembers that mining waste water has been a stumbling block between Serbia and Bulgaria that could not be resolved. The Jerma and Nisava rivers were polluted back then, Shishkov confirms. Furthermore, miners’ health suffered as they contracted silicosis – a disease typically caused by mining dust. “I don’t know what the new project plans, but if it is going to be an open-pit mine, I am against it”, Shishkov declared.
Boyan Rashev, the manager of Denkstatt Bulgaria, a company evaluating the environmental impact of the mine and conciliating it with Bulgarian legislature, states that the project owner is fully certified for opening the mine. Talking to journalists and activists opposing the mine in June 2016, Rashev acknowledged that “there is no such a thing as a perfect mine-opening project”. “Each brings its own enviroment and health issues”, Rashev said. Rumiana Boyanova, who leads the local movement opposing the mine is convinced that the government’s agencies reversed their decisions since 2015 under lobbyist pressure. The explanation received for the change was that the project owner had made certain changes in their production techniques.
According to Sandov a greater danger lies in extensive gold cyanidation as this technique for extracting gold from low-grade ore is deemed highly contraversional in many countries. But re-assured that no cyanidation will be used. This technology is optimal for bleaching gold, but will not be used near Tran because it would cause too strong civic opposition in Bulgaria, Rashev explained.
Sandov also pointed out another source of concern: the ores in the area contain uranium deposits. “This is exceedingly dangerous, because the explosion will produce radioactive dust, which, carried by the wind, is unstoppable and makes protecting the surrounding environment impossible”. Rashev has stated that the concentration of uranium is not high but also admitted to not having access to any precise data on the matter.
On the other side of the border, local politicians in Serbia appear either unaware or unconcerned about the gold mining project that is set to happen so close to their municipalities. A public notice that was posted on the web site of Serbia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Environment Protection to solicit public opinion on the mine received no comments within the specified deadline. And municipalities we contacted to provide comments for this article had nothing to say either.
Pollution – not easy to overcome in Serbia
Commenting on the threat, Žaklina Živković, activist and coordinator for Balkan Greens Network compared environmental protection in Serbia to a “bone in the throat of every government”. Damaging of valuable arable land, industrial and urban wastewater pollution are common in the region, Živković said. The problems with pollution will not be easy to overcome, she thinks, because of the persistent lack of funding in municipal budgets and lack of sufficient national funds for investments in sewerage network rehabilitation, construction of waste water treatment planys and modern landfills”, Živković warned.
In December 2015, Serbia adopted a new legislative package for mining and geological research. While the new law has been praised by the EU, it leaves local governments out of decision making on mining permits which are up to the central government to approve or deny.
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