Four in custody over SSR gold mine landslide in Turkey

The Çöpler mine has been operating since 2010. (Image courtesy of SSR Mining)

A search for nine workers buried after a landslide hit SSR Mining’s (TSX: SSRM)(ASX: SSR) gold mine in eastern Turkey continued on Wednesday, the interior minister said, while local media reported that four people, including the operation’s field manager, were taken into custody as part of an investigation.

Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said that police and military teams, mine rescuers and volunteers, totalling more than 1,700 search and rescue personnel, were on the ground to look for the missing workers. Five of them are believed to have been in a container hut, three in a vehicle and one in a truck, the minister said.

The incident happened on Tuesday at the Çöpler gold mine, 80%-owned by US-based SSR Mining, which suspended operations. The landslide, described by the company as a “large slip on the heap leach pad”, caused shares to lose more than than 50% of their value in both the New York and Toronto exchanges on Tuesday. 

Security footage shared on X shows a massive mound of soil, which authorities said had been processed for gold and piled on the hills, speedily crumble and flow into the valley in a deluge of earth and rocks, prompting mining trucks nearby to escape.

Turkish authorities have launched a probe to determine the cause of the landslide and the safety conditions of the mine.

Cyanide leak fears

Environmental groups fear a cyanide and sulphuric acid leak, used in the process of gold extraction, could reach the Euphrates River, which flows from Turkey to Syria and Iraq.

Their worries stem from cyanide leak at the mine in 2020, caused by a burst pipe, which forced the mine’s suspension. Çöpler reopened two years later after the company was fined and a cleanup operation was completed.

“No contamination has been detected for now,” the Environment Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday. 

Turkey’s mining industry has been marred by a series of accidents in recent years. In 2022, a coal mine explosion killed 41 workers. But the country’s worst mining disaster in record happened in 2014 also at a coal mine, which resulted in 301 workers dead.

The government is facing criticism from opposition parties and industry groups for ignoring Copler’s activities after the 2022 accident that also caused a cyanide spill.

“The government has preferred to side with mine owners, not with citizens,” Meral Aksener, leader of the opposition IYI Party, said in Ankara on Wednesday. “I specifically warned them in 2022 about the danger this mine poses, but they chose to turn a deaf ear.”

The Çöpler gold mine, in operations since 2010, is run by private company Anagold. It produced 56,768 ounces of gold in the third quarter of 2023 and is SSR’s second-largest producing gold mine.