Are Soviet Uranium Legacies Good Review Lens for Kumtor Gold?

Sadly, Soviet legacies, such as mercury mining and poorly managed uranium tailings, are plentiful in Kyrgyzstan. Some of these may present a real risk in terms of regional and transboundary contamination.

However, recent Kyrgyz commissions remain focused on the Kumtor gold project (originally developed with funding from IFC, EBRD and EDC). This despite the fact that this gold mine appears to be the most heavily scrutinized mining project in the country. It is perhaps also the country’s only operating mine that generates periodically updated and cash-funded mine closure plans.

 

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with several members and experts associated with the ‘Tree of Life Commission’ (and allow me to add my thanks again also here). This commission was mandated by the Kyrgyz Government and established towards the end of 2011 to review the environmental performance of the Kumtor gold mine, a subsidiary of Centerra Gold (owned 1/3 by the Kyrgyz government through state-owned mining company Kyrgyzaltyn). The Commission’s report and Prizma’s assessment of that report can be accessed in this recent blog entry: Assessment of Kyrgyz Commission Review of Kumtor Mine Published.

 

Topics of conversations with the Commission included snow lepard/biodiviersty issues, impacts on glaciers, potential acid rock drainage and mine closure. As discussed in Prizma’s assessment in greater detail, these aspects have been studied and have also been discussed in Kumtor’s detailed Annual Environmental Reports (latest example: Kumtor AER 2011).

 

Kumtor’s latest Conceptual Closure Plan, which is updated periodically, estimates the closure costs at approximately $30 million. The funding accrual by the end of February 2012 was approximately $9 million, with the remaining balance to be funded over the life of mine (mine closure is expected in year 2021).

 

My questions about other examples of mine closure planning and funding in the Kyrgyz Republic to help benchmark Kumtor’s performance also in a local context were met with some smiles and references to Soviet legacies. A web search identified that, according to the United Nations Economic Commision for Europe (UNECE), which published the Second Environmental Performance Review about Kyrgyzstan in 2009 (see here or donwload here: UNECE Second Environmental Performance Review of Kyrgyztsan, 2009- ca. 2 MB):

Only one company in Kyrgyzstan, Kumtor Operating Company, publishes a (voluntary) annual environmental report.

 

Also, I found that Dr. Moldogazieva, who headed the Commission, recently published an academic article about some of these Soviet legacies (Radioactive Tailings in Kyrgyzstan: Challenges and Solutions). Other information and publications I found include this informative PowerPoint on the Disaster Hazard Mitigation Project (funded by World Bank/IDA, the Government of Japan, GEF, EU TACIS, OSCE/IAEA and many others involved in this and related initiatives). This initiative looked at the risks associated with uranium talings, including some located close to Kyrgzy rivers draining to neighbouring countries. It also highlighted the challenges of securing those sites due to geotechnical challenges (and, presumably, scale, limited funding etc). A similar story is also presented in a 2008 (?) Kyrgyz-UNDP publication entitled: Kyrgyzstan’s Uranium Tailings: Local Problem, Regional Consequences, Global Solution” which was presented at the International Disaster and Risk Conference in Davos in 2008 (download PDF here).

 

However, I was not able to find much in terms of mine closure practices in the Kyrgyz Republic for ‘conventional’ and current mining activities. This made me wonder: while some are voicing opinions if and how Kumtor should be nationalized or its agreements be changed, which seems to have triggered some of the recent commissions and inspections, others appear to be looking at Kumtor through the lens of old Soviet uranium and mercury mining legacies.

 

Do you feel that the use of these ‘lenses’ provides a good basis for a rational analysis? And do you feel the outcome of such reviews will help improve the current mining practices in the Kyrgyz Republic?