A battle for cultural preservation is taking place in Georgia between activists trying to protect what archeologists contend is the world’s oldest gold mine and a Russian-owned company trying to mine the site with the government’s backing. The conservationists will likely lose, but the real tragedy is that the government is allowing this kind of mining to happen at all.
In the rolling plains of south-west Georgia is a little knoll known as Sakdrisi-Kachagiani. Archeologists believe that people mined for gold here over 5,000 years ago, making it the oldest gold mine in the world. A protected cultural heritage site since 2006, today the 9 hectare tract is surrounded by bulldozers, waiting for the government’s final OK to obliterate it. RMG Gold, the company with the rights to mine 200 square kilometers of surrounding land, can’t afford to trouble itself with cultural heritage. They are a mining company and care only about profits.
The Rich Metals Group (RMG) is one of the largest single tax payers in Georgia and the leading exporter of gold and copper. The total export of gold was $73.3 million in 2013, while copper ore and concentrates exports tripled to $161.6 million, making it one of the main exported commodities in the country. For the cash-strapped government the value of its cultural legacy is the difference between some old, broken clay pots and millions of dollars. But what of the human cost of mining? How far is the government willing to go to protect its environment and the health of its citizens from the dangers of mining?
In addition to producing some of the greatest export commodities in Georgia, mining is also a leading source of the nation’s pollution. RMG’s open pit copper mine, several kilometers from the Sakdrisi site, has been operating since the 1970s. For 40 years, waste water from the mine has been spilling into the Kazretula River, which feeds the region’s irrigation system. A leaked document prepared by the national environmental agency in 2010 found that the copper concentration of the river is 14 times the norm, while zinc is 5 times higher. A 2011 study by Tbilisi State University found the copper pollutant levels in the soil near many villages to be “very high.” Much of this territory is arable land and used for orchards and vinyards.
Residents of Kazreti, the Soviet-era mining town next to RMG’s pit and processing plant complain of a high rate of illnesses and disease, however, it’s difficult to prove a connection between mining operations to these infirmaries since a proper study of health issues by the region has not been done. A Toxic Time Bomb
However, the town is precariously located under a 200 meter tailings dam, which holds a surface area of approximately 1.6 square kilometers of toxic processing left overs – stuff like arsenic, cyanide, mercury and radioactive materials. It is one of the biggest in Eastern Europe. The dam is an upstream construction, a cheap method of keeping contaminants contained in areas of low seismic activity. It is also the most common design to fail in the world.
The tailings dam is located next to a flowing stream. It the dam were to fail, tailings would spill into the river and contaminate the entire downstream region. Even the most advanced country would find containing such a catastrophe near impossible at best. Moreover, the dam is made of tailings material with a high content of of acid generating minerals, like pyrite, which reacts with water and oxygen to generate sulfuric acid, which in turn helps release other metals in the tailings. This means the dam itself can become a source of water pollution. RMG’s environmental manager does not know what kind of drainage system has been constructed to carry the natural flow of water out to ensure the dam does not become saturated. He believes there may be a single pipe. If that’s the only drainage under the dam, southern Georgia should be concerned. Bear in mind that the epicenter of Spitak Earthquake in 1988, which measured 6.8 and claimed the lives of some 25,000 people, is only about 150 kilometers away.
Ad Hoc Protection At Best
In Georgia, the concept of “significant environmental liability” does not exist. Nobody has ever been known to have sued a company for environmental damage and won. There is no law requiring a company to obtain an environmental impact permit to open a mine, although one is needed for processing minerals. However, the ad hoc requirements were designed during Soviet times, when it was not in the state’s best interests to prohibit state owned companies from mining. Legislation after the Rose Revolution in 2003 jeopardized the environment even further, as the government rolled back regulations to encourage investment in the natural resources sector.
In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources lost control over managing Georgia’s natural resources when President Mikheil Saakashvili transferred most of its powers to the energy ministry. The next year, Parliament passed a law that made a license holder free of virtually any ecological responsibility in exchange for paying compensation to the state, and it prevents the state from even challenging a license holder’s intentional emissions of toxic pollutants. In other words, a company can open up shop and legally dump its hazardous waste wherever it wants to for a nominal fee.
“Rather than improve their infrastructure to meet international standards, companies prefer to pay annual fines of 1 to 2 million lari ($570,000 – $1.4 million) and continue to pollute the environment,” says Kakha Bakhtadze, programs manager at Caucasus Environmental NGO Network (CENN).
RMG’s commercial director, Solomon Tsabadze, maintains the company obeys all environmental laws. He should know. Before working for RMG, Tsabadze was an official in the environmental protection ministry.
Local communities like Kazreti are powerless against companies like RMG, who are the major employers of the area. But in February, around 1500 RMG employees went on strike, demanding higher wages and safer working conditions. Dali Mamulashvili, a local union representative complained that workers are not provided with safety equipment or protective clothing from the chemicals they must handle. “We don’t even have a sink to wash our hands in,” she claimed.
RMG said the strike has caused a toxic spill into the Kazretula River, although nobody knows the scale of the accident.
The RMG copper and gold mines are one of three major mining operations in Georgia. The other two are the Chiaturmanganese for ore and the Tkhibuli coal mines – both ecological disaster zones. To solve the environmental problems these three companies cause would take decades, but only after the proper legislation is passed that would force them to comply with the law. By that time, however, it will be too late.
From April 26, 2014 Beacon Reader
*Photo by Merlin https://www.flickr.com/photos/mmj71/410540881/