Mining Company Shirks Blame for Glacier Damage in Kyrgyzstan

Posted by on Apr 20, 2016

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The most controversial gold mining project in Central Asia is back in the spotlight again this month. Canadian mining company Centerra Gold has re-launched its public relations campaign in Kyrgyzstan to improve the company’s image over the status of glaciers at the Kumtor gold mine, one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines and a flagship project that accounts for 90 percent of company’s profits.

Representative of Kumtor mine explaining glacier retreat as a result of climate change, rather than mining activities (source: Kumtor)

Representative of Kumtor mine explaining glacier retreat as a result of climate change, rather than mining activities (source: Kumtor)

Central Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range is the site of a heated battle over gold, water, and ice, as GlacierHub has previously reported. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, the mountain’s steep peaks are home to some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region.

In an April 12 statement, Centerra’s subsidiary, the Kumtor Gold Company, proclaimed: “Conditions of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan, that influence of operations to glaciers in the Kumtor area is minimal and cannot be compared to the climate change processes.”

Kyrgyz environmentalists responded to Centerra by highlighting the negative impact of mine blasts and excavation of glacier masses at Kumtor that have exacerbated ice melt at the site. Isakbek Torgoyev, director of the Geomechanics and Subsoil Resources Use Institute under the National Academy of Sciences of Kyrgyzstan, said:

The Kyrgyz Republic’s whole water fund is also made of the Petrov and Davidov Glaciers that have been formed over the centuries, and in the past these glaciers have had 700 million cubic meters of ice mass, but now, only 200 million cubic meters are left. The destruction of glaciers has created massive waste mixed with ice, acids and heavy metals which estimated at 2 billion tons. After Canadians depart, melting masses will inevitably end up in Lake Issyk-Kul and the Naryn River. Therefore, this is scary.

And William Colgan, an assistant professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University, Toronto and a geologist with a specialty in climatology, has been studying glaciers and their response to global warming, told The Diplomat magazine in November in 2014:

[While] climate change is undoubtedly the main factor driving glacier retreat across the Tien Shan range, the Lysyi and Davydov glaciers are special cases because they are impacted by the Kumtor mine. These glaciers are not retreating due to accelerated surface melt alone, but also by increased ice removal at their termini. In the case of the land-terminating Lysyi and Davydov Glaciers, this ice removal is a consequence of mining activities, as the ice overburden must be removed to access ore located beneath the glaciers. The perimeter of the Kumtor mine open ice pit appears to have been excavated up glacier at greater than 30 meters per year between 1998 and 2013. Over the same period, nearby land-terminating glaciers appear to have retreated at closer to 10 meters per year. Local mining activities are clearly a larger factor in the recent wastage of the Lysyi and Davydov Glaciers than regional climate change.

Moreover, in his 2015 interview with Radio Canada International, Colgan added that, “Kumtor is not known for sharing information with the public, especially geotechnical information.”

Loading ice recently removed from glacier onto dump truck at Kumtor (source: Kumtor)

Loading ice recently removed from glacier onto dump truck at Kumtor (source: Kumtor)

European environmental non-profit organization CEE Bankwatch, which has extensively monitored Kumtor’s gold mine, has highlighted Centerra’s misconduct. CEE Bankwatch’s latest assessment on the Kumtor mine, after visiting Kyrgyzstan in October 2015, indicated that:

[T]he mine is a prime example of mining’s negative impact on glaciers. First and foremost, twenty years of extraction and fifteen years of dumping waste rock on top of the glaciers have caused an accelerated glacier terminus surge. In other words the glaciers are now advancing into the open pit, which is creating great challenges to the mining operation.

Nonetheless, Centerra’s powerful financial supporter, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), ignored public calls for the bank’s compliance with its commitment to “high standards of transparency, environmental, health and safety conduct” and to “support the development of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in the Kyrgyz Republic.” These stipulations are in line with the EBRD’s 2008 environmental and social policy, which strongly emphasizes “compliance with EU environmental standards,” and promotion of “good practices among the Bank’s clients.” EBRD is seemingly not willing to re-evaluate the bank’s environmental policies toward this mining project. Alistair Clark, EBRD’s managing director for the environment and sustainability, told GlacierHub last year in Tbilisi, Georgia that “maybe glaciers are retreating with nothing to do with mining.”

Dump truck carrying glacier ice away from Kumtor mine (source: Kumtor)

Dump truck carrying glacier ice away from Kumtor mine (source: Kumtor)

Based on the company’s estimate, Kumtor mine will be operational for another ten years. Centerra disagrees with Kyrgyz public intentions regarding modifications to the country’s water code, which would restrict the company’s practice of moving ice. “Should Kumtor be prohibited from moving ice (as a result of the purported application of the Water Code), the entire December 31, 2015 mineral reserves at Kumtor, and Kumtor’s current life of mine plan would be at risk, leading to an early closure of the operation. Centerra believes that any disagreement in relation to the application of the Water Code to Kumtor would be subject to international arbitration under the 2009 agreements governing the Kumtor Project,” the company stated in its 2015 annual report.

It is unclear how recent political developments, after yet another prime minister’s resignation in the Kyrgyzstan earlier this month, will affect Kumtor mine operations. However, the Canadian company does not seem to have reservations about threatening to abandon its cash cow project in Kyrgyzstan amid the latest reshuffle in the country’s government and ongoing political opposition to destruction of glaciers. Kyrgyzstan is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 2017; though the groups that are likely to form the new government seem inclined to support keeping Kumtor mine operations steady, the political winds may shift, and Centerra might once again face strong pressures.

[GH: please note comment below]

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One Comment

  1. Earlier this year we published a study on the impacts of mining on the glacier. We used high-resolution satellite imagery (courtesy of the Digital Globe Foundation) to show the changes to the Davydov Glacier as the mine operations progressed. An animation (quite large) showing these changes can be downloaded at:
    http://bit.ly/240FfEi
    The alteration of the glacier is very obvious to see. Key to note is the burial of a significant portion of the Davydov Glacier as mine waste (rock and excavated ice) is dumped on top of it. This causes a glacier advance at the lower end of the valley, and has now resulted in a buried, dirty glacier. Also to note is that the mine pit gradually expands to involve increasing removal of glacier ice from uphill, and to the side of, the mine pit. At the present day, the mine pit has expanded to the extent that the bottom part of the glacier (now buried) has been completely disconnected from the top part of the glacier.
    It is very clear, therefore, that the glacier has been reduced in size, and that there may be implications for the availability of water resource from this site. This is particularly because in the past, much of the water would have been melted from the lower part of the glacier as it was exposed to the atmosphere. Now that this area of the glacier is buried, summer meltwater production will very likely have been significantly reduced, and will likely remain reduced for a significant period of time.
    The academic paper related to the animation is available for free at:
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2015JF003504/full

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