Halkidiki gold an environmental hazard

Just north of the borders of Mt Athos lies the lush mountain of Stratonikos, an area of exceptional natural beauty with dense forests of chestnut, plane, beech and oak, protected under the EU’s conservation program Natura 2000. However the entrepreneurs who have exploited local mines since the early 20th century have done serious damage. To remove the impurities from the gold, they use sodium cyanide, an estimated 100 kilograms a day. The whole of the Stratonikos coastline has been polluted with dumped toxic waste. The seabed is full of lead, zinc, arsenic and antimony and so are the fish. When the inhabitants first started protesting in the 1980s the waste was deposited in a tailings dam built uphill from the facilities in a beautiful forest. But after heavy rain the substances trickled down into the sea via streams or aquifers. The unused tunnels in the mine are now filled with the waste which is mixed with cement. The mines cause toxic substances to leak into the water table. Toxic water dissolves the heavy metal which enters the aquifers. Water used to process the gold also uses up the area’s water resources. The water supply is thus not only reduced but also contaminated. Despite numerous rulings by the country’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, for the mines to be closed, new companies keep acquiring mining licenses. In an effort to counter local opposition, the government maintains that the mines generate jobs and wealth. But the reality is different. In 1995, rights were granted to TVX-Gold to exploit the metal over an area of 314 square kilometers for a sum of about 11.5 billion drachmas (33 million euros) when the value of the 300 tons of gold deposits amounted to 30 billion drachmas and the total value of the mine’s mineral wealth was approximately 1.3 billion drachmas. The same rights have now been granted to Hellas Gold for the sum of 11 million euros until 2078 when the value of gold has tripled since 2000. Hellas Gold has already sold 300,000 tons of arsenopyrite to China for many times the amount it paid in order to obtain the mining rights. As regards jobs, the 480 people that were made redundant by TVX-Gold when the company went bankrupt were registered in state-funded training schemes while the new company Hellas Gold that took over the mines recruited new employees on much lower wages rather than employ the former redundant miners. Various proposals have been made by the inhabitants for an alternative to mining based on the principle of sustainable development. The Aristotle of Stagira cultural center submitted a viable proposal in 2002 which would both generate jobs and preserve the environment but no response has yet been received. Despite the nine rulings of the Council of State declaring the works illegal, mining continues unimpeded, supposedly in the name of job creation. The director of Hellas Gold, Petros Stratoudakis, said that the company intends to use the flash smelting method rather than cyanide leaching and that the fears of the inhabitants are unfounded. However, metallurgy expert and university lecturer Giorgos Triantafyllidis believes the company’s approach to the issue has been third world. The area has been polluted by toxic waste for decades and a whole community is being held hostage for the sake of the mines. No state controls are carried out, only approvals are given. The study conducted by TVX-Gold was given to six National Technical University of Athens (NTUA) professors by the ministries of Development and Finance and it was judged to be unacceptable. But the findings were stashed away in a drawer and approval was granted anyway to continue mining activity. An appeal was made to the Council of State and the environmental study was rejected for the following reasons: «The balance between the anticipated benefit from the realization of the project and the threat of damage to the natural environment from its construction and operation is inadequate and violates the principle of sustainable development.» In other words, the Council looked at the massive scale of the project and where it would be situated and ruled, based on «common knowledge and experience,» that the environmental damage caused by the project would be undoubtedly disproportionate to the expected benefit. (1) This article first appeared in Kathimerini’s weekly supplement K on October 27-28.