Two new studies say that Kumtor, Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold mine, as well as a major government revenue source, routinely ignores national environmental legislation and restricts access to independent auditors. The mine’s operations could have a far-reaching, detrimental effect on Central Asia’s water supply, one of the reports suggests.
Kumtor last year accounted for nearly 12 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP and 54 percent of its industrial output, according to preliminary government figures. It has long been a source of concern for local residents in Issyk-Kul Province, who complain of health problems and lowered fish stocks since the mine opened in 1996. Neither the Kumtor Operating Company (KOC) nor the Canada-based company that controls it, Centerra Gold, replied to EurasiaNet.org’s requests for comment. The Kyrgyz government controls one-third of Centerra, which has a 100-percent stake in Kumtor.
An inter-agency government commission issued a report on January 30, recommending Kumtor operations be temporarily suspended because water around the mine routinely exceeds Kyrgyz regulations for maximum allowable concentrations of heavy metals, including arsenic, nickel and manganese. Raising concerns about KOC’s expansion plans, the commission writes that Kumtor has “obviously violated the applicable laws in getting licenses for prospecting and mining and assignment of lands occupied by the protected Sarychat-Eertash Nature Reserve.” The reserve is home to engendered species, such as the snow leopard. Moreover, the report alleges that the Ministry of Natural Resources and KOC obstructed the commission’s work by not providing some requested documents.
The other report, released January 31 by the Prague-based watchdog organization Bankwatch, offers a more dire view of Kumtor’s environmental impact. The report’s chief author, geochemist and hydrologist Dr. Robert Moran, based his findings on water samples obtained by members of the inter-agency government commission, and on his own samples drawn near the mine. Moran was originally supposed to accompany their inspection team, but was ultimately forbidden from joining the mission for reasons, he says, that were never fully explained to him.
According to Moran’s report, Kumtor, which reportedly uses up to 10 tons of cyanide per day in its mining operations, is “releasing numerous chemical constituents into the environment” that are affecting fish populations downstream and the health of local people.
KOC controls the mine “like a private fiefdom, restricting access only to those it largely controls,” Moran writes. Kyrgyz regulators are forbidden from making unannounced audits.
Unsafe storage of chemical tailings in the seismically active area and glacial retreat are major concerns that are being exacerbated by cost-cutting practices, Moran alleged. Waste rock taken off the mine site, millions of tons of it per year, is being stored on top of adjacent glaciers, where it heats up and contributes to melting. “In most of the world, that would be a PR bomb. The dark waste rock is absorbing sunlight and melting glaciers,” Moran told EurasiaNet.org by telephone. Vast parts of Central Asia rely on those glaciers for irrigation and drinking water supplies. Not only are they being tainted by harmful agents, and possibly uranium, the decreasing volume of water could spur regional competition over this precious resource.
The Kyrgyz government’s commercial stake in the mine leads Moran to believe some government officials are not interested in changing the status quo. “Part of the problem is that it’s hard to know who are all the people who actually have a financial interest in ownership of the mine,” Moran said.
Inconsistencies in previously reported data lead Moran to call earlier reports on Kumtor-related pollution “unreliable.”
“Kumtor [operators] have clearly done their very best not to be open,” Moran alleged. “They’re happy to let in people who don’t quite know what they’re going to see. They don’t want people who know what they’re looking at.”