Bulgaria is opening 8 mines in the vicinity of Serbian border on the protected natural area, defined under European legislation known as “Natura 2000” network
Experts warn that with the operation of open pit mines in the Bulgarian village Erul, near the Serbian border, waste will contaminate and destroy all wildlife in the river Jerma, which rises on the Vlasina Plateau, not far from Vlasina Lake, runs partly through the territory of Bulgaria, but then again, flows in Serbia and discharges into the river Nisava.
Vlasina Lake and its surroundings could become the subject of environmental disaster caused by pollution of the Jerma watercourse, from nearby Bulgaria as it is opening 8 mines, three of which will be open pit mines.
While competent authorities in Serbia perceive things conciliatory, the expert public from both countries is concerned about the plan for opening gold and silver mines only twenty kilometers away from the border crossing Strezimirovci.
According to plan 8 mines will be opened, three of which will be open pit mines, and remaining five will imply underground exploitation. The construction of two tailing ponds and ore processing plant are also foreseen.
Experts warn that with the operation of open pit mines in the Bulgarian village Erul, which is located near the Serbian border in Pernik district, waste will contaminate the river Jerma and destroy all wildlife.
Borislav Sandov from the Balkan network, European Greens, says that gold and silver mines contaminate water, both surface and ground water flows.
“The greatest danger comes from the use of large amounts of cyanide in the process of extracting precious metals from the ore in tailings, which is considered to be extremely controversial process in many countries. As far as I know the plan, it is envisaged to use mine blasting for the rocks, which is extremely dangerous because the presence of uranium has been found in the mountains. With the explosion there will be the radioactive dust that will be spread all around by the wind, and wildlife has no adequate protection from it”, he explains
The river Jerma rises on the Vlasina Plateau in the vicinity of Vlasina Lake in the municipality of Surdulica, and then at the border crossing in the village of Strezimirovci it flows in Bulgaria where it runs partly, and then re-enters Serbia and empties in the river Nisava.
Water pollution would not only affect the plants and organisms in the water system, but it would be harmful to the entire biological community, which in this case implies potential environmental disaster for Vlasina, which represents natural asset of great importance for Serbia.
In addition, the area around the river Jerma is protected as a special nature reserve inhabited by the protected species such as stone crab, brown trout, wild gudgeon, European chub and barb fish.
The plan for mine opening is currently in the phase of complying environmental impact assessment as required by the Bulgarian law before that state acquires the approval for exploitation. According to the obligations arising from the Espoo Convention, Bulgaria is obliged to inform the other country about the plan for opening of mines on its territory because of the possibility that the implementation of the project may have a negative impact on the environment of the neighboring country, in this case Serbia, which Bulgaria did. However, according to available documentation from July 6, 2015 the former Minister Snezana Bogosavljevic Boskovic informed her Bulgarian colleague Ivelin Vasilev that Serbia will not participate in the assessment but that it expects a final decision about the project with special emphasis on the adopted monitoring model of the river Jerma in its watercourse towards Serbia.
The project applicant is a company “Euromax Exploration Services Ltd ‘(EES), former Canadian company that was purchased by the Bulgarian “Assar Medet” registered in Malta.
Elitsa Georgieva, PR of the company, mentions plans according to which in the next 26 years 750,000 tons of ore would be mined for the excavation of gold and silver. She considers the fear from uranium contamination as unfounded and claims that 320 hectares of tailings bottom will be coated with synthetic material in order to prevent chemical contamination of water, noting that the chemicals to be used are not dangerous.
Dimitur Vasilev, the Bulgarian biologist and chemist, as well as a member of the “Cyanide Free Bulgaria” coalition on the other hand explains that only certain chemicals are marked with their scientific symbols, while the number of components is reported under some codes, and one gets the impression that the company is hiding something.
The location of the mine itself imposes as a disputable fact for the locals. Namely, it is on the protected natural area, defined under European legislation known as “Natura 2000” network
Therefore, investors needed to change their original plans that implied all open pit mines, so the three mines located within the zone of “Natura 2000” will be underground mines.
“In 2013, the Government body for the ecology and environmental protection of Bulgaria suspended the procedure for investment proposals of mines, referring to experts evaluation from the Bulgarian Water Management Directorate, according to which the project will permanently and irreversibly contaminate ground and surface water flows in the region, and this is primarily related to the river Jerma and Jablanica that are passing the border with Serbia,” says Rumiana Bojanova, a member of the local association against the opening of mines, adding that the decision of the same Government was changed in 2015 with a meager response that the investor introduced some changes in the production method.
