For years, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has been involved in the Kumtor mining project, which some experts say is contaminating ground and surface waters. Kyrgyz local communities have been complaining that the gold mine is causing negative environmental and social impacts on the nearby villages. Additionally, international NGOs and Kyrgyz environmentalists believe that the Canadian-operated Centerra Gold mine is triggering rapid glacier melt due to company’s mining practices. The EBRD has denied these claims.
In May 2014, I was invited to the EBRD Annual Meeting in Tbilisi, Georgia where I met and interviewed Alistair Clark (EBRD’s Managing Director Environment and Sustainability Department), Michaela Bergman (EBRD’s Chief Counselor for Social Issues Environment and Sustainability Department), and Dariusz Prasek (Director, Project Appraisal Environment Department).
Here is an excerpt of the interview:
Ryskeldi Satke: on EBRD audits of the Kumtor mine. It looks like drinking water is the main concern here and it was one of the demands in the villages and this problem was raised during protests as well. My understanding is that EBRD has done due diligence on the impact. Why then there is an issue with the drinking water, still?
Alistair Clark: There shouldn’t be an issue with the drinking water. For instance, there are monitoring results for water discharge from the mining site available to the public, I believe.
Ryskeldi Satke: CEE Bankwatch did an investigation into the mine in 2011 and they were trying to get hydrogeologist Robert Moran onto Kumtor premises but Centerra refused to grant access to Mr. Moran for water quality testing. Moran took samples down the local river stream from the mining project and said that “something is in this water that has been added from the mining activity”.
Dariusz Prasek: We followed up on that and 50 samples of water were taken near the Kumtor mine. None of these 50 samples confirmed Mr. Moran’s findings. ERM firm was the consultant. I don’t have all the data in front of me and ERM work never confirmed Moran’s findings. These findings were ungrounded. Something that Mr. Moran took for sampling was never confirmed by the independent consultant.
Alistair Clark: We are basing and we took that science in terms of results, you raised that issue. And we’ve got information that doesn’t confirm Mr. Moran’s findings. So, we are not trying to discredit it and we have body of data that actually says that water is ok for water supply. We can’t comment on why people are protesting. Last time, there was an annual meeting few years ago and issues of Centerra Gold came up. We took claims that were made by Bankwatch and others. We took it very seriously and dispatched two-three people to the mine site to have independent audits done. These claims were not found to be there, company’s practice was in compliance with international best practice and policy. And also, according to requirements that we put onto the project as part of EBRD financing. So when we have information from colleagues like yourself, we’ll look at that data, we’ll look at that information and we would triangulate. We can’t really do much more to stage until we see body of evidence.
Ryskeldi Satke: I was recently in Mongolia and we have similar reports from the local people near the Gatsuurt mining project about the drinking water again. What are the odds of having complaints from the local communities in both Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia about the drinking water?
Michaela Bergman: I think people can express concerns and it can also be about perceptions. I think we have to understand what these concerns are. We have worked on projects where the data is within whatever acceptable limits and people still don’t accept it as safe. We have to understand exactly what the issue is. Have they’ve got a proof of them being sick or they don’t like the smell of the water. It could be a lot of reasons, in our experience.
Ryskeldi Satke: Was there any comprehensive medical research into long-term health effects in the areas which have generated numerous complaints about the drinking water?
Alistair Clark: There was a medical study in 1998 after spill
Ryskeldi Satke: Was there any study done in recent years?
Alistair Clark: I don’t know about now. But there was a study of the impact of that spill and we were dealing with cyanide with half life of days which got down quickly to low concentrations. Company provided clean drinking water. There have been number of claims about injuries and medical conditions associated with that and I understand that the medical reports from the Kyrgyz Republic that most of those reports were not associated with the spill.
Darius Prasek: What we monitor is actually in compliance with the standards of the project we finance and we have our own annual visits to the company, we review all standards on annual basis. So we are happy that the company is meeting standards. We didn’t launch any health assessment of the local populace.
Ryskeldi Satke: You referred to the independent consultants hired by Centerra Gold.
Dariusz Prasek: Paid by Centerra Gold but hired in agreement with EBRD in terms and references preferred by the bank.
Ryskeldi Satke: Prizma LLC. is one of them which went as far as stating that Kumtor mine glaciers are melting primarily due to climate change. And I have contacted PhD William Colgan glaciologist with Geological Survey of Greenland and Denmark (GEUS) to clarify Prizma’s claim on effect of the global warming on Kumtor glaciers and according to Colgan’s expertise, climate change is not the only reason, although it is undeniable that climate change is effecting glaciers globally. Kumtor case is very specific, the GEUS researcher says “local mining activities are clearly a larger factor in the recent wastage of the Lysyi and Davydov glaciers than regional climate change”. William Colgan’s finding was also demonstrated on satellite imagery pulled from archives from 1977 to 2014.
Alistair Clark: If you look at the number of glaciers around the world and see how many are retreating, the vast majority are indeed retreating. Prizma was looking at specific issues. We have our own experts in climate change team, many geologists. So this issue of melting is of concern and for instance, Centerra Gold had a habit of putting waste rock on one of the glaciers at Kumtor and EBRD has stopped such practice. We did that. Now, what’s the consequence of saying that glaciers are melting. is it due to mining activity? Maybe glaciers are retreating with nothing to do with mining, if you take rock off the ground and putting the waste rock on the glacier which is also slowly moving, I think that’s an argument to say that one affecting the other. But if there’s no rock placed on the glacier which still retreating, well, it’s not gonna be due to the mining activity. It will be due to long-term geological issue.
Ryskeldi Satke: Given the subject of melting, that is the reason for growing in size of the Petrov lake. And people have been raising the issue of outburst at Petrov lake which may wash away the cyanide tailing pond and contaminate the Kumtor river which is a tributary to Syr Darya river. You might heard of the dam spill disaster at Mount Polley mine in Canada, last year. Conditions are somewhat similar between the Kumtor and Mount Polley sites, both with over 50 million tons of waste chemical material. Is there any plan in place that would safeguard the area from disaster scenario similar to Mount Polley spill?
Alistair Clark: Yes, they are putting in an engineering design. That aspect is monitored by the company, I think they have done land forming to channel any sudden breaks. So they have been engineering that issue out.
Dariusz Prasek: And they have been assessing the worst case scenario. In terms of what would have really happened. The modelling showed that it’s even with the outburst falling into the tailing pond and the contamination would not be significant. They did modelling but they are not ignoring the issue but implementing measures to prevent it from happening.