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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - July 2005   

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Title  The copper stakes

The Balkan Peninsular has major mineral resources in the form of complex polymetallic sulphide ores, especially chalcopyrites, which are today among the most profitable ores mined for copper production. This mining and metallurgical industry has the potential to become a major asset for the socio-economic recovery of these countries, following the conflicts of the last decade – but only if its very negative environmental impact can be dramatically reduced.

Photos: RTB-Bor (Serbie)
Photos: RTB-Bor (Serbie)
Photos: RTB-Bor (Serbia)
The total sulphide ore deposits mined in the west of the peninsular – in Serbia-Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania – rank the region among the 15 most important sources of copper ores in the world, with a volume of 16 million tonnes a year permitting the extraction of 170 00 tonnes of refined copper. What is more, this industrial production with a very high added value offers scope for further development.

Heavy metal problems
From the open-cast or underground mines to the pure copper stage, the processes involved in the production cycle – separation of mineral components by the flotation process, concentration by pyrometallurgy, refining by electrolysis – pose serious environmental problems. These processes generate solid, liquid or gaseous waste that represents a considerable source of pollution with heavy metals and sulphur derivatives. The impact on soils, water resources and ultimately human health is very serious locally. 

"It is against this background that the European Intreat(1) project was launched,” explains its coordinator Dimitrios Panias of the Athens National Technical University (NTUA). “The aim is to combat these largely neglected assaults on the environment – a precondition for some mines to start up again and for the sector to develop. Research, within a multinational partnership (Greece, Germany, Serbia, Bulgaria and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), must perfect preventive measures and technical remedies to minimise discharges, restore waste sites and prevent contamination of the region’s waters. The risk of impact on human health and ecosystems must also be evaluated and technical measures developed at an acceptable cost. In legal terms, Intreat is also seeking to ensure that the national legislation in the two countries in question complies with European Directives, especially the IPPC(2) Directive."

Selected sites
Two test sites were chosen: the copper mines in Buchim located in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the Bor complex, close to the border between Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria and straddling the River Danube. This vast compex provides the region with 15 000 jobs and covers the complete production chain from ore extraction to copper refining.

It is an activity that poses major air pollution problems due to dust and sulphur oxide gas emissions as well as the accumulation of solid sulphidic waste. Large basins used to stock the flotation sludge and liquid effluent with its high heavy metal and sulphuric acid content are also seriously polluting the local Bor and Krivelj rivers. Heavy metal content in the atmosphere and rivers far exceeds permitted levels and almost 20 000 hectares of agricultural land are affected. There are also fears that the dams of the Velik Krivelj tailing pond (almost 200 million m3) will break due to their poor state of repair. The tailing pond is sited in the river bed itself, diverting the waters. Such a catastrophe would cause a major ecological disaster reaching as far as the Danube delta in Romania. 

(1) Integrated Treatment of Industrial Wastes towards Prevention of Regional Water Resources Contamination.
(2) The IPPC Directive (Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control) stipulates that, throughout the European Union, all industrial installations (covered by Annex 1 of the Directive) must obtain authorisation from the national authorities. Without this authorisation, based on the principle of the Best Available Techniques (BAT), they are not authorised to operate.

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  Transatlantic Bio-dialogue
  SOS grey matter
  The copper stakes


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  • Dr. Dimitrios Panias, NTUA, Athens

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