Bojan Rasev, owner of the company “Denkstatt”, which is performing the evaluation of plan for opening of mines in order to comply them with the Bulgarian legislation, says the investor is certified to open the mines.
“There is no perfect project for the opening of mine and each has the issue regarding the damage to the environment and human health. The investor will not use cyanide leaching technique because he knows it would cause social unrest, although this technology is best for the extraction of gold,” said Rasev among other things, in his conversation with journalists and residents that are against opening of mines.
When asked about the presence of uranium in the rocks that will be mined, Rasev said there was no specific information, but that concentration is not high.
The first studies on the exploitation of gold in the municipality of Trun were developed in1939 and “Zlata” mine was opened in the 1970’s.
Viktor Siskov (76) has been living in Pernik area for 25 years and he was technology chief officer at the mentioned mine.
“When the ore was extracted in the last century there was a lot of dust. A cyanide technique was used then, and it is no longer in use. Due to wastewater issues, there was no cooperation between Serbian-Bulgarian side to solve the problem. The river Jernik and Nisava were contaminated. On the other hand, while digging gold health of workers was deteriorating and they inhaled the dust and become ill from silicosis. I do not know how a new project looks like, but I’m against if it is an open pit mine”, said Siskov.
It is stated in the response obtained from the Ministry of Agriculture and Environment that the river Jerma, in exceptional circumstances can bring the pollution in Serbia, because the wastewater recipient from all small, permanent and temporary water flows is in the vicinity of the future facility, whose water flow shortly after the facility re-enters the borders of Serbia.
“Only in the event of an accident, we can talk about violation of environmental conditions anywhere, and even in Vlasina”, the letter states.
“In accordance with the details from the mentioned document, including environmental protection measures that are binding for the project leader, it is not expected that in normal operation, the mine, ore processing plant and floatation tailings will condition environmental pollution in the border region in Serbia”
The document signed by Snezana Bogosavljevic Boskovic says, however, that the possible negative effects of dust and noise in the nearest border zone with Serbia will not be visible because of the mountainous terrain and the forest vegetation, which will serve as a natural barrier.
“A dominant wind direction is west and northwest, which is in the opposite direction of the border with Serbia <…> According to the plan, a spinning cycle of water use is foreseen for the purpose of exploitation as well as collection of wastewater, which indicates that the project does not involve the disposal of waste water in surface and underground water flows at all stages of investment”, it is written among others, in the state document number 353-02-1155/2015-16
It is symptomatic that the minister points to the fact that the expected magnitude of the earthquake in Pernik is estimated at level 7 of the Richter scale, in the next 50 years. Such earthquake would damage tailings and in that event the water from the rivers entering Serbia would be seriously polluted. Therefore, it is necessary to perform pseudo-static calculations and these calculations are not included in the Report on strategic environmental impact assessment.
Although the Ministry of Agriculture and Environmental Protection of Serbia published a notice about the plan for opening of mines on its website in order to collect public opinions and comments, however, there was no reply by the specified date
On the other hand, local officials near the border with Bulgaria, like Vladimir Zahariev, Mayor of Bosilegrad and Novica Toncev, MP from Surdulica were not informed that such a thing could happen in the vicinity of their municipality.
Serbia adopted a new package of legislation on mining and geological explorations in December 2015. This new law, although approved and praised by the EU has many disputable provisions because the local government is completely excluded from the decision making process and licensing, since all has been centralized now, according to experts from the civil sector.
Zaklina Zivkovic, an activist and coordinator of the Balkan Green Network, says that environmental protection is a stumbling block for any government.
“Common problems that occur are the destruction of valuable soil, as well as industrial pollution and water pollution in the middle and lower reaches of rivers. Pollution problems are not easy to overcome, there is a constant problem of lack of funds in local budgets, and there is not enough funding from the state budget for improving wastewater management in local governments through investments in rehabilitation of sewage system, waste water treatment plants and modern landfill”, Zivkovic warned.
Therefore, it is still questionable whether the plan will come true, and it seems that we already have the answer whether all these issues will endanger nature and all its accompanying elements.