Mining responsibly: a day at Altan Tsagaan Ovoo
We’re pleased to share the below article that was written by E. Otgontuya, Journalist with Dornod Media Group, Dornod aimag in the Mongolian Mining Mining Journal– published on May 13, 2019.
My Editor reminded me to be ready at 7 AM. I would be in a group of journalists from Dornod aimag going to the Steppe Gold mine to be acquainted with the work going on there.
Monkhjin Ganbaatar, Environmental Superintendent speaks to the journalists during the site visit.
As far as I knew, it was the first time a mining company in our aimag would be opening its doors to media people. I had earlier been on such acquaintance tours to large mine sites such as Oyu Tolgoi and Erdenes Tavantolgoi and had realized how important it was for journalists to know at first hand how mines worked, given that Mongolia’s mining sector is the main pillar of the country’s development and generated the energy for our national prosperity.
Most of us are guilty of believing rumours without checking if they are true and talking bad about others without any first hand evidence. This is very much true when we talk about mining. Many believe what they hear, that mining is destroying the country, is the worst thing to happen in Mongolia, that it is toxic. They confidently spread the “information”, even if they don’t know what technology is used in mining, how a licence is obtained, how an investor raises money, and what laws, rules and standards have to be followed when running mining operations. Their brain has been filled with the certainty that mining is irresponsible. Such information deficit had led to a misunderstanding between Steppe Gold and some citizens of Tsagaan Ovoo soum last year and social media had been full of the “sensation”. We in the media have noticed that while many citizens really care for the future of their local community, there are also those who deliberately encourage animus against mining. In my opinion, it is always good to be properly informed before taking sides and a tour of a mine site is the best way to know what is happening there.
The goal: To be a model of responsible mining
The Steppe Gold mine is in Bag 2, at a place 32 km from Tsagaan Ovoo soum and 152 km from the town of Choibalsan. Our team consisted of journalists working with The Dornod Newspaper, Dornod TV, TV6, The Dol Newspaper, The E-News Agency and Miji TV. We got into two vehicles. E. Bolor-Erdene, Executive Director of Galuut Guur, a contractor company of Steppe Gold, and N. Chinzorig, its Media Officer, were our guides. They chose to take a paved road through Kholonbuir soum as it would be more comfortable. Over the two-hour ride. I remembered that Steppe Gold had last year granted scholarships to 64 students from Tsagaan Ovoo soum and each quarter donates MNT40 million for the purpose of developing the soum.
As we came to the gates of the Altan Tsagaan Ovoo Project of Steppe Gold and the campsite for its employees, we had to fill in a registration form and were given a visitor’s pass which was to be clearly displayed for as long as we were inside. Before we began our tour, a delicious breakfast was served, very welcome as we had started quite early in the morning. We were then told of the safety instructions to follow when observing all the work on the mine, and given a hotline number to call for help in case of an accident. There is a 24-hour-open medical unit at the mine site. Smoking is not allowed beyond a certain point. Construction has been done keeping in mind the general direction of the wind as part of safety precautions. The whole place was completely silent, a practice strictly followed so that employees on the night shift are not disturbed during their daytime sleep.
In 2016, Steppe Gold was founded by Bataa Tomor-Ochir and the next year, he raised capital at the Canadian market. However, it is very much a Mongolian company aiming to become a model of responsible mining complying with international standards and Mongolian laws and regulations so as not to lose the trust of its Canadian investors. To go back in time, Cojegobi held the exploration licence of the Altan Tsagaan Ovoo Project. This was transferred to Centerra Gold Mongolia in 2010, and the feasibility study was approved by the Mineral Resources Professional Council in 2013. According to estimates then, the project was to pay MNT240 billion into the state budget over a lifetime of 11 years and spend MNT20.6 billion on reclamation.
Everyone agrees that the most significant issue in the mining sector is its impact on the environment, and many are against various other aspects of mining. People protest as they don’t want to lose their land and their health to suffer. Steppe Gold wants to make information on its operations accessible, and plans to provide local citizens and visitors regularly with necessary information on its activities on environment protection, among them tests and studies on reclamation to be implemented in the future, environmental monitoring, and its Detailed Environmental Assessment and Management Plan.
