«Save Khoper» Movement
on the Problem of Copper-Nickel Mining
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 Earth) 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 $3 billion. 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 earth” 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.
In 2012 the Russian president signed the «Food Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation», which has been a response to the global food crisis in 2008 and 2009. The decision for copper and nickel mining in the Black Earth Region is at odds with vital issues — on the one hand to secure that every citizen has access to adequate provision of food, mostly from national production and on the other hand this decision can have serious impact on global foodstuff developments regarding the expected food crisis.
Alexander Novikov, president of the Institute for Human and economic problems in food security, is one of the scientist’s who oppose the copper-nickel mining. He states: «In the Central Black Earth Region only agricultural production can and should be realized. The local rural population should decide what kind of economic and agricultural production is carried out. Otherwise, ten thousands of small producers and countrymen would be forced to restructure their firms. This would lead to expulsion of population in this region.
This is particularly important in the run-up of the G20 and G8 summits, which will take place in Russia in the time frame of 2013-2014, Russia, as a northern country with a unique black earth area, is therefore responsible for doing everything to prevent the development of the dirty industries in this area. »
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.
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.
All proceedings connected with the development of the natural mine deposit were subject to secrecy: First and foremost this concerns the terms of call for proposal. Further information about execution and results of ecological expertise was neither published nor presented in the due terms by the winner company – LLC Mednogorsky Copper and Sulfur Plant. Last but not least, apprehensions of the population of the Voronezh region and its neighbouring regions are not taken into account in time in the process of rating risks.
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.
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. 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 2/3 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 2012 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. By February 2013 the confrontations were taken out into the future mining territory. At the moment the LLC Mednogorsky Copper and Sulfur Plant tries to initiate a criminal case against Konstantin Rubakhin, the coordinator of the “Save Khoper!” (http://savekhoper.ru/) ecological movement; the ecological activists are being taken to the police to be interrogated for more than 12 hours a day; their residencies were inspected by police on February 16, 2013.
The activists suspect that the house-checks have been conducted in order to try to accuse them in with the “preparation of the extremist activities”: in the same manner as other Russian ecologists have earlier been sentenced for the “hooliganism” or “extremism” (ex.: Khimki forest; Selyatino forest; “Tkachev’s summer house’s” opposant Suren Gazaryan, etc.) in order to make them abandon their eco-activities.
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; WWF, Greenpeace, Bellona are seriously worried about the decision to mine for non-ferrous metals so close to conservation sites and in such densely populated areas. 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.