Central Asia’s Tien Shan mountain range, Chinese for “celestial mountain,” is the site of a heated battle over gold, water and ice. Stretching 1,500 miles along the borders between China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and reaching up to 7,000 meters above the sea, the mountain’s steep peaks host some of Central Asia’s most important glaciers, which are critical sources of water for the region. But Tien Shan is also home to one of the world’s biggest open-pit gold mines, Kumtor, in Kyrgyzstan.
The controversial project is quite literally a gold mine for Kyrgyzstan’s impoverished post-Soviet economy: it accounted for almost 8% of the country’s economic output in 2013. But it also poses major threats to the glaciers, and to the water supply for those who live downstream—not just in Kyrgyzstan, but across the border in neighboring countries. The mine’s major gold deposits happen to lie under several glaciers in the Issyk Kul province, 220 miles southeast of the capital of Bishkek and adjacent to a state wilderness reserve.
Centerra Gold, a Canadian mining company that shares ownership in the mine with the Kyrgyz government, has been operating the mine since 1997. Until recently, Centerra dumped waste rock directly onto a glacier called Davidov, in violation of its environmental permits, as the company admitted in its 2012 environmental and sustainability report. (Dumping ore on ice speeds up glacial melting, already accelerated by climate change.)
Centerra wrote in that report that it has also removed parts of the Davidov, Lysyi and Sarytor glaciers that overlay gold deposits—and plans to continue doing so: it estimates total removal of 147 million tons of ice between 1995 and 2026, the life of mine. (According to Centerra, that is equal to approximately 5 percent of the estimated ice losses for the five Kumtor area glaciers attributable to climate change during the same period.) Without meltwater from the glaciers, the Naryn and Syrdarya rivers that supply water for the region could ultimately run dry in hotter summer months.
Perhaps the most immediate risk, however, is that Lake Petrov, a glacial lake at risk for outburst flooding, sits directly above the mine’s storage pond for waste rock, or “tailings,” which contains toxic cyanide and heavy metals. If that facility were washed out during flooding, it could result in a major catastrophe, according to Isobek Torgojev, a Kyrgyz geophysician studying the risks of the mine. Torgojev spoke to non-profit Bankwatch for a short documentary on the subject. (In its 2012 report, Centerra pledged to take measures to mitigate the risks of an outburst flood.)
Centerra has also been charged with contaminating local rivers with toxic chemicals, by at least one widely cited independent global mining expert—Robert Moran. But two foreign geological research institutes—one German and one Slovenian—hired by the Kyrgyz government to provide evidence of Centerra’s environmental recklessness, claim Centerra’s impact on the health of the rivers is neutral, according to Radio Free Europe.
In September of 2013, protests against Centerra erupted in the Issyk Kul district, with locals demanding better environmental protections and free medical services. Protestors blocked roads and cut power supplies to the mine, and ultimately became violent, taking the governor hostage and threatening to burn him alive in his car, according to Al Jazeera. The Kyrgyz government declared a state of emergency and sent in troops, but in the end it used the incidents to push for a higher stake in the gold mining operation.
The company and the government agreed to a joint venture in which the government would take an equal ownership stake with Centerra, up to half from a third. The agreement called for further audits of the mine’s operations, and for the government to continue pursuing claims against Centerra worth some $471 million for economic and environmental damages. But the Kyrgyz government is now threatening to expropriate the mine unless that stake can be raised to at least two thirds. In a Dec. 1 television interview, Krygyz President Atambayev said that nationalization of the mine would be the only option if a deal with the Canadian company can’t be reached by December, although some investors think nationalization is unlikely.
In April, a new glacier law was passed by the Kyrgyz parliament that would have made it impossible for Kumtor to continue operating, but it required the signature of the president. An online search does not turn up any record of the president having signed it. A change to the water code proposed by the government in June may serve as a work around: it would allow companies that make a significant contribution to the economy to search, explore and exploit deposits in glacier areas. In the meantime, also in June, the government gave the mine the necessary permits for its 2014 mine plan after the company threatened to shut the mine down if it did not receive them.
According to a recent article in the Asia Times, given the risks to regional water supplies, approval of the mine’s operations by the Kyrgyz government may violate a water resources treaty between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. “The signatories committed not to allow any operations in their respective territories that would harm the interests of the other states parties, that would inflict damage on them and lead to the contamination of their water resources,” the authors write.
Mistrust of Centerra has been simmering since 1998, when a company delivery truck carrying over 1.7 tons of sodium cyanide overturned, releasing its contents into the Barskaun River, which flows into Lake Issyk-Kul. Some local and international media organizations claimed the incident poisoned hundreds of people and caused several deaths, but an independent group of experts said there was no major environmental impact. Eventually, around $4 million USD was paid in compensation, though different media outlets report different figures. Bankwatch claims that came to about $25 per person.
William Colgan, a researcher studying glacier-climate interactions at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, discussed some of the challenges of mining deposits that sit under glaciers, including Kumtor, in a recent post on his Glacier Bytes website.