G. Monkhjin, Senior Environmental Office, provided us with detailed information and answered our questions. He has more than 10 years of experience in his job, and has developed the environmental policy which all employees and contractors of the company have to follow. The company will process the gold and mixed metals by using a method that has the least negative impact on the environment. The primary ore lies deep under the ground while the oxidized ore is close to the surface so the two would be extracted by using two different technologies. Similarly, the oxidized ore is to be processed by heap leaching, but in the case of the primary the chosen technology is the flotation concentrator.
Out of the licensed area of 5492 hectares, 426 hectares will be mined. Sodium cyanide is used in heap leach, and if everything is done properly, the chemical does not penetrate into the soil and thus into the underground water. Heap leaching also uses little water and 95 percent of the water used in the plant would be reused. Under its Environment Management Plan, the company conducts, in cooperation with professional organizations, monthly tests on water, soil and air and forwards the results to relevant agencies.
Last year, MNT 90 million was spent on environmental monitoring
Before being allowed to move from exploration to extraction, mining companies are required to get their feasibility study, mine plan, and environmental impact assessment (EIA) approved and then to meet all applicable standards in their implementation. The EIA includes results of studies of the local flora and fauna, soil, ground and surface water, and even of households, identifying possible negative effects and detailing the preventive measures to be taken. An annual environment management plan, part of the larger annual mine plan, has to be approved by the Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism. Last year, a company in our aimag was in the news when it was found to be working without this approval. Steppe Gold did not extract anything last year but spent over MNT90 million on conducting studies on environment protection, reducing and eliminating negative impacts and conducting reclamation studies and tests in areas within a 10-km radius of the mine site. Since then tests are conducted on the water, air, soil, animals and plants on a monthly and quarterly basis and their results are compared with those of earlier baselines studies. The amount of dust particles in the air is monitored at 17 points, and if the concentration rises, steps are taken to reduce it.
The company also had its environment management plan assessed and approved and then presented to the citizens as per regulations. This year’s plan has also been submitted to all relevant organizations and officials, including the Governor and the Speaker of the local parliament, the state environmental inspector, the Governor of Bag 2 of Tsagaan Ovoo soum, the Environmental Department of the aimag and the administration of the Kherlen River Basin. Thus it is open to scrutiny by everyone. We, too, got our questions answered.
We also met T. Monkhtuya, Camp Manager, and learnt from him that the company purchases meat and dairy products from Tsagaan Ovoo soum. It buys 100 litres of milk from two cooperatives every week. As many herders offered to supply the meat, the company decided to buy an equal amount of meat from each bag, at the highest price.
Six companies have been hired as contractors at the Project. The actual mining work would be done by Khishig Arvin, construction by Saade, camping service by Penin, security by Hunnu, ore stockpiling by Zasagt Khaan, and the water treatment facility is being built by Usny Erchim. All salaries are paid through Khaan Bank in Tsagaan Ovoo soum and taxes are paid to the soum.
We were taken to see the living conditions of the employees in the camp which would be their second home. They looked quite comfortable and one in our group felt they were completely different from those in other companies which have been running their operations for many years. An area around the camp has been prepared for planting trees and shrubs that are planned to later form part of the reclamation. Ten species have been chosen for the experiment. Saplings of each would be planted in three different methods in two different seasons, to determine which are best suitable for the soil and the weather of the area and could be later be used for more extensive afforestation.
A microbus then took us to the plant area which was throbbing with activity, and where construction of the processing plant is progressing fast. The place was full of heavy-duty trucks, machines and people at work. If all goes according to schedule, Steppe Gold will offer its first gold to the Bank of Mongolia in the third quarter of 2019.
On our way home after spending half a day at Steppe Gold, we all felt confident that what we had seen would bloom into a model of responsible mining.
ADR plant – foreground, Storm water pond – back left, barren and impregnated ponds – centre, heap leach pad – right. June 3, 2019.