Will there be a copper mine in Trans-Urals? Another environmental protest brewing in the south-east of Bashkiria, Russia

Emotions are running high in the Republic of Bashkortostan: eco-activists have opposed the company of billionaire Igor Altushkin

Will there be a copper mine in Trans-Urals? Another environmental protest brewing in the south-east of Bashkiria, Russia
Photo: vk.com

While the whole country was watching the Shikhan scandal in Bashkiria, another environmental protest was brewing in the south-east of the republic — in the Abzelilovsky district. This is where Igor Altushkin's Russian Copper Company intends to mine copper ore. In return, Sverdlovsk industrialists promise to create jobs with high wages. However, the locals refused such “gingerbread” because they want to live in a clean area. The persistence of the eco-activists and the requests of the local head of the district forced the Russian Copper Company to retreat — probably for a while. Realnoe Vremya has investigated the situation.

Altushkin's copper plans

In Bashkiria, passions had not yet calmed down after the events in Kushtau, when a new “hot spot” broke out on the map of the republic — now in the south-east, in the Trans-Urals. On the Kryktytau Ridge (Abzelilovsky district), near the Salavat-sovkhoz khutor, the Alexandrinskaya mining and ore company, part of Igor Altushkin's Russian Copper Company in Sverdlovsk, began geological exploration works.

Salavat-sovkhoz khutor is located 33 kilometres from the border of the Abzelilovsky district with Magnitogorsk. In 2019, Russian Copper Company obtained the right to use mineral resources at the Salavat site. The permit was issued by the department for subsoil use in the Volga Federal District. It is planned to build an ore mining and processing plant at the field, produce 208,7 million tonnes of ore, from which 992,600 tonnes tonnes of copper will be obtained (with an average metal content of 0,48%). This summer, special equipment was brought to the site, trees were cut down, and the soil was drilled in several places.

Salavat-sovkhoz khutor is located 33 kilometres from the border of the Abzelilovsky district with Magnitogorsk. Photo: vk.com

As local activist Azamat Mukhametdinov told Realnoe Vremya, residents of the surrounding villages learned by the spring of last year that the auction for the development of the site had been won by Russian Copper Company. After meeting and discussing the situation, they opposed anyone touching their land.

“Near the proposed quarry, the Bolshow Kizil River and Maly kizil River flow out," explains Mukhametdinov. “And most of the villages are located along them. We do not have large polluting industries in the area. Dirty dust will settle on lakes and ski resorts.

High male mortality rate

In fact, on the Bolshoy Kizil River, there are the villages of Iskhakovo, Burangulovo, Saitkulovo, Utyaganovo, Ryskuzhino, Termenevo, Yarlykapovo, Kuskarovo, Ravilovo, Almukhametovo. According to our interlocutor, the river falls into the Sibay water intake and provides water to 80% of the city. As for the Maly Kizil River, this river flows past a number of villages in the Beloretsky district, Abzakovo ski resort (where Vladimir Putin has repeatedly visited) and falls into the Magnitogorsk water intake.

Industrial development can disrupt the river ecosystem of the area and lead to a deterioration in the quality of drinking water in the area, local residents say. It is where the Bolshoy and Maly Kizil Rivers begin, flowing into the Ural River. Underground water feeds Bannoye Lake (Yaktykul) — a resort place where year-round tourists come from all over Russia (in the health resort and ski complex), primarily from Magnitogorsk. Besides, the threat looms over some Red List plants.

According to Mukhametdinov, the environmental situation in these places already raises questions. Photo: culturalseason.ru

According to Mukhametdinov, the environmental situation in these places already raises questions. According to some sources, there were nuclear burials here in Soviet times. And there are still rusty signs of radiation danger.

“There is a high mortality rate among men living on the banks of the river: they do not live up to 50 years. There is a high percentage of cancer cases in our district," he says.

