Landslide at gold mine traps workers, exposes cyanide in eastern Turkey

A landslide at the Çöpler gold mine in Turkey’s eastern Erzincan province has trapped at least nine workers. Rescue operations continue in the region as experts warn that cyanide and sulfuric acid used in the mine have spread over a 1000-hectare area. 

Duvar English

A landslide on Feb. 13 hit the cyanide and sulfuric acid towers at the Çöpler gold mine in Turkey’s eastern Erzincan province, trapping at least nine workers. One trapped worker made it out himself, as rescue operations continued.

The landslide was caught on security cameras.

Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) diverted rescue teams of 400 people from surrounding provinces to the site, stated Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya. Justice Minister Yılmaz Tunç stated that four republic prosecutors were assigned to the case to investigate malpractice at the mine. 

A statement by the Environment Ministry said floodgates were closed to prevent the leaked chemicals from reaching the Euphrates River.

According to most recent reports, the landslide occurred due to operations involving earth extractions in the gold mine. 

Polat Şaroğlu, the former main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy from the neighboring Dersim, warned that the disaster would impact the nearby provinces. 

The deputy stated that they have warned against the problems of the cyanide pools numerous times. A cyanide pool the size of 200 football fields, the vapor would impact the environment, farming, and husbandry in the neighboring provinces even without an accident. 

“We even brought the issue to the Turkish parliament, but no one cared,” he said. 

The controversial mine operated by Canadian Anagold Mining has been producing gold via chemical leaching since 2010 in the province. Villagers, environmental advocates, and engineers have repeatedly warned against the environmental dangers of the mine. 

Some experts said such an accident in the mine was long overdue, as they have been constantly warning against the malpractices and lack of precautions in the premises. 

Attorneys from The Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects (TMMOB) filed a petition to an Erzincan court in November 2023, months before the accident, warning against “demolition, sliding, and slipping risks” in the mining facilities. 

The petition was one of many filed by the TMMOB, which had been fighting for a reevaluation of the gold mine’s environmental risks. In its statement about the accident, “We kept saying disaster was coming… And it came today,” the union deplored.

Attorney Serdar Doğan said operator Anagold Mining had ignored the numerous lawsuits they have launched against the mine site. “This accident was inevitable, as smaller accidents occurred on-site constantly. They need to shut it down, they are dancing with death here,” he stated. 

Previous incidents had brought the mine and the Anagold company to the spotlight. A news report revealed that the Turkish government erased the company’s tax debt of over 209 million liras. 

In June 2022, a cyanide-carrying pipe burst in the mine, leaking the highly poisonous waste into the İliç Dam on the Euphrates River. Anagold Mining’s Turkey operations representative Burhanettin Şahin had dismissed all news reports that were published on the incident and threatened them with legal action. 

He did not elaborate on the burst pipe as “an investigation was ongoing,” and suggested “around 99% of the cyanide allegations” were false. 

The official report of the accident noted that around 20 cubic squares of cyanide had leaked onto the empty field in around two hours. Critics held that the amount of leakage was purposefully underreported. 

The mine closed down for 88 days after the accident but reopened before the investigation was finalized. 

The court found Anagold Mining at fault in the accident and sentenced the company to a 16.5 million Turkish lira fine (540,000 dollars), which was the ceiling amount. No further action was taken against the mine, and the criminal complaints by the neighboring villagers fell through. 

Metallurgy engineer Cemalettin Küçük criticized the fine penalty and refuted the company’s claim that no cyanide had leaked into the air or water, during an interview with the daily Evrensel

“You cannot call something that happens regularly an accident,” said Küçük, and recalled past incidents where cyanide from the mine leaked with rainfall. 

The expert also warned that the 2022 leakage was just a prelude to bigger accidents to come unless the owner took drastic measures. “Can 16 million liras undo the damage to nature?” asked Küçük, and urged for the closure of the gold mine which already harmed the environment in its business-as-usual scenario.  

The Environment Ministry and the Erzincan governor were culpable in the accidents, as they did not complete the required inspections and audits at the mine. “They should not be let off the hook just because they fined the company,” stated the expert. 

He drew attention to the environmental hazards associated with gold mining using cyanide or chemical leaching.