From the very beginning, there have been numerous problems, dilemmas, even serious accusations about the Ilovica-Štuka mine, from activists and experts on the one side, and Euromax Resources on the other. Will the mine cause contamination of soil, water and air; will there occur problems with the quality of agricultural products; will there be protective measures for the entire surface of the tailings pond, in order to preserve groundwater from the tailings seepage? All these issues have lately been in the public spotlight.
In this context, Nova Makedonija talked with Angel Nakov from the environmental organization Spas za nas (Salvation for Us) and three prominent university professors about the advantages and disadvantages of mining operations.
Angel Nakov, president of the Citizens’ Association Spas za nas, believes that the opening of the mine would lead to devastation of the natural landscape at the site, with the formation of a huge, 700 meter-deep crater on the one side, and a huge plateau for excavated ore and tailings dam on the other. According to him, this will mean disruption of soil, groundwater and surface water. He said it was the responsibility of the Government and competent institutions to provide a reasoned explanation to this issue, relying on fundamental research. Nakov emphasizes that the Government should take an objective stance, as it has access to the most comprehensive resources, including information, facts, scientific studies, financial and human resources, which should be used for the highest public interest, i.e. to provide a clear answer to these questions.
“I believe that the Macedonian government should answer whether, just for starters, 1,500 hectares of Ilovica forest will be cut off; whether a crater will be made, seven square kilometers in area and 700 meters deep; whether a tailings pond, 200 million cubic meters large, will be formed; whether a tailings landfill will be made with an area of over eight square kilometers. Is there any other place in the world where an open cast mine is developed in a purely agricultural region with 80,000 farmers”, asks Nakov.
He says that, apart from the salaries and social security contributions of employees, the tax on oil consumption and two percent of the gold and copper obtained, the mine will make no other contributions to Macedonia’s GDP.
“Calculated according to the data from the Euromax study, it will amount to 0.2% of Macedonia’s GDP, while agriculture makes up to 10% of GDP, employing 100,000 people. Open-pit mines are usually opened in arid regions, uninhabited areas, and as a rule never in agricultural regions, forest areas with freshwater and groundwater sources, or in tourist destinations,” explains Nakov.
On the other hand, professor at the Goce Delčev University in Štip, Dejan Mirakovski, argues that today’s technology makes it possible that a mine does not cause environmental pollution, and this should be made easily understood to the public.
“Particle emissions from a future mine and associated processes have been reported in detail in the Environmental Impact Study, prepared by renowned international consultants. This document has a dedicated appendix describing the assessment procedures, the current air quality in the area and the expected impact of the planned activities. Models show negligible impact on air quality, measured both directly at the mine, and in a wider area of operations, without exceeding the limit value of any pollutant,” explains Mirkovski.
“I personally believe that if all the planned measures are taken, the results will surely be as presented in the study, especially due to the fact that the EIA Study employs standard methods of assessment and analysis recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Indeed, the research in Macedonia, and the experiences of active mines, confirm these conclusions. For example, one of the most highly esteemed researchers in this field, Professor Stafilov, in his publication “The Geochemical Atlas of the Radoviš Mining Area and Its Surrounding and the Distribution of Heavy Metals in the Air” concludes that the distribution of heavy metals in high concentrations through dust does not reach the areas far from the mine,” says Mirakovski.
He points out that there are many open cast mines developed near settlements and agricultural land, in the world and the region, e.g. in Serbia, Bulgaria and Spain.
Another independent expert in the field, Professor Blagoj Golomeov, states that the technological process envisaged for the Ilovica-Štuka mine, designed to enrich useful mineral components in the form of copper concentrates with gold content, is the process of flotation concentration, with a world-wide application.
“Since this is a monomineral raw material, the reagent regime applied is very simple, including a small number of components. The process involves the concentration of useful minerals, copper carriers, whereby the chemical composition of the mineral resource does not change at all. In principle, the reagent regime involves adding xanthate (collector), flotation frother and lime. Xanthate is almost completely absorbed at the surface of useful mineral grains. This enables their bonding to the air bubbles formed in the pulp by injection of air, and as the air bubble-mineral grain complex flows onto the surface of the flotation cell, it is converted into enriched copper concentrate, the final product to be transported to a copper smelter,” explains Golomeov.
“Although toxic, xanthnon and flotation frother are almost entirely removed along with the concentrate, with only a small part remaining in the waste material, which is deposited in a tailings pond. That small part is then decomposed in a matter of days. Since the technological process of the Ilovica-Štuka mine is designed so that the entire quantity of water used in the production process is recycled and returned to the starting point, it can rightly be said that the environmental impact has been reduced to a minimum,” Golomeov said.
He adds that water recirculation is essential, since around 23 million cubic meters of water is required for processing about 10 million tons of ore per year.
“It would be impossible and unprofitable to provide that amount of fresh water every year. Therefore, the process is designed to include recirculation instead of discharge of water into the environment. Only three million cubic meters of water will be provided annually. This amount of water will be included in the tailings of the pond,” the professor explains.
He says that such a process for the concentration of copper is the most widespread in the world.
“To mention only the neighboring countries, there are mines Bor and Majadanpek in Serbia, with a capacity of 20 million tons per year, mine Elacite in Bulgaria with 40 million tons a year, and so on”, says Golomeov.
Ljupčo Petkovski, professor at the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Skopje, spoke about the problem of the dam. He says that the dam has a trapezoid cross-section, i.e., there is no vertical wall as in concrete dams.
According to the International Dam Committee, there are around 60,000 dams registered all over the world, although the actual number of constructed dams is much higher. They are facilities with the highest level of reliability. The collapse of Mt. Vodno onto Skopje is more likely to happen than the collapse of the Štuka dam.
He added that the levee is a structure for retention and storage of waste rock from the mine.
Anyway, the ambivalent black and white approach to the public debate on the mine still remains. It is essential to actively involve not only the stakeholders, who have diametrically opposed viewpoints, but also independent experts and professors from various fields, in order to ensure an objective approach, closest to the truth. Certainly, the competent institutions are invited to give their final opinion, not as an arbiter, but in the best interest of their citizens and the state.