And another mining and processing plant can turn the area into a kind of analogue of Sibay, which last year was suffocated by toxic gas coming from the quarry (smog from sulphur dioxide). Let us remind that then the head of Bashkiria Radiy Khabirov had to “extinguish” the popular unrest. Besides, in the neighbouring Chelyabinsk Oblast, there are already sad examples of settlements where there are enterprises for the extraction or remelting of non-ferrous metals. Karabash, where Karabashmed JSC operates (another subsidiary of Russian Copper Company), has long been called the “black point of Russia”. By the way, the company from Yekaterinburg in the southern Urals opened a number of enterprises, the work of which raises many questions for eco-activists.

Besides, another mining and processing plant is unlikely to have a positive impact on the tourist attractiveness of the Abzelilovsky district.

Igor Altushkin's company assures that all the requirements of industrial and environmental safety are met during geological exploration. Moreover, they promise to create new jobs, give decent wages, and develop infrastructure.

Igor Altushkin's company assures that all the requirements of industrial and environmental safety are met during geological exploration. Photo: ipsc.ru

“Kushtau awakened hope. They can't jail them all”

At the same time, activists from among the residents of the Abzelilovsky district do not believe the industrialists. They have been joined by concerned people from Magnitogorsk and Sibay.

“People are afraid to speak out for every little thing, some were called by the police, they were forced to sign a paper saying that they would not gather for protests," Mukhametdinov continues. “But first, Khabarovsk, then Kushtau shihan awakened hope. We realised that they can't jail everyone, they can't scare them all. Despite various prohibitions, people took to the streets. We were joined by the head of the administration of the Abzelilovsky district, Ildar Nafikov. However, he wants to turn everything into a legal channel. But against such giants as Russian Copper Company, it is useless to fight using bureaucratic methods.

From 2019, there have been several such meetings in various villages, including Kuzhanovo, near the base of Russian Copper Company. And each time the number of protesters was growing. But after the events with Kushtau, Ufa residents began to organise solitary pickets in support of the residents of Trans-Urals. A photo of one of the most famous and active old women of Bashkortostan — Albina Iskhakova, the wife of the former CEO of Bashtransgaz, Fanis Iskhakov, went viral on social networks. The old woman is standing with the poster “Help save Abzelilovskiy Salavat-sovkhoz”.

But, unlike the shihans, no one in the Trans-Urals used force against the protesters. However, eyewitnesses noticed a group of “titushky” of athletic build, who were passing by in several cars and were on duty near the crowd.

To reassure people, last weekend in Askarovo (the district centre of Abzelilovsky district), the representatives of United Russia came to the next meeting: Deputy of the State Assembly-Kurultay of Bashkortostan Gulnur Kulsarina, elected from the Abzelilovsky district (Kizilsky Okrug), and State Duma Deputy Zarif Bayguskarov. A video of people's deputies trying to speak, but they were interrupted, went viral on the Internet.

A photo of one of the most famous and active old women of Bashkortostan — Albina Iskhakova, the wife of the former CEO of Bashtransgaz, Fanis Iskhakov, went viral on social networks. Photo: vk.com

Temporary victory for eco-activists

The persistence of the local residents forced Russian Copper Company to retreat, at least for a while. Russian Copper Company has recently withdrawn the machinery from Salavat filed and suspended exploration activities.

“Russian Copper Company is interested in constructive and peaceful dialogue, as well as the residents of the district. At meetings with the population, we will answer all questions in detail and tell you about the company's investment and social policy, as well as what benefits the territories receive from the neighborhood with our enterprises," said Anna Shabarova, the vice president for personnel policy and social responsibility at Russian Copper Company.

The head of Abzelilovsky district, Ildar Nafikov, expressing joy at the dialogue, said that the decision was made by the industrialists after petitions: “Due to the increased concern of the population and the real threat of provocations from some hotheads, I asked the management of Russian Copper Company to suspend geological exploration on the territory of the Salavat copper deposit in the Abzelilovsky district. After considering my request, the company agreed to put the work on pause and withdraw the equipment from the forest.”

The press service of the district administration added that discussions on the field development project will be held with the participation of local residents and representatives of the investor. In turn, the eco-activists intend to fight to the end.

By Timur Rakhmatullin
Analytics Bashkortostan