Turkish government repeatedly authorizes capacity expansion to mine leaked cyanide

The Turkish government has repeatedly authorized capacity increases at the Çöpler gold mine in Turkey’s eastern Erzincan province, where a mass cyanide leakage happened after landslides. Even though another leakage occurred in 2022, the mine began to operate after three months and the $7.2 billion tax debt of the mining company was written off couple of months later.

Duvar English

On Feb. 13, a landslide trapped nine workers, leading to cyanide leakage from a mountain where Anagold Mining Company had been storing cyanide waste at a mine in the İliç district of eastern Erzincan province.

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 region since 2009. The mining project received a positive Environmental Impact Assessment (ÇED) report in 2008.

During İlhan Cihaner's tenure as chief public prosecutor in Erzincan (2007-2010), he documented in 2009 an exchange of bribes between prosecutor Bayram Bozkurt, a member of the outlawed Gülen sect, and the Anagold company, according to the reporting of the online news outlet Bianet.

These bribes were reported to have been routed through the law office of the son of former Justice and Development Party (AKP) Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin. Cihaner himself was detained in his office in 2010 as part of the bribery investigation. Former prosecutor Bozkurt had previously acted as a secret witness in the Ergenekon case in which Cihaner was arrested.

The company increased its capacity twice with ÇED reports obtained in 2014 and 2021. The company expanded and deepened the open pits, increasing the mining area from 687 hectares to approximately 1,746 hectares.

After the company in 2021 applied to the Turkish government for a capacity increase, the government granted permission and the company thus increased its use of cyanide to 11,000 tonnes per year per year and started working on an area the size of 2,447 football fields.

The photo of the mine is taken from the company's website.

The mining company also has built 10 evaporators that vaporize the chemicals accumulated in the mine’s pool into the atmosphere.

Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker Deniz Yavuzyılmaz shared the capacity increase document signed by Murat Kurum on his social media account.

Kurum was the minister of Environment, Urbanization, and Climate Change during this time and he is currently running as a candidate for Istanbul mayorship for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In June 2022, a pipe containing cyanide also burst in the mine, leading to the discharge of waste into the Euphrates River. During Kurum's tenure as minister, the government declared the cessation of operations at the gold mine.

The ministry after the first leakage stated, "The operation of the facility will not be authorized until it is determined by the inspection teams that the additional environmental improvement works have been completed." 

During the investigation, Anagold Mining was found to be at fault and the company was imposed an administrative fine of 16.4 million Turkish liras, the maximum limit. However, the mine continued its operations only three months after the burst.

Özgür Urfa, a lawyer representing the Workers' Party of Turkey (TİP), stated that a decision of non-prosecution was issued by the İliç Chief Public Prosecutor's Office in October 2022 for the criminal complaint they filed with Erzincan Chamber of Agriculture (TMMOB), Chamber of Environmental Engineers, Greens and Left Future Party, and Turkish Medical Association (TTB) regarding the cyanide leak.

The company again applied to expand the site by another 5.83 hectares after the cyanide leakage and the government once again granted permission.

Seven months later after the first leakage, the $7.2 billion tax debt of SSR Mining was also written off in return for a cash payment of $1.4 billion.

Turkish Bar Association, TTB, and TMMOB filed criminal complaints about the second capacity increase authorization given to the mine by the government in April 2022. 

Even though an Erzincan Administrative Court rejected TMOOB’s lawsuit filed with the villagers living nearby, the decision was overturned by the Council of State in June 2023. The highest administrative court of the country decided that a new expert examination should be conducted. TMMOB on Feb. 13 announced that they were at the mine on Dec. 6, 2023, for the new expert report.

İsmail Hakkı Atal, the lawyer of the villagers from İliç, objected to two of the experts appointed to the lawsuit, and said that one of them had connections with the AKP and that the seismologist had incomplete information.

The mining are is located in an earthquake zone with an active fault.

This photo shows the current situation of the mine after the landslide.

Başaran Aksu from the Independent Mine Workers' Union spoke to ANKA News Agency and, said, "Approximately 1,500 workers work in the region. Special and high-quality equipment must be used by specialized teams to intervene in the field affected by the cyanide leak. It may take a very long time to remove the workers because of the cyanide."

Former main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) lawmaker Polat Şaroğlu stated that the disaster would affect the neighboring provinces. He noted, "We are talking about a pool the size of 200 football fields. All neighboring provinces will be affected. This cyanide will evaporate and affect the surrounding provinces. We said it would affect nature, agriculture and animals. We brought it to the parliamentary agenda, but no one listened to us."

According to the çed report received by the company, the production at the mine site will continue until 2027. Anagold will earn 4.8 billion dollars in operating income as a result of its 10-year activity and will pay 12 percent share to the state. Accordingly, the state right to be paid 198 million dollars throughout project.