Mining Company Shirks Blame for Glacier Damage in Kyrgyzstan

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]

Science on Trial at Pascua Lama

Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin
Edited NASA image of a Chilean glacier, unnamed. ©Stuart Rankin

Chile’s environmental court ruled on Monday that Pascua Lama, the Andean nation’s most controversial mine, is not responsible for damage done to three glaciers near the mine site.

While the mine’s operations will remain suspended due to a variety of other challenges, the decision was a setback for local environmental groups, who seek to protect the country’s glaciers. Some say it also represents a defeat for Chile’s scientific institutions.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2013, was brought by farming communities in the Alto del Carmen region of northern Chile, who depend on water from the glaciers, together with NGO Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA). Alto del Carmen sits in the Huasco Valley, an oasis at the southern end of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. The suit alleged that dust from Pascua Lama, which straddles the border with Argentina, accelerated melt at glaciers in the area, depleting waters that feed into the El Toro river.

Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360
Alto del Carmen. ©lanube360

In a statement (translated from Spanish), OLCA noted that in its decision, the environmental court ignored scientific documents produced by the state’s own scientists in favor of scientists hired by Canada’s Barrick Gold, the company that operates the mine. Though the court recognized that dust from the mine had settled on the glaciers, it did not accept scientific arguments made in a final state environmental rating resolution on the mine, or RCA, that indicated one millimeter of dust could accelerate melting of the glaciers by as much as 15%. An RCA represents the final outcome of the environmental impact assessment process.

The case seemed to bear out the findings of recent research published in Science and Culture, which suggest that Chilean scientists and scientific institutions have little power in policy debates despite efforts by Chile’s democratic government to build them up over the past decade and a half, post-Pinochet.

“Legally there is this ongoing debate over these resolutions, called RCAs,” said Javiera Barandiaran, assistant professor in global studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of the paper. “How much legal weight do they have vis a vis the law? In the past, there have been challenges, that these resolutions should become the law, the legal standards that the companies are held to. But they say, ‘No, all we’re held to are permits and the country’s laws.’ Because there is no law, it doesn’t matter.”

"PascuaLamaPlanMap" by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
PascuaLamaPlanMap” by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

In mid March, Chilean authorities put forward a proposed framework for a glacier protection law, but it was unclear what specific protections it would offer to glaciers outside Chile’s national parks like the ones affected by Pascua Lama.

Controversy over the Pascua Lama mine is what first put glaciers on the map for Chilean authorities, according to Barandiaran, and launched the debate over the need for laws to protect them.

The Pascua Lama decision inspired a renewed call for strong glacier protection laws from the Chilean branch of global environmental organization Greenpeace.

“If today the environmental court couldn’t credit [the mine] with destruction of the glaciers, having concrete evidence in hand, then we urgently need a law that protects and conserves glaciers,” said Greenpeace Chile director Matias Asun in a statement. He added that Barrick Gold is still charged with glacier damage by Chile’s environmental enforcement agency, the Superintendencia de Medio Ambiente (SMA).

Run by Minera Nevada, the Chilean subsidiary of Canada’s Barrick Gold, Pascua Lama still faces numerous environmental, legal and administrative challenges. Among other things, Barrick is waiting to hear from the SMA about fines that could total over $200 million.

Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar
Atacama desert, Chile, the driest desert in the world. ©Tom Goskar

Barrick said the decision confirmed the findings of its own scientists. “Barrick worked with leading independent experts and glaciologists to develop and implement one of the most rigorous glacier monitoring programs anywhere in the world,” said Eduardo Flores, Barrick’s Executive Director for Chile in a statement, available on the company’s website. “We are pleased that the court has confirmed what the technical and scientific evidence demonstrates, that these ice bodies have not been damaged by activities at the Pascua-Lama project.”

The controversy is far from over, but for now Chile’s political and business elites seem to have the upper hand when it comes to competing claims over scientific truth.