“The problem is that we can never predict when an earthquake can strike.”
The graffiti is splashed along the highways and side roads, riddled with potholes, that snake through the mountains and seaside villages of eastern Halkidiki, a region of northern Greece.
Halkidiki is a peninsula that resembles a stout, three-legged man. The spindly legs, covered in fragrant pine trees, are surrounded by turquoise waters. The first two legs are highly developed areas attracting tourists from around the world, with solid infrastructure, massive hotels, and well-paved roads. “There’s no place like Halkidiki,” as the local saying goes.
That’s taken on another meaning in the third, northeastern-most leg. Despite having the same topography as the other two plus the second most important location in Christian Orthodoxy, the holy Mount Athos monastery, this region of the peninsula has little touristic infrastructure. Visitors dwindle to a few older folks. And the roadside graffiti is an indicator of this being an epicenter of ongoing environmental and economic tensions with Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold, which is in the process of operating three copper-ore and gold mines in the region.
The Greek pollster RASS has shown that the majority of the population here is in favor of the mines. At the same time, some residents are upset about the destruction they and many experts say the mines would wreak through deforestation, large-scale drilling, water contamination, and the building of a hazardous waste dam atop an active seismic fault.
The conflict began in 2012, in the fallout of the Greek government’s debt crisis. A year later, riot police used extraordinary force during local gold mine protests. Tensions reached a head last November when Eldorado threatened to pull out of all its Greek investments, before entering a closed-door arbitration process over its activities in the mines with the Greek government. Meanwhile, over 450 activists are currently awaiting trial.
Over 50 percent of the world’s exploration and mining companies are Canadian, with 1,500 company activities in 8,000 properties across more than 100 countries. As Greece’s largest foreign investor, it makes sense Eldorado would invest in Halkidiki, where an estimated 33 million tons of gold have been extracted since the 6th century B.C. Alexander the Great once opened small mines here; the region is rich in lucrative materials like copper, silver, gold, lead, and zinc.
In the 20th century mining activity increased, though it’s really since Greece’s economic crisis that the industry has taken off in the country. The major pro-mine argument is labor: According to Eldorado, the company currently employs around 2,000 mine workers. Mining has indeed brought in $120 million in government taxes since 2012 as well, only in some cases the industry has flouted environmental, legal, and public health regulations and recommendations.
As Costas Papazachos, a seismologist and geophysicist at the University of Aristotle, told me, “The care of future generations and the environment is the first thing to go in a country when there’s a financial crisis.”
“If the hazardous waste is dangerous now,” Papazachos added, “it’s dangerous in 10,000 years.”
The question is, will the immediate benefits of financial gains and jobs outweigh the long-term consequences of sucking every last lucrative material out of the Earth?
In the village of Mavres Petres, during a recent visit to Halkidiki’s northeast, the simple act of stopping to ask for directions was enough to give a sense of the complicated reality on the ground today, in a place that has seen generations of mining activity. Yannis, 30, fidgeted with the keys to his white motorbike after we flagged him down. He said that both his grandfather and father worked in the mines—and that he’s following in their footsteps.
As Yannis put it: “We live from this.”
In the local kafeneos at Mavres Petres, Giorgos*, 53, was the youngest man in a joint typically frequented by white-haired septuagenarians. Miners generally retire early. Giorgos said he worked in the local mine for 27 years, back when it was first owned by Greece’s AEXEP, and later by Canada’s TVX.
The mine was much smaller in those days, he said. “I had to crawl on my hands and knees,” Giorgos told me. “We had to carry machines on our backs into the mine.” He worked the “front line,” digging and extracting for €1500 a month, until he broke his legs and back in an accident.
Eldorado recently told the German paper Deutsche Welle that it “seeks to use and implement the best available technology at all of our global operations in order to minimize environmental impacts.” But while technological advances have made some facets of mining safer, these new mines—in reality three mines with thirteen more projects in the pipeline, awarded as a single project—are so much larger in scope and size, that any comparison to previous projects falls flat.
In 2003, Greece’s highest court ruled that any economic gain from a large-scale gold mine in Halkidiki did not outweigh any related environmental damage. In 2012, as the debt crisis reverberated, that stance shifted when Eldorado acquired 31,700 hectares of mineral-rich land from the government for €2 bn ($2.5 billion USD). The current left-wing Syriza government was in staunch opposition to any mine expansions when it came into power in 2015, but had to change its tune as the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and European Commission, or troika, forced Greece to streamline investment processes, including environmental assessments.
In the six years since its initial purchase, Eldorado’s Greek subsidiary, Hellas Gold S.A., has cleared over 300 hectares of forests to open a large-scale open-pit mine in Skouries, an underground mine Olympia and Stratoni, and a mining deposit in Mavres Petres. It is also in the process of building two tail-end dams and one hazardous waste dam. (Because Eldorado owns 95 percent of Hellas Gold, this article will refer to both as simply “Eldorado.”)
