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Experts attribute gold mine landslide to uncontrollable heap leach pad

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Inspections conducted by experts from Karadeniz Technical University (KTÜ) have revealed that an uncontrollable heap leach pad is one of the primary causes of the landslide at a gold mine in eastern Turkey, where nine miners have been trapped since last week, the Demirören News Agency (DHA) reported on Wednesday.

The tragedy occurred at the Çöpler gold mine in Erzincan province on February 13 when a massive landslide sent some 10 million cubic meters of earth contaminated with cyanide and sulphuric acid sliding down the 200-meter-high slope of the heap leach pad.

According to DHA, members of KTÜ’s Landslide Application and Research Center (UYGAR) carried out inspections under the coordination of Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) to determine the cause of the landslide in the mining area.

Hakan Ersoy, a professor of geology and a member of UYGAR, told DHA that they found the height of the heap leach pad to be “above a controllable level” and far above world standards.

“We have identified that the leach pad, typically limited to a maximum of 150 meters globally, has reached the height of 257 meters here. This is an astonishing figure,” Ersoy said.

He said the excessively high water content in an uncontrollable leach pad, heaped dangerously close to the production area, had led to the catastrophic situation.

“There is also a valley height of 100 meters, meaning a pyramid of 350 meters has formed there. The main reason for the acceleration of movement [of soil] there is not only the height of the leach pad but also the elevated nature of the valley. This was what aggravated the disaster,” Ersoy added.

Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya, Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar, Environment Minister Mehmet Özhaseki, Labor Minister Vedat Işıkhan and Agriculture Minister İbrahim Yumaklı on Wednesday spoke to the press after conducting an inspection in the area.

When asked about the negligence that caused the leach pad in the area to reach the height of 257 meters, Özhaseki turned the question back on journalist Ferit Demir from the Halk TV station, questioning whether he was truly a member of the press.

Despite Özhaseki explaining the reason for his delayed visit to the area one week after the disaster on February 13 as “health issues,” his social media posts revealed that he attended several events in İstanbul, Adana and Osmaniye provinces between February 14 and 20. He said he underwent surgery on the day of the tragedy.

Yerlikaya also spoke to the press, announcing that the search activities have been suspended for the past two days due to the risk of a second landslide in the region. He added that they prioritize the safety of those involved in the search.

Bayraktar explained that the temporary suspension indicates the evacuation of the heavily piled area, following the schedule planned by Ministers Bayraktar and Özhaseki. He said that search operations will resume under the coordination of AFAD once assurance is given for their safe work.

Addressing the ongoing cyanide threat in the region, Özhaseki said samples taken from nine points came out clean, and that so far, no pollution has been detected.

Bayraktar also said the number of detentions in connection with the landslide may increase.

So far, authorities have arrested six of nine suspects, among them several executives of the mining company, including a Canadian citizen.

The mine is operated by Anagold Madencilik and is jointly owned by Turkey’s Çalık Holding and SSR Mining, based in Denver, Colorado.

Anagold’s Turkey director, identified only by the initials C.D., was also briefly detained in connection with the accident. C.D. was released under judicial supervision and a travel ban.

Meanwhile, the expert report and information provided by the defendants showed that the most crucial link in the chain of negligence appears to be the on-site officials’ failure to send a team for inspection, despite observing serious risks posed by cracks in the mine on the day of the landslide.

The dangerous area was not sealed off, and company employees, including those who reported the risk, continued to roam the site.

The İstanbul Bar Association has filed criminal charges of abuse of public duty, involuntary manslaughter and environmental crimes against various individuals, including Anagold Madencilik officials, former environment minister Murat Kurum and experts involved in the approval of the environmental impact assessment for the mine.

The mine had previously been declared safe from landslides in environmental impact assessments conducted during Kurum’s tenure as minister of environment, urbanization and climate change. Kurum is currently the mayoral candidate for İstanbul from the ruling AKP and has been criticized for his share of responsibility in the high death toll of major earthquakes that struck southern Turkey in 2023 and killed more than 53,000 people.

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