Even as mining in Omnogobi lifts the economy there and at the national level, herders in the aimag continue to feel that the steps taken by local authorities have failed to arrest its negative impacts – specially on water availability, pasture lands and the environment. N. Enkhtsetseg finds out from N. Naranbaatar, Governor of the aimag, what the actual situation is and how issues arising from increased mining are tackled.
How are you planning to address the concerns of herders in the mining zone?
Our Citizens’ Representative Khural has decided to observe this year as The Year of Agriculture and Industrialization in the aimag. This does not mean we are underplaying the herders’ concerns. We are aware that while the number of livestock has been increasing – it is expected to reach 3 million soon from last year’s 2.6 million -- pasture land is shrinking, water is getting harder to find and water wells are drying up.
Steps taken since 2017 have had good results and we are intensifying our efforts. This year, 30 new wells will be drilled in the aimag, two in each soum. In addition, 30 existing wells will be repaired, and solar automated hoists will be installed in another 30. We expect these 90 wells to provide enough water to 50 percent of the pasture land.
We constantly watch over the negative impacts of all mining-related activities. Apart from use of machinery and equipment in certain areas, the carrying of mining products to Ulaanbaatar and China means roads cutting through grazing land. As coal washing and processing plants come up, they use up much water. Such issues are most common in Tsogttsetsii soum, and they violate a citizen’s right to work and live in a healthy environment. Local authorities do take steps, some of which are successful and some fail to have the desired results.
For example, the Government asked Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi to evacuate Tsagaan Ovoo bag with funds allocated in the budget. The company also invested some money of its own and started to build a new township in Tsogttsetsii soum. We have also forbidden transport on dirt roads. But some other things we tried could not be implemented for lack of funds. Some problems are beyond the jurisdiction of the local administration which can only ask the relevant ministries to step in.
How will Khairkhan bag in Khanbogd soum and other areas in the Tsagaan Khad mining zone be developed?
The road to the Gashuunsukhait border is in this zone, and as such it is a “hot spot”, giving rise to many grievances. The Gashuunsukhait checkpoint was opened in 1992, but no significant repair or new construction programme has been taken up in the area since then. Under the agreement signed between the Governments of China and Mongolia in 2018, Zamyn-Uud and Gashuunsukhait checkpoints will be renovated with Chinese aid through the Development Guide project at the Finance Ministry. Currently, the choice of the contractor company is being made, and work at Gashuunsukhait will begin this year. MNT 60 billion will be spent on constructing a complex with a fully equipped border post, and apartment buildings for employees. Also, public service and apartment buildings will be constructed in Khanbogd soum.
Large-scale coal loading and unloading in the Tsagaan Khad zone make it a dirty and chaotic place. The Customs Authority has been directed to improve inspection practices, and the Professional Inspection Authority and the Auto Transportation Authority have been told to resolve all issues on safety, health, working procedures etc. in coal transport. Transport operators will now have to pay attention to work-related social issues of their employees, including employing people with proper contracts and ensuring better safety at work. Approximately 14,000 trucks ply on this 250-km road, many without the required permit from the National Auto Transportation Center, thus adding to the chaos and confusion. Once unlicensed transporters are barred from the road, things will show a marked improvement and I expect this to happen soon.
Heavy-duty trucks taking coal to Ulaanbaatar from Tavan Tolgoi along the dirt road north of Tsogttsetsii soum are inflicting great damage on the living environment of herders in the area. It is also damaging, at places destroying, the paved road between towns. What position does the local authority have on this issue?
The Government has prohibited transportation of raw coal into the capital city, so the coal is first taken to briquette-making plants. For this the trucks use the paved roads but the nearest one from Tsogttsetsii soum is 59.6 km along a dirt road. This traffic generates much dust and is destroying the natural environment, and herders naturally complain. A decision was taken in 2016 to build a road from the soum to the highway with government concessions, but the construction work was stopped midway following a dispute over the concession agreement which was settled only at the end of 2018. The work was resumed this spring and is going well, with local community authorities regularly monitoring the quality and progress of the construction. Three companies are involved in the work and the entire 60-km road should be commissioned by the end of the year.
