Turkey's search for gold has a massive humanitarian and environmental impact

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

On February 13, a massive landslide that dislodged 10 million cubic meters of earth across a 200-meter slope at the Çöpler Gold Mine in the town of İliç, in Turkey, once again raised questions over the ruling government's lack of oversight over private business operations in the country, including in mining industry. At least nine workers are reportedly still missing at the time of writing this story as a result of the landslide. There is increasing concern among environmental experts that some 1,000 hectares of land in the area were exposed to cyanide and sulfuric acid used at the mine for the extraction.

This won't be the first time the cyanide has leaked at the mine. In 2022, a burst cyanide-carrying pipe leaked “highly poisonous waste into the İliç Dam on the Euphrates River” — western Asia’s longest river stretching over 2,800 kilometers and flowing through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The company acknowledged the leak but refuted claims the leak damaged the river. The company went back to business as usual shortly after.

The Environment Ministry assured that “no contamination” was “detected for now” and that it sealed off a stream running from the pit to the Euphrates.

Environmental experts and engineers disagree. Metallurgical engineer Cemalettin Küçük, who spoke to Deutsche Well (DW) Turkish, said the chemicals in the soil has likely mixed into the Euphrates from beneath the ground, given the weight of the slide and the chemical pollution it causes to the environment in its piled form.

Similarly, in an interview with DW Turkish, Turkish Foundation for Combating Soil Erosion (TEMA) Chairman of the Board of Directors Deniz Ataç said there was no membrane protecting the soil and, therefore, no way to prevent chemicals in the slide from mixing with the soil beneath. “We are looking at an area that is 30–40 meters high, at least 1 kilometer long and not very narrow in width. That cyanide soil is in direct contact with the soil,” said Ataç.

Ilic Nature and Environment Platform, a local environmental group, said despite the Ministry's assurances it has sealed off the river's tributaries, the river is already contaminated. “Don't seal off (the stream), seal off the mine,” said the group.

Meanwhile, as state institutions vowed to investigate the cause of the landslide, the main culprit — the company operating the mine site — has yet to face serious repercussions. So far, it only suspended its work for a few days.

In November 2023, the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) filed a petition with a domestic court in Erzincan, “warning against demolition, sliding, and slipping risks at the mining facilities,” according to Gazete Duvar.  The union filed several other similar petitions in the past.

The union challenged Anagold Mining, the company that has been operating the mine since 2010. It is owned by Denver, Colorado-based SSR Mining and by Turkey-based Calik Holding.

Despite the calls from the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects on the government to close the mine, as of February 19, not all of the company's licenses were still revoked.

According to the main opposition Republic People's Party (CHP) Deputy Chairman Deniz Yavuzyılmaz, responsible for the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, “although [the environmental ministry] cancelled the environmental permit and license of the company, six operating licenses given to Anagold by the Ministry of Energy were not.”

In an interview with Bloomberg, Dersim Gul, secretary-general of the union, said, “We are facing a possible environmental disaster.”

A former Anagold employee who spoke to Deutsche Welle Turkish said what happened at the mine was due  to a lack of control by the state. The former employee also said it was not a landslide. “There is no such thing. It is not soil; it is leaching. In other words, there is ore in it, and it is contaminated with cyanide. At a minimum, two million cubic meters of this toxic soil have been scattered here and there. And half of it is in an uncontrolled area. Currently, there is a 99 percent chance that it will mix with groundwater through rainfall,” explained the former employee.

A traditional method used by gold-mining companies is heap leaching — a process that dissolves the gold and extracts it from its ore with the help of cyanide — a deadly chemical that can harm surrounding flora and fauna in case of a spill.

Keen to expand its mining sector, Turkey has developed a policy of inviting foreign investors and offering them special conditions to develop what it sees as a strategic economic priority. In 2000, the General Directorate of Mineral Research and Exploration (MTA) and the Ministry of Energy started mapping mineral deposits. In 2004, the government also amended the Law on Mines, granting exploration licenses to companies, reducing taxes, and allowing operations in previously protected areas. Finally, in 2010, it began converting exploration licenses into operating licenses.

According to Anagold's website, the company proudly states the mine is “world-class,” operating the mine “safely” while “complying with Turkish and international regulations:”

The safe operation of the mine and facilities is closely monitored by the government and Anagold officers. The operations of Anagold and its contractors have always been in compliance with regulations and continues to be a Turkish business delivering at the highest standard.

In addition to the pipe spill in 2022, the mine was briefly shut down in 2020 following a cyanide leak into the Euphrates River. Then too, it went back to business shortly after paying a fine and completing a cleanup operation.

None of the previous accidents stopped the government from shutting the mine down completely. In a country that has a poor mine safety record, will the third time be a charm?

The culprits

On February 18, police detained Cengiz Demirci, Turkey director and senior vice president of operations at the SSR. Demirci was released the following day. Earlier this week, eight other Çöpler mine employees were detained as part of an ongoing investigation, and six were formally arrested.

Authorities also detained an environmental activist, Sedat Cezayirlioğlu, who has long been advocating against the mine, over his online criticism. “What else did you expect,” asked veteran journalist Özlem Gürses on her YouTube channel. “You were not expecting arrests of the actual culprits responsible for this accident, the ministries approving and handing out the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports, or the officials involved in alleged corruption with the mining company?”

There are bigger fish to hold accountable, said the metallurgical engineer Cemalettin Küçük in an interview with DW Turkish. He was among the experts whose findings in the 2022 report warned of potential slides as well as contaminated soil when the company sought permission to expand capacity; however, they were ignored. The investigators must question the Provincial Directorate of Environment, the Ministry of the Environment, and the former minister Murat Kurum explained Küçük.

Kurum served as the Minister for Environment and Urbanization between 2018 and 2023 and currently is the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) candidate in local elections, running as a candidate for Istanbul's mayoral seat.

The former minister is being criticized for approving the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report during his tenure as the Minister despite expert warnings. Kurum refuted the criticism, saying the Ministry's responsibility is to assess the environmental impact, not the company's expansion, which is beyond its jurisdiction.

There have been no other resignations by state officials.

The country's worst mining disaster took place in 2014, killing more than 300 mine workers. The disaster and domestic and international outcry prompted the AKP to finally ratify the 1995 International Labor Organization's Convention on Mine Safety. However, documents and legal changes are meaningless when they are not implemented and monitored. The incident in İliç is a testament to the latter. As one local non-governmental organization, the Center for Spatial Justice described what happened in İliç not as a “landslide,” but a result of all actors involved, from the decision-making to mining companies and public institutions, acting contrary to scientific facts.

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