Best practices in mining industry not observed in Bulgaria
Daniel Popov works for the CEE Bankwatch Network, an international non-governmental organisation with member organisations currently from 12 countries across the central and eastern European region. Bankwatch monitor the activities of the international financial institutions which operate in the region, and propose constructive alternatives to their policies and projects in the region.
What types of toxic pollution are there in Bulgaria and which ones do you think are the most dangerous?
The bulk of toxic pollution in Bulgaria comes from the mining and metal industries, including coal mining and coal-powered plants. Less common is pollution from the chemical industry and medicine production. Oil spills can also occur from time to time.
The most dangerous pollution comes from mining, transport of raw and processed materials, storing of toxic materials and metal processing.
During mining, toxic elements come to the surface and begin to interact with the environment – air, water, soil – leading to a build-up in plants, animals and people. This is the case with arsenic which is associated with copper mines or lead and the associated with it cadmium. Release takes place, with varying intensity, over the entire production cycle depending on the type of processing. The above three elements affect human health and can be given from mother to baby.
Which are the most dangerous places in Bulgaria and why?
In 2008 the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria published a list of places with raised health risk because of air and soil pollution. The places to watch because of air pollution are Pernik, Kremikovtsi, Kurdzhali, Asenovgrad, Kuklen, Zlatica, Pirdop, Dimitrovgrad, Devnia, Burgas, Kameno, Stara Zagora, Gulubovo and Radnevo. The places to watch because of soil pollution are Kremikovtsi, Kurdzhali, Veshegrad, Ostrovica, Zlatica, Pirdop, Chelopech, Gabrovnica, Zlidol, Eliseina, Zverino, Asenovgrad, Kuklen, Boianica, Krumovo and Brestnik.
What this long list tells us is that while air pollution is roughly split between mining, metal production, coal-powered plants and the chemical industry, soil pollution is exclusively the result of mining and metal production.
People in mining and metal producing areas are exposed to a great deal of pollution because of current or past production and in reality their right to live in a healthy environment, which is stipulated in the Bulgarian constitution and is a basic human right according to the United Nations and the European Union, has been jeopardized. Not to mention that such land should not be used for agriculture when in reality it is, contributing to the spread of toxics in the food chain.
The situation is made worse by the fact that a Ministry of Health regulation from 1992 which regulates the distances between industrial facilities, installations and tailings dams and populated areas, is being undermined and often ignored. As a rule, new facilities are being approved by the Ministry of Health which are in breach of this regulation. The explanation given is that new technologies are safer.
This irregularity has happened on many occasions in the places mentioned above, including at the plant of Chelopech Mining, the tailings dam of Elatsite Med, the copper producing plant Aurubis in Zlatica, at the giant plant of nonferrous metals producer KCM in Plovdiv and at Gorubso-Kurdzhali.
Does the Bulgarian state carry out annual check-ups of the state of the most dangerous mining facilities?
We can divide mining facilities in Bulgaria into two types – the ones that were privatized and are being used, and the ones that the state looks after through conservation and rehabilitation.
Our society expects that the facilities still in use are being exploited correctly and safety procedures are being observed. In reality this is not the case. To begin with, none of the privatized old facilities and almost none of the newly built ones, have been isolated with impermeable membranes made out of high density polyethylene to prevent hazardous wastes and their leachates going into the ground. This omission sets these facilities apart from the best practices in the mining industry today. Despite this, the state institutions, which should be highly interested in preventing any kinds of pollution, because most incidents are at the expense of the state or the people, approve these facilities without insisting that the above regulation is met.
Can we say that these types of facilities have meaningful hazard risk mitigation and emergency management plans?
The law states that each tailings dam must have a water discharge permit. Each permit specifies the maximum values of the components which can be released into the environment. We researched several facilities and what we could see was that they were in breach of the permit levels, often throughout the whole year. This is a widespread practice, but the fine is only 1000 – 5000 leva (between 500 and 2500 Euro), hence the misconduct continues. In fact many facilities allocate in their annual budgets funds for covering fines like this.
This is considered systematic infringement and in theory the facility should be closed until the problem is solved. The fact that this is not happening, shows complete disregard for one of the basic principles of the European community’s water management policy – “Polluters pay”, where the idea is that the fines are so big that the industry has an incentive to invest in better and cleaner technologies.
Most facilities have all necessary documents, but this didn’t stop two of the leading mining companies – Asarel Medet and Gorubso Luky – to have two accidents each over the past two years where toxic materials were released in the rivers Luda Yana and Chepelarska.
Another interesting fact is that after the toxic spill in Hungary in October last year, the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment announced that each year inter-departmental bodies are carrying out specialized check-ups of tailings dams in Bulgaria and that the regional environmental inspectorates exercise control over all facilities.
When I asked for the 2010 reports of the above mentioned bodies, I was told that the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Economics did not have them. Some of the regional environmental inspectorates sent me one or two-page documents, which did not look like proper reports at all, they were not signed and it wasn’t even mentioned who had carried out the inspections. The only proper document I received was from the regional administration in Sofia for the tailings dams in Kremikovtsi and Buhovo.
It turned out that the institutions responsible for the safe exploitation of tailings dams and their control did not have documents to show that they were doing this work and that they carried out the checks they talked about publicly.
At the same time we had the accidents I mentioned before. When the Asarel Medet accidents happened, local people living along Luda Yana river were not even warned, which is in breach of the law. Only when local people noticed the colour of the river had changed, fish had died and only after environmental organizations issued their statements, the regional environmental inspectorate in Pazardzhik took water samples. This was two days after the accident.
All this goes to show that in Bulgaria state institutions serve the interests of the mining industry, often at the expense of the interest of society and sometimes at the expense of disregarding basic civic rights.