“Hellas Gold has invested millions in the responsible development of its Greek assets, which have created significant economic benefit for the country and the communities where we operate,” Louise Burgess, an Eldorado representative, said in a written statement.
Indeed, the majority of Greek media has focused on Greece, as a cash-strapped nation, finally receiving foreign direct investment. Those who oppose the mine have been referred to as “the smallest noisy minority in Halkidiki.”
People like Maria Kadoglou, a physicist and editor at Hellenic Mining Watch, a website devoted to anti-gold mining coverage, would say that Eldorado is trying to present mining activity “as an extension” of the region’s mining legacy. “But this is totally different,” Kadoglou said. “The open-pit mines are much larger, and will have a more profound impact than their predecessors.”
Located 80 kilometers from the mines is Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, home to over a million people. This worries Alexis Benos, a general practitioner and professor of public health at the city’s University of Aristotle. His concerns over the health impact of the mines are culled from Eldorado’s original, publicly available reports and assessments. For him and other experts, there’s no way around the heavy concentration of metals in the rocks, including arsenic and mercury, both well-documented carcinogens.
In the Olympia mine, for example, arsenic levels are between 9 and 12 percent. Extraction inevitably requires that the rocks are disturbed, and as they are broken up and turned to dust, the metals are oxidized. Deutsche Welle has reported that as much as 20,000 tons of arsenic dust will be released into the air each year as a result of the mining operations. Benos, referring to an assessment conducted by environmental inspectors sent by the Greek Ministry of Environment in 2015 that detected levels of asbestos, said repeatedly inhaling this type of dust causes obstructive pulmonary diseases.
“So now we’ll also be breathing asbestos!” he told me.
A separate 2015 report led by an independent body of the Ministry of Environment also found that water levels in the region had 160,000 times the normal level of arsenic. When heavy metals and asbestos enter the water stream, which is already the case in some regions of Halkidiki, excessive drinking of contaminated water could bring about renal obstruction. In its initial technical report, Eldorado claimed that there will be “no impact at all on the quality of the atmospheric environment of the nearby populated areas.” The company, which does provide workers with health insurance, has also denied finding asbestos.
When it comes to health issues around mining in general, health practitioners must rely on documentation of mining’s effect on individual workers. That their findings are not rather drawn from the public at large minimizes the impact of a practitioner’s argument to a pro-mining patient, who Benos said can counter by saying, “‘Name me some dead people.’”
“But what we are saying is that there is a risk,” Benos added. “Do we have to wait to prove otherwise through deaths?”
In Mavres Petres, Giorgos used a typically Greek expression to describe the rate of cancer in his village: tharizi. In farming, this signifies the swiftness with which a scythe cuts wheat. In Halkidiki, it refers to the numbers of miners who locals like Giorgos claim die from mining-related cancer. “My own father died from lung cancer when he was 67,” Giorgos told me.
After the extraction, the mined material must then enter a stage of processing. Since Eldorado has been operational in Greece, the processing used to create the final, “pure” metal has been done out of country. For a time, Eldorado used open-bed trucks, until one accidentally unloaded at a public gas station while fixing a flat tire. It now uses shipping containers and moves the product from the Thessaloniki port. The company did not respond directly to a request for comment on where exactly this happens, however several sources told me the material is transported to the company’s facilities in China.
An alternative metal-production option, flash smelting, was introduced and stipulated in the 2011 contract, after the Greek government rejected large-scale mining processing methods that have traditionally used cyanide. Eldorado convinced the then-in-power PASOK government that flash smelting, typically used for copper, was “standard technology” and could be used to produce pure gold.
Flash smelting in Halkidiki would require the “feed” to come from both the Olympia and Skouries mines; 90 percent of the feed is expected to come from the Olympia fields, which have between 9 and 12 percent concentration of arsenic. According to several experts I interviewed, as there is no known technique for thoroughly cleaning air, most of the gas emitted from the processing would be arsenic-laden.
“Flash smelting has never been used in a high-arsenic pyrite ore,” Konogdolou said. “Why would a company propose a method that is known to be unworkable?”
There are other issues with Eldorado’s proposed use of flash smelting. As stipulated in the contract, the company was to build a flash smelting facility to test the procedure using soil and minerals from the Skouries region. But this hasn’t been done, according to Christos Adamidis, a member of the collective S.O.S. Halkidiki, established in 2010 in the nearby town of Ierissos to counter the gold mine. Instead, Adamidis told me, the company designed a test in northern Europe using South American soil. The Greek head of Hellas Gold has confirmed as much: In a somewhat awkward on-camera interview in a televised documentary that aired in November 2017 on the Greek channel ERT, he said the use of flash smelting was not guaranteed because the procedure hadn’t actually been tested in the region with local soil, only once in Finland.
