Experts warn of severe cyanide exposure to Euphrates as mine located in water basin

After the landslide of cyanide-laden materials at the Çöpler Gold Mine in Turkey’s eastern Erzincan province, experts warned that the mine, situated in a water basin linked to the Euphrates River spanning six countries, could lead to significant water contamination.

Kadir Cesur / Gazete Duvar

Following the landslide at the Çöpler Gold Mine in the İliç district of eastern Erzincan province, the risk of cyanide and other chemicals entering the Euphrates River and groundwater has been causing serious concern.

The Euphrates, originating in Turkey, flows through Syria and Iraq before reaching the Persian Gulf. It spans about 2,780 kilometers and covers a drainage area of 440,000 square kilometers across six countries.

The mining area in the Çöpler region is located near the Euphrates River. The map is taken from Google Earth, dated June 2021.

Gazete Duvar interviewed experts on the proximity of the mine site to the Euphrates River, the possibility of chemical wastes entering the river or groundwater.

Lawyer İsmail Hakkı Atal stated that the toxic waste pool in İliç was located 300 meters as the crow flies from the Euphrates River and approximately 800 meters on land. 

Lawyer İsmail Hakkı Atal

Atal mentioned the regulation should have been applied, "Article 13 of the Regulation on the Protection of Drinking and Potable Water Basins sets out the general protection principles for streams and rivers. The regulation clearly states that these (toxic materials) should not be brought closer than 2,000 meters in any way, yet the mine is right next to the Euphrates River."

Prof. Mustafa Kumral, Dean of the Mining Faculty at Istanbul Technical University (İTU), on the other hand, emphasized that being about two kilometers away from the Euphrates River, the mine site could not be considered "close" to it.

Istanbul Technical University (İTU) Mining Faculty Dean Mustafa Kumral

Kumral noted, "Mining sites are allowed to be built at certain distances under certain conditions according to the Mining Law. The site in question is actually not very close and we should not make such a connection between the two."

Ten academics from İTÜ came to İliç district after the landslide in the mine to make investigation and analyze proper containment measurements against cyanide exposure.

Kumral stated that there has been a possibility of cyanide mixing into the water if proper measures were not taken and added, "We are here to take these measures. Many ministers and deputy ministers are here along with the the State Hydraulic Works (DSİ) and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD).”

Kumral mentioned that ongoing assessments have being conducted in the mining site, emphasizing the need to await finalized findings before any action could be taken. He underlined that that new land movements may occur and said, "DSİ has built a bent in front of the sliding soil. As the most urgent measure, they are trying to prevent the water in the site from reaching the Euphrates River and further downstream."

The professor noted that there may not be enough cyanide to mix with the Euphrates, "This is not a material that comes directly from cyanide pool. It is waste soil that has been washed with cyanide and the gold in it has been removed, hence; there is a minimum level of cyanide in it. Therefore, I hope that it will not be mixed with water with the measures to be taken."

Contrary to Kumral, Cemalettin Küçük, a senior metallurgical engineer, said, "The mine site is not close to the Euphrates River because it is exactly inside it.” 

Senior Metallurgical Engineer Cemalettin Küçük

He stated that the tributaries of the rivers in the mine site reach the Euphrates River, "The Sabırlı Stream, the other branch coming from Yakuplu, and the branches descending from the slopes of other mountains are all part of the Euphrates.”

Küçük warned that cyanide was not the only chemical in the mine site, but there were also many heavy metals. "We said this place would slide, it did. What we are saying today will be realized in the future as well. All heavy metals, including cyanide, will descend from the permeable layer of the ground in the valley and mix into Karasu and the Euphrates," he warned.

The senior engineer stated that the area where the mine was located has been a water basin. He stated that in the landslide that took place in the area, some of the soil went down to the nearby stream bed and some of it went to the mine pit which might contaminated the groundwater.

“After a few years or a short period of time, we may see poisoning from local water sources or red sludge we observe in the mining site in nearby spring water. Just as I said in 2013 that this place would slide, I am now saying that there is a possibility that this red colored muddy water (in the mining site) can be seen in nearby water sources. This is a great disaster that will last for tens, hundreds, thousands of years,” Küçük underscored.

Ayhan Yüksel, Chair of the Chamber of Mining Engineers, also said that the Çöpler Gold Mine was located close to the Euphrates and noted that relevant regulations have been often amended according to the special circumstances of companies.

Chamber of Mining Engineers Chair Ayhan Yüksel, 

Yüksel underscored that the most important reason for the foreign companies to invest in Turkey in recent years has been the special incentives, discounts and tax amnesties provided to them. “Could these companies, which claim to carry out mining activities in accordance with international standards and mining techniques, have carried out such mining activities in their own countries under these conditions,” Yüksel asked.

Anagold Mining, 80 percent owned by the Canadian SSR Mining and 20 percent by the Çalık Group close to the Turkish government, has been operating in the mine since 2009.

Yüksel emphasized that the concentration of cyanide was the most crucial factor affecting its impact on natural resources, highlighting that higher concentrations pose greater risks.

“In addition, the flow rate of the water it mixes with is also very important as the concentration in high flow rivers is different from the concentration in stagnant water. However, we know that cyanide is a toxic chemical and every chemical that is not taken naturally is harmful to nature."

After the landslide disaster, Turkish Environment Ministry on Feb. 14 said they have detected no pollution in the Euphrates River so far. Anagold Mining Company, owner of the gold mine, also claimed that there was no contamination in the region and no cyanide flow into the river.