19 June 2012
Save Khoper Movement
Government of the Russian Federation on 26.12.2011 approved plans to develop copper-nickel mining in Voronezh region. This venture threatens the whole Chernozem (Black Soil) Region -- the key agricultural area in Russia, which also has crucial importance for the global food security agenda.
The two copper-nickel ores Elanskoye and Elkinskoye in the region were discovered back in the 1960s. In 1977 the Soviet government decided to abandon the idea of mining in the area due to its agricultural importance, the complexity of mineral occurrences, and the proximity of nature conservation sites. Today plans are in a place to build several ore mines, a mineral processing plant to produce copper-nickel concentrate, mining waste storage facilities, reservoirs, warehouses, and a railroad freight terminal.
The annual turnout of agricultural production in the Voronezh region exceeds $300 million. According to preliminary estimates, copper-nickel concentrate production will be significantly less profitable, bringing less money to the regional and federal budgets, while at the same time seriously damaging the environmental situation at Russia’s top agricultural production area. Dozens of farms will suffer from exposure to industrial pollution. The so called “black soil” region has a crucial importance for issues of not Russian, but also global food security agenda – which is currently being discussed at the UN Rio+20 conference in Brazil.
In the context of the current global crisis of food production, the decision to mine for non-ferrous metals in the middle of a crop-growing region is short-sighted, to say the least.
Apart from economic losses, the potential damage to the hydrological system of the region will undeniably affect the Azov basin. The Khoper River that flows in the immediate vicinity of the ore occurrences is the cleanest and most crucial tributary of the Don River. The deposits themselves are found right underneath Savala River – a tributary of Khoper – covered by 6 layers of confined aquifers, the bottom aquifer representing an ancient sea – a layer of saturated brine of bromine and iodine salts that stretches over at least 50 km. If that brine from the bottom aquifer leaks to the surface, the salinization of soils and surface waters will be inevitable. The use of water from underground aquifers will lead to the shallowing of Khoper and partial devastation of the floodplain Khoper Nature Reserve. Water diversion for technological purposes is unavoidable: one part of concentrate “consumes” about 50 parts of water in the process of its production. Such plans of a un-sustainable economic development are also putting a threat to the Russian and global water security – which is also part of the Rio+20 agenda.
Khoper Nature Reserve is a nature reserve lying 15 km away from the outer edge of currently proved ore deposits. The nature reserve has the status of a key ornithological area of European significance, encompassing the habitats of the rare white-tailed eagle, the peregrine falcon, the golden eagle, and occasional breeding grounds of the great bustard and the little bustard. The nature reserve gained international publicity as the habitat of a relict animal – the Russian Desman. Last year its population has sharply dropped down and the role of Khoper Nature Reserve in its conservation has considerably increased. Scientists of the nature reserve with the help of WWF Russia are keeping specification of count of the animals inhabiting the floodplain of Khoper.
Another natural feature located in close vicinity of the ore deposits is the Telermanovsky Forest – 40,000 ha of relict tree stands dominated by oak, including 200–300-year specimens.
This is a forest area of global importance since it’s unusual for oak forests to cover such large areas at present time..
This also proves that industrial plans are threatening the biodiversity of the region, which at the time of a massive global biodiversity loss also puts Russia on the “black list”, especially in the upcoming agenda of the RIO+20 conference.
According to the Russian legislation, any industrial facility is a source of potential environmental damage, and before the decision is made to put it in place, environmental impact assessment and public hearings have to be conducted. These procedures have been postponed till the stage of review of the mineral processing plant construction project. However, no feasibility assessment of the construction project itself has been completed. Competitive bidding for ore mining closed on 22 May 2012 and involved numerous violations. The main violation is the winner’s lack of its own capacities for metallic nickel smelting – a parameter defined by the bidding documentation as the main applicant eligibility requirement. Environmental impact assessment was commissioned by the Voronezh regional government and completed by an expert from Irkutsk, Siberia in 14 days – on the basis of paperwork alone, without any field inspections at the location of the ore occurrences – and is therefore a theoretical document with a conclusion that validates the ‘preferred’ outcome, i.e. confirms the feasibility of mining for minerals on agricultural lands.
The management of the winner company – LLC Mednogorsky Copper and Sulfur Plant – has admitted in their correspondence with the media that the project is funded by and belongs to the sphere of direct vested interest of the Swiss company Glencore International AG, the notoriety of which goes back to the 1970s and which is nowadays linked to the notorious oligarch and close friend of Vladimir Putin – Gennady Timchenko.
With so much fraud going on, investments in the follow-up exploration and mining of deposits are already flowing in, and there is no reason to expect that this will stop unless the wider public and the country’s top leadership intervenes in a more radical way. Unless that happens the formal environmental control procedures will be observed as inadequately as the preliminary impact assessment, and their results will be as illegitimate as those of the bidding itself.
This applies to bidding terms, too: the mining license is granted to the winner for 25 years, which puts the winner at liberty to cherry-pick the ore of the highest grade. This will strip the deposits of any appeal for further commercial exploitation. And the winner of the bid is not burdened with any obligations to maintain the production facilities and mines in compliance with environmental norms after this period is over.
The situation is exacerbated by the complexity of the mineral occurrence: the upper part of the ore deposit is overlaid by a 300-meter layer of sedimentary rock; the body of the deposit itself falls vertically more than 1 km deep, which makes extraction more expensive and pushes the costs at the expense of environmental compensations.
Local residents who live within the 70-kilometer radius from the mineral deposits express serious concerns about the problem of proposed mining for non-ferrous metals in the vicinity of their homes. Over the past 3 months activists have collected over 30,000 signatures against copper-nickel mining in the area. In the meantime a series of protests have been held in two district centers of the Voronezh region: Novokhopersk and Borisoglebsk, as well as in the town of Uryupinsk, which lies further downstream the Khoper River in the Volgograd region. The protests gathered between 3,000 and 10,000 people, which accounts for up to half of the population of one of the towns. Participants of a car ride against mining ventures drove from Uryupinsk and Novokhopersk to Borisoglebsk to join the 3 July rally; about 400 cars took part in the ride, which stretched over 10 km of the road. The Cossacks and organizations representing the whole political spectrum decided to join efforts and declared that they will stand up against any attempt to launch non-ferrous metal mining in the Voronezh region.
All of it has been happening amid the reticence of authorities on all levels and the refusal of the Voronezh regional parliament to conduct a referendum on this issue.
The situation in the Voronezh region has been highlighted by various Russian non-governmental, political and human rights organizations. Environmentalists unanimously acknowledge the extreme hazards associated with the project; both WWF and Greenpeace are seriously worried about the decision to mine for non-ferrous metals so close to conservation sites and in such densely populated areas. The Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation is planning to hold open hearings on this subject in summer 2012, and a number of members of the State Duma have forwarded letters to the Government and the President demanding that the ex parte decision allowing non-ferrous metal mining in the Voronezh region is revoked. Scientists and human rights activists have also addressed the Russian President and the Governor of Voronezh region demanding that the bidding results are cancelled and the mining of these deposits is vetoed.
«Save Khoper» Movement
«Save Khoper» Movement coordinator
+7 925 585 41 45