Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Gold's Impact on People and Planet


By Paul Brown

The collapse of the Soviet Union left Bulgaria achieving in the 1990s what the rest of the world is working hard to manage in the 2020s, a reduction in its carbon dioxide emissions of more than 45 percent.

But while a lot of inefficient mines and smelting plants have closed, the rump of the minerals industry survived. It is now expanding again, destroying pristine forests and wildlife and raising questions about Europe's policy of transporting ore across the globe for smelting and refining.

The lynx is one Bulgarian species in jeopardy from mining for gold and silver.Jonas Bengtsson / Wikimedia Commons

Vast quantities of raw material are transported by ship, but the emissions caused are not counted because shipping is not covered by the Paris Agreement of last December.

In countries across the Balkans the lure of high metal prices and the prospect of new employment are leading governments to ignore the heavy environmental costs of new mines.

In Bulgaria itself, for example, the collapse of inefficient mining and heavy industries led many to migrate to the cities, leaving the countryside with severe unemployment. More than one million emigrated to find new work abroad.

The knowledge that there are gold and silver deposits in the mountains has led to a new rush to open mines in pristine natural areas and a battle over whether Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria should foster agriculture and tourism or plump for the short-term gains of mining.

Climate change rarely gets mentioned in these arguments over the opening-up of beautiful forested areas and wildlife havens for mining. But the way the industry operates is adding dramatically to emissions of greenhouse gases.

Two-Way Traffic

This is because the banning of the use of cyanide means partly-separated silver and gold ore will be sent to Namibia for processing. Additionally, to feed spare capacity in European smelters for zinc and other metals, ore will be imported from South America.

The latest battle involves the impoverished and depopulated Trun border region of Bulgaria which contains a beautiful mountainous area, home to bears, wolves and lynx. Trun faces a difficult dilemma: to welcome or oppose plans for vast new gold and silver mines.

The mining area will come within 100 meters of the village of Erul, buried in the forested border with Serbia. Currently the village has 18 inhabitants.

Outside the tiny monastery next to the holy well, Archimandrite Joseph, the priest in charge, has no doubt that the mine will be bad for the people. "I am against the mine because it will destroy nature. God's garden should not be destroyed. We hesitate to build our houses bigger because it will damage the ecology, but the mining company wants to remove the whole hill."

The profusion of wild flowers, including many orchids, helps to make the area a Natura 2000 site, supposedly giving it special protection under European legislation. This has led the mining company, Euromax Services, to amend its original plans.

Instead of all being opencast quarries, three of the proposed mines inside the protected area will be underground, with three outside the Natura 2000 site still opencast.

The company's case is that the mine will provide 500 jobs in the impoverished municipality of Trun in which Erul lies, where by coincidence 500 of the population of 4,000 are unemployed.

No Risk

The company is part-Bulgarian but the holding company, Assarel Medet, is incorporated in Malta. It has taken over an empty shop in the town and turned it into a well-furnished information center, where staff entertain local schoolchildren to geology lessons to educate them about the wonders of gold mining.

Elitsa Georgieva, the company's community relations chief, says it wants to take 750,000 tons of ore out of the mountain more than 26 years to extract the gold and silver. She says the 320-hectare tailings pond will be lined to prevent chemicals contaminating the water supply. In any case, she adds, the chemicals are not dangerous.

The proposed mine is on a ridge of mountains which have been exploited since ancient times, where the Greeks and Romans had extensive workings. The last mine in this area closed in the 1970s, but while gold remains at US$1,200 an ounce demolishing mountains to reach the ore is an economic proposition.

The company is currently paying experts to compile the environmental impact assessment required by law before the government will grant a permit to mine.

Rumiana Boyanova, aged 34, whose grandparents come from the district and who spends week-ends in the area, has formed a local resistance group.

"We have the cleanest air in Bulgaria, an untouched wilderness, with many rare and protected species. There are lots of interesting archaeological discoveries, Thracian, Roman and others yet to be properly studied", she said.

She does not believe the company's promises about recycling the water for the mine and fears the poisoning of drinking water and rivers.

"There is a much better alternative to mining in the increasing development of eco-tourism," Boyanova said. There is already an established local industry of picking wild herbs and hunting wild game like pigs and deer. "When the gold digging is finished in 20 years, we will be left with a moonscape."

Asked about climate change, she said that of course shifting 750,000 tons of rock would use vast amounts of diesel fuel and destroying the forests would release carbon. The company would not comment on climate change but said local environmental damage would be minimal. The concentrate containing the gold and silver will go to Namibia for final extraction.

Dimitar Sabev, a Bulgarian economist and journalist, who has studied the metal trade in Europe, said the new mine is part of a pattern of uncounted carbon emissions involving the transport of lead, zinc and copper concentrates from Latin America to the smelters of the European Union, Bulgaria's included. "This 10,000 km-long trade line across oceans is tax-exempt and free to create considerable emissions, since it is a several million tons load."

The controversial free trade agreement between the EU and Peru and Colombia, dating from 2013, cemented these fast-growing shipments.

"The least that could be said is that this trade is carbon-irresponsible," Sabev said. "I personally see here another manifestation of resource exploitation and profiting from others' underdevelopment. The environmental impacts remain hidden from the public."

He says work is still in progress on calculating the emissions involved, but ore transport from South America to Europe will not be less than 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide—which is not counted in EU inventories.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Oregano oil is an extract that is not as strong as the essential oil, but appears to be useful both when consumed or applied to the skin. Peakpx / CC by 1.0

By Alexandra Rowles

Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.

However, it can also be concentrated into an essential oil that's loaded with antioxidants and powerful compounds that have proven health benefits.

Read More Show Less
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro meets Ronaldo Caiado, governor of the state of Goiás on June 5, 2020. Palácio do Planalto / CC BY 2.0

Far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has presided over the world's second worst coronavirus outbreak after the U.S., said Tuesday that he had tested positive for the virus.

Read More Show Less
Although natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, it is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Skitterphoto / PIxabay

By Emily Grubert

Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.

Read More Show Less
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved two Lysol products as the first to effectively kill the novel coronavirus on surfaces, based on laboratory testing. Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto via Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a list of 431 products that are effective at killing viruses when they are on surfaces. Now, a good year for Lysol manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser just got better when the EPA said that two Lysol products are among the products that can kill the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unveils the Green New Deal resolution in front of the U.S. Capitol on February 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty Images

By Judith Lewis Mernit

For all its posturing on climate change, the Democratic Party has long been weak on the actual policies we need to save us from extinction. President Barack Obama promised his presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow," and then embraced natural gas, a major driver of global temperature rise, as a "bridge fuel." Climate legislation passed in the House in 2009 would have allowed industries to buy credits to pollute, a practice known to concentrate toxic air in black and brown neighborhoods while doing little to cut emissions.

Read More Show Less
About 30,000 claims contending that Roundup caused non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are currently unsettled. Mike Mozart / CC BY 2.0

Bayer's $10 billion settlement to put an end to roughly 125,000 lawsuits against its popular weed killer Roundup, which contains glyphosate, hit a snag this week when a federal judge in San Francisco expressed skepticism over what rights future plaintiffs would have, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Read More Show Less


Hundreds of sudden elephant deaths in Botswana aren't just a loss for the ecosystem and global conservation efforts. Mario Micklisch / Flickr / CC by 2.0

By Charli Shield

When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.

Read More Show Less