Turkey under pressure to shut down gold mine after landslide

An aerial view of the area following a substantial landslide affecting a vast area surrounding the gold mine in Ilic district of Erzincan Picture: Demiroren News Agency / AFP

An aerial view of the area following a substantial landslide affecting a vast area surrounding the gold mine in Ilic district of Erzincan Picture: Demiroren News Agency / AFP

Published Feb 14, 2024


Calls grew in Turkey on Wednesday to shut down a controversial gold mine as hopes dimmed of rescuing nine workers trapped by a massive landslide that rolled over their open pit.

Turkish state media also reported the arrest of four people, including the pit's field manager, in the opening stages of an investigation into the accident at the site, run by a partly US-owned firm.

Hundreds of rescuers have been searching through a cyanide-laced field in eastern Turkey since Tuesday, when 10 million cubic metres of sludge suddenly crashed down from a gully.

Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said five of the trapped workers were believed to be in a container, three in a vehicle and another in a separate part of the pit in his truck.

"The rescue operation continues uninterrupted," he said, adding that there was no risk of additional landslides in the region.

Environmentalists fear that cyanide and sulphuric acid used in the gold extraction process could spread to the nearby Euphrates River, which runs from Turkey to neighbouring Syria and Iraq.

Turkey's Union of Chambers of Engineers and Architects urged the government to shut down the mine "immediately", saying its past warning about a looming disaster had been ignored.

"All those responsible for the disaster should be held accountable before the judiciary," it said in a statement.

Independent Mining Labour Union representative Basaran Aksu said cyanide fumes and the soft terrain were hampering the search and rescue work.

"If a heavy construction machine entered the area, it would sink. If it were rescuers, it would create a chemical suffocation effect," he told AFP.

"This situation greatly reduces the chances of survival of those trapped and makes it difficult to get them out. It does not seem possible to quickly reach our friends," he said.

'Seal off mine'

Turkey's environment ministry said it had sealed off a stream running from the pit to the Euphrates as a precaution, adding that no polluting leaks had been detected so far.

But the Ilic Nature and Environment Platform, a local pressure group, said the stream had already mixed with the Euphrates.

"Don't seal off (the stream), seal off the mine," the group said.

The mine is run by private company Anagold, which has been extracting gold in the region since 2010.

Eighty percent of Anagold is owned by the Denver-based SSR Mining, and 20 percent by Turkey's Lidya Mining.

Environmental advocates and local officials sought to shut down the open pit mine after a 2022 cyanide leak caused by a burst pipe.

The plant closed for a few months but then re-opened after its operator paid a fine, prompting an outcry from Turkey's opposition parties.

A Turkish court then fined the company 16.5 million Turkish liras ($540,000 at the current exchange rate), the maximum according to Turkish media.

But no further action was taken against the mine and a local push to shut it down failed.

Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar, who arrived in the region after cutting short an official visit to Egypt where he accompanied President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the mine's last inspection had been carried out in August.

"We are investigating what caused the accident. It will take some time," he said.

SSR Mining's stocks sharply fell on Tuesday on the NASDAQ exchange.