Eldorado declined to comment on flash smelting for this story, citing ongoing arbitration procedures.
In 2016, the Syriza government agreed with the environmental assessments that found inconsistencies in Eldorado’s usage of flash smelting in Halkidiki, thereby violating the project’s environmental terms. Syriza and Eldorado’s arbitration over operation permits is set to end on April 6, though the government has granted the company permits to continue work on Olympia. The mines have officially entered a period of “upkeep.”
Then there are the dams, that, along with the mines, are built in an earthquake-prone region. Two are standard tailing storage facilities, or tail-end dams, while the third is a hazardous waste dam that will be built about 50 meters from an active seismic faultline, according to Papazachos, the seismologist.
In Eldorado’s original technical report, a single reference to seismic activity was to negate the impact of future mining, noting that it would not be “a likely trigger for seismicity.” But anti-mine activists are concerned about something else: history.
In 1932, an earthquake rocked the town of Ierissos in northeastern Halkidiki, with a displacement of 2 meters, a rupture over 7 kilometers long, and aftershocks that lasted several months. The mining activity at that time, though much smaller in scale than it is nowadays, was also located along the fault, and a building was cut clean in half. Registered at 7.2 on the Richter scale, the earthquake is recorded as the largest surface displacement on mainland Greece since antiquity. It’s also an indication that any modern building, especially one in a region subject to frequent low-grade tremors, must take into account both the shaking and displacement that could come from another, similarly strong earthquake.
“The problem,” Kodagolou said, “is that we can never predict when an earthquake can strike.”
Today, Ierissos is Eldorado’s chosen site to build a dam that will host the by-products of the extraction process, materials that require special attention. Hazardous waste dams are required to provide proof that they could withstand not only “regular” tremors but a “worst-case scenario” that could happen at any point in the future. Eldorado’s preliminary assessment about the Ierissos dam, according to Papazachos, was “beyond par.” Not only did the company not take into account shaking and displacement, the information it used was “practically computing that the dams would collapse” despite being presented as though the dams would act like “‘rubber balls,’” Papazachos said.
“There’s no material on earth,” he continued, “that could be used to build a dam that could act even 10 percent like rubber.”
The environmental inspectors sent by the Ministry of Environment in 2015 found inconsistencies in the elementary construction of the dam: it did not have a central core; a bottom clay layer meant to prevent bedrock from absorbing the waste was replaced by a plastic membrane that would not withstand cracking from an earthquake; and old mining tunnels were not properly filled before being closed off.
“To the best of my knowledge, I know of no such similar dam on an active fault,” said Papazachos. Building dams on an active fault with recent earthquake activity is practically unprecedented, he claimed. “I’m shocked this is happening in my country.”
Eldorado, for its part, has stood by the dam construction, and said its building policies are in line with E.U. regulations and best practice industry standards. “The facility’s design was peer reviewed by international consultants as well as approved by the Greek authorities during numerous reviews,” Burgess, the Eldorado rep, said in a statement. “The area’s seismicity was taken into account when designing the facility which is why both upstream and downstream embankments are engineered to withstand static, seismic and post seismic conditions.”
Back in Mavres Petres, Giorgos took me to the village’s local church. There’s a source of still-clean water located underground, and locals come to fill up empty bottles. An active and a retired miner were filling up their bottles when we arrived. The active miner showed me videos on his cell phone of a giant truck moving material across the underground tunnels. He said he has no gripes with Eldorado; he’s just thankful for the work.
Which speaks to another type of slogan you see in Halkidiki:
WE DON’T CARE ABOUT OUR HEALTH. WE WANT JOBS, read miners’ banners at a recent march in Athens.
Such a desperate economic climate, easily exploited by foreign companies, has strained tensions across the region, and sometimes within the same small community. “Our village is divided,” Giorgos said.
While some anti-mine activists blame the workers, most place the blame on the lack of economic development. Though the region is rich in tourism, farming, bee-keeping, and forestry, some residents feel that the government has not bolstered tourism in the third leg of Halkidiki in the way that the first two legs have been developed.
“The state doesn’t want to give [other] solutions to these people, so that they remain slaves to this company or the next one,” said Adamidis. And while a few thousand locals might have jobs, mining isn’t exactly a regenerative industry. When the mines are depleted in roughly a quarter-century from now, “they won’t have jobs anyway,” Adamidis added. “And besides that, there will be no water or food.”
An older man in military fatigues and a yellow baseball hat soon arrived at the water fountain, taking the active miner’s place. When the elder learned we were reporting on the mine, a shouting match ensued, though not one directed at us.
“After two years, you’ll see, there won’t be any water here!” the old man yelled, shaking an empty water bottle above his head for effect. “You can’t mine without water!”
“You never worked in the mines!” the retiree shot back. “How can you know anything!”
I could hear them shouting at each other as I walked away, their arguments rising above the rushing, watery din.