Orkhon River cries as miners return for more exploit

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    The longest river in Mongolia, Orkhon, which flows through 40 soums of eight provinces, plays an important role in meeting the drinking water needs of people and animals and ensuring ecological balance. In recent years, the river has been irreversibly polluted by mining operations.

The river begins in the Khangai Mountains in Tsenkher soum of Arkhangai Province at the foot of the Suvraga Khairkhan Mountain. From there, it crosses the border into Uvurkhangai Province and follows the upper Orkhon Valley towards east until it reaches Kharkhorin. On this stretch, very close to Orkhon, the Ulaan Tsutgalan River features a waterfall, 10 meters wide and 20 meters high, which is a popular destination for tourists. From Kharkhorin, it flows northwards until it reaches Bulgan Province, and then north-east to join the Selenge River next to Sukhbaatar city in Selenge Province, close to the Russian border. Selenge then flows further north into Russia and Lake Baikal. 

Fish in the Orkhon River include pike, carp, perch, taimen and catfish. UNESCO lists the Orkhon Valley as a world heritage site. In other words, the Orkhon River is a vital source of fertility for Mongolia.

Although it is polluted by mining operations, work began in 2019 to protect the river. For instance, the adoption of amendments to the Minerals Law in 2019 created legal conditions for strict liability, restriction and revocation of licenses of companies that caused significant damage to the environment and failed to fulfill their obligations under the environmental management plan.

In connection with this, the government revoked 13 licenses of 11 companies operating near the Orkhon River in Tsenkher soum of Arkhangai Province. The public was satisfied that long-awaited issues directly related to the health of residents of numerous provinces and soums had been resolved.

Some organizations reported that rehabilitation work had begun in Tsenkher soum since the cessation of mining operations, and that pollution from soil and water in the area has been significantly reduced. But locals say the reality is not so good. The Orkhon River continues to flow red, breaking off in parts and becoming a “tailings dam”. Moreover, there are reports that some companies are planning to resume operations in violation of the government’s decision and in consultation with local authorities.

Head of the Department of Environment and Tourism of Arkhangai Province G.Altan-Ochir said, “The suspended companies had filed a lawsuit against the decision to suspend operations. Courts at all levels ruled in favor of the mining companies. The Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry and Mineral Resources and Petroleum Authority of Mongolia (MRPA) issued a license to one of the companies to operate again. The company also entered into a social responsibility agreement with the local government. However, the company has not yet started operations.”

“A total of 11 companies whose licenses were revoked destroyed about 800 hectares of land and did not rehabilitate the surrounding environment. The blame for 50 percent of this issue belongs to Mongol Gazar LLC. The rest belongs to other companies. Only four companies responded positively when we demanded mining companies to rehabilitate the mining area. In order to prevent businesses from operating illegally and to combat artisanal gold miners, a permanent checkpoint was set up, with representatives of the province’s Department of Environment and Tourism, the General Agency for Specialized Inspection, and the Ecological Police,” he emphasized.

On August 20, 2019, the governor of Arkhangai submitted an official letter to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism with a proposal to suspend the operations of Bat Dulguun Murun, Mongol Gazar, MGH, National Treasure, Gurvan Khairkhny Asar, Golden Hammer, BMNS, Altai Gold, Ulz Group, Senshivey Mongol and Erdenesiin Khotkhon. Accordingly, the government revoked the licenses of the companies.

The official letter states, “Licenses No. MV-002426 and MV-002427 of Mongol Gazar and License No. MV-005529 of Bat Murun Dulguun should be revoked due to their harmful effects on the environment.”

Based on this official letter, the Ministry of Environment and Tourism issued a conclusion to revoke the licenses and submitted it to the Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry and MRPA. In other words, the local authorities played an important role in shutting down these entities, and the relevant authorities made decisions based on this. But why did the court decide to reinstate the licenses?

The companies that saw the government’s decision as unfounded joined forces and went to court. The court ruled in favor of all three and found that it had not caused any damages to the environment, had fulfilled their obligations under the environmental impact assessment, and environmental management plan, and was operating legally. The only company whose license was restored by the authorities is BMNS LLC.

To confirm this information, we contacted MRPA’s specialist in charge of revoking and terminating license A.Nyamdorj, who said, “The company’s license was revoked in 2019 and reinstated by a decision of the Supreme Court. License No. MV-00001410 for the development of Ulziit Teel placer gold deposit is valid through 2029.”

This proves that it is only a matter of time before BMNS LLC resumes operation in Tsenkher soum and the other two companies that won the lawsuit will soon follow suit. The remaining eight companies might sue again.

Judging by the current situation, it seems that the local authorities filed a lawsuit against the companies that were operating legally. The Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry and MRPA suspended the operations of more than 10 companies based on one person’s decision and proposal. It can be concluded that the government of Mongolia made the decision without any calculations, or research in order to please the public. 

If not, the decision would not have been overturned in less than two years. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources Management of the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Legal Department of MRPA, and the governor of Arkhangai Province rejected to comment on why the government made such a “frivolous” decision.

Several things are clear from this decision by the government. First of all, it shows that organizations at all levels responsible for monitoring mining activities, enforcing laws and regulations, and licensing issues make incoherent decisions. Secondly, it confirms how “big” the influences of gold companies are. Third, it shows that it is important for the government to speak out on any issues facing society and get sufficient feedback from citizens, but they don’t seem to care what the outcome may be. 

The soil excavated by the gold companies is washed away by rainwater and periodically poured into the river. The administration of the Orkhon Valley National Park says, “We don’t think we will ever see the Orkhon River clear up.”

Even if the government does not completely free the river from miners, it should at least be rehabilitated and treated. It should be noted that 10 percent of the 8,000 hectares of land planned to be rehabilitated within the framework of the Rehabilitation-2024 action implemented by the government is related to the Orkhon River in Tsenkher soum of Arkhangai Province.

Some experts say that good results will be achieved by establishing land protection councils in each soum and bag, but it is ineffective to establish a council with no real power.

Misheel Lkhasuren