Extraction, loading and transportation – all three stages in mining raise dust and this is seen at the areas of operation of State-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi, privately-owned Energy Resources and locally-owned Tavan Tolgoi. Energy Resources built a road from its mine to the Gashuunsukhait checkpoint with its own money but the other two reach this road only after carrying coal over 10 km of dirt road. The then Prime Minister ordered Erdenes Tavan tolgoi to build a paved road in 2017, but nothing has happened. The company had also promised to build a road when it signed the cooperation agreement with the local administration. The vehicles of employees travelling the 12 km from the mine site to Tsogttsetsii soum also generate much dust.
Actually, the use of dirt roads has increased now that coal from Tsogttsetsii soum is hauled not just to places where smokeless fuel for Ulaanbaatar is produced but also to Gobisumber aimag where a processing plant has come up. The road to Ulaanbaatar is in a very bad condition and accidents are frequent. The Ministry of Road and Transport Development has allotted funds for repair of the Ulaanbaatar-Dalanzadgad section of the road and selected the companies for the work, which has begun. Work on another part, between Ulaanbaatar and Mandalgobi, is almost complete. The road to the Gashuunsukhait checkpoint was also quite bad, and accidents were common, but a repair project was taken up this spring with funds released by Erdenes Tavan tolgoi and should soon be finished.
The locally-owned Tavantolgoi Company coal is being processed in a coal washing plant of Strato company in Gobisumber. Strato transports coal there along a road that goes from Tsogttsetsii soum through the territory of six soums of three aimags – Omnogobi, Dundgobi and Gobisumber.
There is no gravel road in this direction, nor is there any plan to build one. Since the route goes through the territory of more than one aimag, it had to be approved by the Ministry of Road and Transport Development.
According to law, it should be a paved road.
The Government decision to build a rail route to Gashuunsukhait from Tavantolgoi has rendered uncertain the fate of the 267-km road linking the two points.
What measures do mining companies in Omnogobi promise to take to protect the environment and benefit the local community when they sign an agreement with the local authority?
A cooperation agreement is mandatory under the Minerals Law. Companies operating a strategic deposit is obliged to sign this with the aimag and others with the soum. As of today, there are eight active mines in our aimag. Those in the eastern part signed their respective cooperation agreements as per law but those in the western part took their time. The latest company to do so has been MAK -- but not Chinhua MAK -- which followed SouthGobi Sands and Osokh Zoos. Terra Energy signed the agreement with Noyon soum, and Energy Resources with Khankhongor soum for its Western Naran mine.
Herders and citizens have many grievances about how mining is done in Gurvantes soum. Southgobi Coal Trans has not yet signed any agreement, even though it began operations in its mine earlier this year. As the mine is close to the Tost and Toson Bumba mountains and also to the Khuvd Khurshuut river and spring, the environmental impact of any mining could be huge, and the people are resolutely protesting its operation. The company bought its exploration licence from SouthGobi Sands in 2011and was granted an extraction licence in 2015. As it has obtained permission from organizations such as Mineral Resources Council, Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry and Minerals and Petroleum Authority, it is exempted from the need to have an agreement with any local authority, nor can we insist on approving the environmental impact assessment and the management plan. They have all the relevant permissions, but that cannot and does not satisfy herders and citizens, who continue to protest.
