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Bulgarians Protest Use of Cyanide Leaching

Michael Werbowski, Prague, Czech Republic, February 5, 2006

Map of Bulgaria. (Source: C.I.A. World Factbook)

The cyanide "leakage" that killed tons of fish in the Czech river Labe (Elbe) recently has re-focused public attention throughout central and Eastern Europe to the environmental and human dangers associated with this toxic chemical, especially when it spills into a nearby river or tributary. The Czech ecological calamity has heightened fears in the region of similar "accidents" involving cyanide re-occurring. For instance, in the future European Union member state of Bulgaria, citizens and environmental organizations are mobilizing protests against the surreptitious plans of a foreign mining company to introduce the cyanide leaching process into the country's gold extraction industry. Apparently unfazed by the Union's recent tightening up of legislation* related to the management and safe disposal of mining waste known as "tailings," which also often contain cyanide, the Canadian firm Dundee Precious Metals and its Bulgarian branch, Chelopech Mining, are planning nevertheless to proceed with the expansion of the Chelopech gold and copper mine. Nongovernmental organizations suspect the company may be attempting to introduce cyanide leaching into the gold mining processing in a less than transparent manner by not specifically mentioning the chemical in their E.I.A. (Environmental Impact Assessment) report. As well, locals are concerned their water supply might be contaminated further downstream if an accident happens and are also upset that the planned mine expansion is being carried out without the proper consultations by the company.

Despite the controversy surrounding the project the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (E.B.R.D.) has already allocated $10 million to assist in the financing of the mine's projected expansion. Yet environmentalists and N.G.O.s in the region such as the CEE Bankwatch Network, which monitors the activities of international financial institutions, are questioning why the European taxpayer is footing the bill for a gold mine that seemingly lacks public support in the region. When the news that Chelopech Mining planned to use cyanides emerged at the end of last year, it provoked alarm among local people and N.G.O.s and cast doubts about the E.B.R.D.'s justification for its involvement in the project. The mine expansion has also drawn attention and even tested the Bulgarian government's commitment to meet the Union's rigorous environmental laws and standards in addition to the stringent democratic credentials it must earn, known as "the Copenhagen criteria," in order to join the Union. The likely target date for Bulgarian and Romanian accession into the Union is 2007.

So far, Bulgarian N.G.O.s assert that the company's recent public information and consultation process was limited to the villages in the immediate environs of the mine, with the cities downstream of the Maritsa River overlooked or left out of the loop entirely. The future of the mine project is in the hands of the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Waters.

Konstantin Ditchev of Green Balkans, a local organization in the city of Plovdiv, said: "More than a million people in Bulgaria rely on Maritsa water for drinking and irrigation. If a cyanide spill took place at Chelopech, the Topolnitza water reservoir is the only barrier before the pollution would reach the regions of Pazardjik, Plovdiv and Haskovo, and other populated areas. The same reservoir overflowed this summer and threatened to flood Plovdiv, the second city of Bulgaria. Chelopech Mining needs to sort out its emergency action plans and present them to the public and to the responsible institutions before any permit is granted."

Fidanka Bacheva, an activist with Za Zemiata/CEE Bankwatch Network, added: "Amazingly the E.B.R.D. considers this to have been an 'extensive public consultation' yet it is hiding behind the commas of Bulgarian law. It's disgraceful that the E.B.R.D. tried to paint this investment as an environmentally positive one by studiously avoiding the mention of cyanides in its project documentation for Chelopech."

In a related mining development, Dundee Precious Metals is also seeking a loan from the E.B.R.D. to develop an open-pit gold mine near Krumovgrad in the East Rhodopi Mountains, an area in Bulgaria known for its unique landscape. The project, which is expected to cost 50 million euros, recently received a "silent denial" from the Ministry of Environment and Water due to strong public opposition.

*The European Parliament recently approved a strict new environmental directive covering the licensing, operation and after-care of mining waste. The directive applies to mining in Bulgaria.

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