Some of the most fertile lands of Macedonia, surrounding lush forests and freshwater springs, seem destined to be sacrificed as a gold mining company plans to start extracting gold and copper from the top of Ograzhden mountain. While experts and local people warn about possible the toxic threat to local fields and water sources, authorities in the capital Skopje and neighbouring Bulgaria appear unconcerned.
Located in the Southeastern part of the Republic of Macedonia, north of Belasitsa Mountain and only 18 kilometres northeast of the more densely populated city of Strumitsa, Ograzhden sits nestled on the border between Bulgaria and Macedonia, its highest peak reaching 1,744 m. With the Jazga and Shtuka rivers flowing down the mountain straight into fertile agriculture lands, this pristine area was once designated to be part of the Balkan Green Belt, part of a global effort for joint cross-border activities in nature conservation and sustainable development. Many locals find it hard to believe that it will soon become an open-pit gold mine.
But this is the intention of Euromax Resources, the gold mining company that obtained approval for an exploitation concession for its Ilovitsa- Shtuka gold and copper mining project back in 2012. According to their official web site, Euromax Resources Ltd is a public limited company incorporated in British Columbia, Canada. The company’s major shareholders are the EBRD with 19.9 %, Richard Griffiths- 19.1%, Richmond Capital- 11.7% and Investec Bank- 7.9%. Ilovitsa- Shtuka gold and copper mine is Euromax Resources flagship project that will, as stated in their strategy, make the company the leading gold and base metal mining company in Europe.
A draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) submitted to the Macedonian Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning in April is now in the stage of public consultation with the local population. However the future mine already appears to be a done deal, at least according to Dragi Peltecheski, the in-country project manager of Euromax Resources. According to a presentation that he delivered June 23, the construction of the mine is scheduled to begin by the end of 2016, and ore exploitation should begin as soon as 2018.
The open-pit mine and project facilities will span across about 1,500 hectares on Ograzhden mountain within the municipalities of Bosilovo and Novo Selo. The closest settlements to the site are the villages of Ilovitsa and Shtuka, both in Bosilovo municipality, which has 14,260 inhabitants according to a 2002 census. Most of the residents live off the land, producing various fruits and vegetables and raising cattle. This is in line with the majority of the population in this region, who make their living by raising crops in the very fertile Strumicа Field – a main agricultural center in the Republic of Macedonia with 8130 hectares of agricultural land.
The investors promise that there will be neither allocation residents, nor dust pollution effects such as acidification of the soil. And the intensity of the noise is compared to the noise of a normal truck, said Freddy Brookes of Golder Associates, the company who assessed the project’s impact on the environment.
Euromax Resources in fact claims that the project will have a positive impact on local people and the economy of the region by creating employment opportunities for locals. The Ilovitsa- Shtuka gold and copper mine Project will employ 720 people during construction and 470 people once work begins, most of them locals, according to Peltecheski.
But environmentalists raise concerns over the region’s developed and rich hydrographic network, which features many freshwater springs and rivers intertwining through the area. The Ilovitsa- Shtuka gold and copper mine will use the water from an Ilovitsa reservoir, and the rivers Jezga and Shtuka are to supply the amounts needed for the mining operations. The water of these two rivers will be most affected by the gold mine, as is flows down the mountain of Ograzhden into the river Strumica, through the same-named city, merges with the Struma across Bulgaria and finally reaches the Aegean Sea through Greece. Jezga is the main source of drinking water and irrigation for the crops in the villages of the Bosilovo municipaltiy, and the Ilovitsa reservoir is the main water source for crops across the Strumica field.
Ilovitsa- Shtuka gold and copper mine will be constructed at the upper river basin of both rivers. And four kilometers of the natural river bed of the river Shtuka will be relocated to make space for a tailings dam.
It’s the tailings dam that has most of the locals concerned, because if it overflows all of the toxic waste from the gold mine will go directly into their drinking and irrigation water and endanger the main source of income in the region: agriculture. “In 1935 there was heavy rainfall in this region, and the Shtuka river spilled from its river bed. If there is such severe rain while the gold mine is operational, all the damns you build they will spill over straight into Strumica Field. Who will clean that?”, said Ilija Malinov, an elderly resident of Shtuka.