In cases where we are involved, the crucial permission comes from the bag authorities. In the case of Southgobi Coal Trans, we have submitted to the court evidence of forged documents purporting to show approval of some bags and the matter is now under formal investigation. If our claims are vindicated, the company will have to cease its operations. I think eight active mining companies are enough for our aimag. They pay a substantial amount of tax into the local budget, and our policy is not to grant permission for additional mining in the aimag. However, our hands are tied when the sectoral ministry grants permission to open a mine. Still, state professional inspectors have the right to order operations to stop and the Professional Inspection Department of the aimag did inspect the Southgobi Coal Trans mine and framed 31 charges against the company. If the company’s response is found unsatisfactory, the Governor of the aimag can ask the General Department of Professional Inspection for an investigation which would involve several organisations including Emergency Management, and Intelligence agencies.
Ground water takes many thousands of years to be replenished; is it right to allow use of this water for mining purposes?
There are no lakes and ponds in the Gobi so 100 percent of the water used for mining in Omnogobi aimag is ground water. Oyu Tolgoi uses water from the Gunii Khooloi basin. All the three companies extracting at the Tavantolgoi deposit use water from the Naimant Valley. The issue of water always comes up in our meetings with herders, who tell us of springs drying up and the water level in hand-made wells going down. Proof that they are right is that very few well drilling companies participated in a recent tender for such work, as the general feeling is that expensive drilling would bear no results. I said before that there would be 90 new or repaired wells in the aimag soon, but the water they would provide would not match the expenses.
Desertification is there for all to see. Left to myself, I would not allow use of ground water for mining but it is impossible to shut down the mega projects as they hold up the national economy. So we have to find a middle way, allowing but restricting such use. Mines already working cannot be subjected to such restriction, but in June 2018, we made it clear that processing and washing plants to be opened in 2020 and later would not be allowed to use more than 100 cubic metres of water per day.
Last year, the aimag hosted a conference on water which was attended by members of parliament and sectoral ministers. They understood how real our concerns are. Your journal has highlighted the dire warnings in this regard of the noted hydrologist, Dr. Chandmani. There has to be more efficient and economical use of water in mining, we should have more green areas and better reclamation work.
Pumping in water from elsewhere is a very complex issue and has to be carefully studied from several aspects before being accepted as a magic solution. China and several other countries use water pumped out from rivers in mining. Mongolian scholars have now come up with several similar projects. One of them plans to pipe in water from the Kherlen river to Omnogobi through Gobisumber aimag. Another is the Orkhon Gobi Project to put into the Ongi river water from the Orkhon river. A feasibility study of this project has been done. A third suggestion is to carry grey water from Ulaanbaatar through a pipeline. Part of the Government’s decision to have a copper processing plant at Oyu Tolgoi is to study foreign experiences on pumping out water from rivers. There is no question that our aimag has to urgently reduce ground water consumption but there has been no decision on going ahead with the cost calculations of any of these projects.
How do you plan to enforce responsible mining in the Gobi?
Between 60% and 70% of the budget of Omnogobi aimag is made up with taxes paid by the mining companies. We have also proposed to the Government and Parliament that a part of the money which goes into the state budget from mining operations in Omnogobi should be spent here to finance projects such as irrigating pasture lands, reclaiming the environment and building paved roads. Much of the mining revenue that comes to the local budget is spent on drilling wells and building roads.
As far as responsible mining is concerned, we pay special attention to proper reclamation and cooperate with mining companies on matters of job creation, purchasing goods and services from local suppliers, and investment in construction. There are irresponsible mining companies, but our aimag has no place for them here, and we want them out as quickly as possible. For example, Bulag Suuj Mining started mining in Buuryn Khyar of Nomgon soum without notifying the aimag. On receiving the information from herders and citizens, the Professional Inspection Department of the aimag made an on-site study and ordered a temporary halt in its operation. A working group of the Ministry of Mining and Heavy Industry had came and allowed the company to open the mine, without meeting anybody from the aimag. At least one document the company submitted to help it get the permission was patently false but the relevant ministries ignored this fact. At the moment we are powerless against the wiles of such irresponsible companies which bypass the local administration, but the time will come when the aimag authorities, working together with herders, citizens and non-government organizations, will be empowered to do the right thing to protect the environment and our homeland.