Posted on 04 April 2011
Six months after the red mud tragedy in Hungary, tailings dams in Central and Eastern Europe continue to be a major cause for concern in the region. We visit Medet, the largest tailings dam in the Balkans, and try to find out if it poses a threat to local communities.
Huddled between the Balkan mountains and the fertile valley of Maritsa river, Sredna Gora is a low mountain in central Bulgaria that looks pretty idyllic with its green rolling hills and numerous rivers. But local people here half joke that they live in the valley of tailings dams.
Until the mid 1950’s the area was known for its cattle farming. In 1958 a copper works plant, one of the greatest industrial enterprises of early communism in Bulgaria, was constructed in the town of Zlatica with Soviet help and technology. Immediately it created new jobs for the population of the Zlatitsa-Pirdop valley. Gradually, the area was dotted with more plants, mines and tailings dams. Copper, zinc, arsenic, lead and cadmium pollution as well as the inevitable health problems followed suit.
Over 20 years after the fall of communism, local communities continue to struggle - both with the effects of the now privatized plants, and with the effects of the no longer functioning but ever present old mines and tailings dams.
“People in these mining and metal producing areas are exposed to a great deal of pollution because of current and 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”, says Daniel Popov, toxics expert from the CEE Bankwatch Network, an international non-governmental organisation which monitors the activities of the international financial institutions operating in the region.
“Although in 2008 the Council of Ministers of Bulgaria published a list of places with raised health risk because of air and soil pollution, among which Zlatica, Pirdop and Chelopech in Sredna Gora, no health monitoring of the local communities has been carried out”, Popov said.
The biggest tailings dam not only in Sredna Gora, but in the Balkans is Medet. Situated above the town of Pirdop, it contains 200 million tones of heavy metals residues. The dam was built in the basin of Topolnitsa river, which flows into Maritsa, a major river in southern Bulgaria and northern Greece. Right next to the river is Topolnitsa dam which, at the time of intense mining development, was built as final collector of the upstream pollution, but is today being used for the irrigation of some of the most fertile lands in Bulgaria. Sediments of Topolnitsa dam have never been tested.
In the village of Dushanci close to Pirdop, mayor Ivo Geogiev has been trying to advance the cause of the local people during his two mandates in local government.
“Out of the top 30 most polluted places in Bulgaria, we are ranked number seven”, he says.
“Underground waters from Medet seep through Zhekov vir dam, constructed right next to the tailings dam. Zhekov vir is situated above the village and the village lives with the threat of 50 million cubic metres of residue flooding its land”, he adds.
One of the big problems Ivo Georgiev sees is the complex ownership and hence split responsibility for overseeing the facility with no clear financial obligations between the parties involved. The water dam is owned by the municipality, built on state land, the two walls of the dam are being looked after by state owned company Ekomedet, the water-conduit above the tailings dam is owned by a nearby copper mine Asarel-Medet, while the residue is responsibility of a private, now bankrupt company, which bought the concession in order to extract metals from the residue.
One of the conditions of the concession was to moist the residue, so that toxic dust does not pollute the air during dry weather. However, since the company is no longer operational, this is not being taken care of.
Tsvetelina Traikova, manager at Ekomedet, the state company that looks after the two walls of the Medet tailings dam amongst others, says that she has no information about the state of the residue of Medet because it is the responsibility of the concessioner and the concessioner reports to the Ministry of Economy.
Her company is half way through a four year plan to carry out technical and biological rehabilitation of the walls of the dam. She adds that the company needs to work with the budget provided by the state which is not necessarily the optimal budget. But getting less money through the state budget equals less volume of rehabilitation work carried out. Currently Traikova and her team are looking into European money to get more financing for their work.
Situated above the town of Chiprovtsi in the north-west of Bulgaria, the tailings dam with the same name is another hotspot on the territory of Bulgaria. The mining facility at Chiprovtsi closed down nine year ago, but until recently higher levels of arsenic could be detected in water samples from Ogosta river, one of the major tributaries of the Danube in Bulgaria. Today arsenic could still be detected in soil samples from the upper Ogosta since until the tailings dam was built, waters used for processing were discharged straight into the river. The tailings dam at Chiprovtsi has been covered with up to 60 cm of soil, but local people fear that a natural accident or erosion could lead to a toxic spill. Chiprovtsi is about 60 km away from the Danube and the water from Ogosta takes about a day to reach it.