Schlumberger Water Services is the company which performed the studies for the Ilovitsa- Shtuka project. Its senior project manager, hydrologist Peter Bour, reassured parties that the tailing dam was designed by University of Skopje experts and reviewed internationally. He expressed confidence in the stability of the dam, whch will feature an impermeable layer as well. An assessment of precipitation in the region over the next years, conducted by the UK’s Meteorologica Office, proved that excessive flood and rain are likely happen once in a hunderd years, but a flood detention facility was planned below the tailing dam “just in case”, Bour explained.
Unfortunately, gold mining disasters involving dam failures that result in cyanide leaking into the environment along with inappropriate toxic waste discharge seem to happen quite often. In fact, according to the UNEP, there have been over 221 major tailings dam failures throughout the world. No Dirty Gold, an international campaign working to ensure that gold mining operations respect human rights and the environment, claims that toxic mine waste has as many as three dozen dangerous chemicals including arsenic, lead, mercury, petroleum byproducts, acids and cyanide.
Bour explained that although arsenic is one of the concerns on this project, the simple act of mining would cause a leak of arsenic only a bit more than that normally found in nature. He stated that the levels of arsenic are low and of no concern to locals. “There will be a small risk of groundwater contamination, and mitigation measures are in place, if this happens”, Bour concluded.
The mining plans put precious wild nature at risk as well. To the north of Ograzhden is Belasitsa Mountain, declared a Nature park on the Bulgarian side with Natura 2000 zones in both Bulgaria and Greece and an IUCN category V protected landscape. This region is proven to have globally significant biodiversity. Belasitsa is very wth its water regime and geomorphological characteristics. Many of the streams cut the mountain in peaks to the foothills and narrow steep gorges, where streams make waterfalls, as explained in the Valorization study for the natural values of Belasitsa Mountain by OIKOS Development Consulting Ltd. Slovenia and funded with the support of UNDP programe in Macedonia.
A regional coincidence
Ilovitsa- Shtuka gold and copper mine project’s consequences will also be felt in neighboring Bulgaria and Greece as part of Ograzhden lies on Bulgarian territory, while Belasitsa is shared between the three countries. And yet, Macedonia did not consult these countries regarding the mine despite the fact that they could be affected. “The Bulgarian ministry of environment has not been consulted because the results from the Strategic environmental impact assessment did not show any possible transboundary influences that would happen as a result of construction, operation and closing activities of the the project”, wrote Aleksandar Petkovski from the Macedonian ministry of environment.
But Boyan Rashev of denkstatt Bulgaria thinks differently. The size of the tailings dam will be huge, and the project lies just above the best agricultural land of Macedonia, warned the expert who participated in the preliminary viability assesment of the Ilovitsa mine before the concession was given to Euromax Resources back in 2012. “I don’t know how this project went through the ministry of environment in Bulgaria- it’s a typical project that has to go through the transboundary directive assessment”, Rashev told journalists and activists from Macedonia in Bulgaria in June 2016. Based on his experience as scientific advisor to many other mining projects in the region, Rashev stated that such a project would never happen in Bulgaria.
One month after the first public consultation for Ilovitsa- Shtuka gold mine, Valandovo municipality announced plans for a new copper mine just 23 kilometers from Ilovitsa project. Valandovo is one of the biggest producers of mediterranean fruits in the country.
“In a time when agriculture is all we have left, we are opening a new mine on top of one of the biggest producers of food in the Republic of Macedonia in the Strumitsa region and also in one of the cleanest regions in the country – Valandovo. This is a luxury for Macedonia and a big blow for agriculture, and without even thinking, as an expert in agriculture I can say that after the period of exploitation we’ll be left with a desert.
As an expert in agriculture, I am not against the exploitation of certain treasures Macedonia has, but we need to prioritize and keep these fertile agriculural lands that were and still remain a main supply of food for us and future generations”, says dr. Risto Vuchkov, expert in agriculture sciences at OZON Strumica.
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