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Zijin opens Serbia’s largest copper mine

Cukaru Peki upper zone. (Image courtesy of SRK Consulting.)

Zijin Mining, China’s largest gold miner and one of the country’s top copper producers, has begun operations at its Cukaru Peki copper and gold mine in Serbia. 

The asset, part of the Timok project, is expected to make the Balkan country Europe’s second-largest copper producer

Zijin has poured $474 million to date into the new underground mine and said the Upper Zone is designed to process 3.3 million tonnes of ore per annum.

“The first part of the project involves mining an ultra high-grade ore body. It is expected to produce 50,000 tonnes of copper,” Zijin said. 

Cukaru Peki was originally slated to begin production in the summer of 2021, with an initial average copper output of 91,000 tonnes a year and annual gold production of about 200,000 ounces. It is now expected to gradually increment output until reaching a peak of 135,000 tonnes of copper a year. 

Serbia’s government anticipates the country’s booming mining sector will start generating between 4% and 5% of its total GDP in less than 10 years, a significant increase from its current 2%. 

In 2018 Zijin Mining became Serbia’s strategic partner in RTB Bor, the country’s sole copper complex, pledging to invest $1.9 billion over six years in return for a 63% stake. 

Since then, it has invested $142 million to improve local ecology and environment, which is more than double of the amount agreed in a strategic agreement with the company, according to Zijin

The Zijin-RTB Boor venture unfolded as Serbia deepened its ties with China despite concern from the European Union, which the Balkan state is trying to join. 

RTB Bor, in eastern Serbia, was key in the development of Serbia’s industrial sector before the collapse of communist Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. However, it later became a burden on the country’s struggling economy because of malpractices and international sanctions during the regime of late president Slobodan Milosevic. 

The company had to temporarily halt work at the mine in April due to an alleged breach of the country’s environmental standards. 

The Serbian unit was ordered to complete a wastewater treatment plant on priority at the mine to avoid polluting the River Pek, a tributary of the Danube. 

Key market

Serbia Zijin Copper is in the midst of overhauling and expanding its four mines and a smelter. The plan also includes improving environmental protection in the heavily polluted Bor region in the east. 

The newly open mine is also expected to boost Serbia’s gold reserves from an already record-high 37 tonnes, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Friday. The move seeks to prepare for the energy crisis rattling Europe.

China has spent billions of euros in Serbia, as part of its belt and road initiative to open new foreign trade links for local companies.