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Karamken: An Abandoned Gold Facility Shows Need for Reclamation in Russia

Southwest Research and Information Center works with environmental leaders and community organizations in Siberia and the Russian Far East by providing technical assistance to support local efforts to address the environmental impacts of Soviet-era mines. Another focus is to insure that new mines use pollution prevention technologies and provide for guaranteed reclamation after closure. Local examples of mine impacts and the introduction of innovative technologies are critical to effective communications in Russia - as is true in any mining region around the world. One of the challenges facing local organizations has been the lack of specific examples of environmental problems at specific mines in Russia. This was the goal of Research Director Paul Robinson's visit during a July 2004 mining exchange to the Magadan and Kamchatka Regions - identify compelling examples of mine and mine waste impact problems in those regions. This goal was attained during a tour of the Karamken gold complex in Magdan region led by the Magadan Center on the Environment (MACE) and the North East Interdisciplinary Scientific Research Institute (NEISRI) in Magadan City.

The Magadan region is in the Russian Far East northwest of the Kamchatka Peninsula and has been a major center for extraction of gold, silver and other metals and minerals for more than 70 years. During the Stalin period, Magadan was synonymous with the Gulag chain of forced labor camps, where the camps were very often gold mines. Prior to the end of the Soviet Union, the Magadan Region was reported to have produced more than 3000 tons of gold from both placer and hard rock gold deposits. With the fall of the Soviet Union, many operating gold mines and mills were quickly shut down and abandoned. One of the largest of the abandoned gold complexes was at Karamken, 100 kilometeres (60 miles) north of Magadan City, the regional capital. The Karamken site is on a tributary to the Khasyn River, near a producing salmon fishery.

Karamken was a modern facility by Soviet standards. Opened in 1978 to process gold ores from nearby hard rock deposits, during the 1980s the facility also processed gold and silver ores from throughout the Magadan Region, including the Kolyma River Basin of northern Magadan, the source of most of Magadan's mineral wealth. Shut down with the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the Karamken mill and tailings complex had been considered for the processing of ores from post-Soviet mines such as the Dukat silver-gold mine and the Aginskoe gold mine. However, neither of these plans to operate the Karamken complex came to fruition and the site, with its complex of mines, mill and tailings pond remains abandoned without any apparent reclamation and closure activities.

The site was the subject of field trip in July led by Ogla Yaroslavna Moskvina, Project Director at MACE, and Vladimir Egorivich Glotov, Deputy Director of NEISRI. The Karamken tailings site had been subject to a ground water pollution investigation during the mid-1990s that Dr. Glotov's Institute was involved in. His vast knowledge of the site made the visit particularly valuable.

The tailings (the waste from the cyanide-leach circuit for precious metal recovery) from the Karamken mill were deposited behind a 20-meter high, 300-meter long retention dam built across a perennial stream, Tyumanni Creek, that flowed into and through the town of Karamken downstream of the dam. The creek was blocked and diverted by a 200-meter long head dam. The integrity of the tailings retention dam, and the long-term containment of the tailings, depends on the effective diversion of all upstream flows, and the prevention of either overfilling, oversaturation, or erosion of the retention dam.

The head dam is impounded with a 0.5 x 0.5 square kilometer lake and was constructed using "thermistors" (devices to maintain frozen conditions) to insure a that the dam had a non-porous frozen core. The surface flow outlet for the lake is a diversion channel paralleling the east side of the tailings disposal area. The kilometer-long diversion channel was built with some portions lined with sheet metal and some portions lined with concrete panels. During operations, the diversion channel inlet was protected by a row metal posts driven into the lake bottom to form an "ice barrier" to prevent damage to the diversion channel from the 1-2 meter thick ice released during the Spring break-up in the upstream lake.

The head dam, ice barrier, and diversion channels have all suffered so significantly from neglect and vandalism that they are unable to perform their designed functions. Of the original 18 pilings driven in to the lake bottom to block ice only the stumps of two pilings are still visible. For all practical purposes the ice barrier no longer exists. All the thermistors have been vandalized and are no longer functioning. The head dam no longer has a frozen core and hasn't for years. The metal sheets in the diversion channel are bent and warped, allowing a significant portion of the water flowing from upstream to enter the tailings disposal area rather than flow around it.

As a result of the deterioration of the head dam and diversion system the tailings are no longer isolated from upstream water flows. Rather than a tailings disposal system where groundwater flow is blocked by a frozen dam core, the destruction of the thermistors leaves the head dam porous along its 200 meter length, with groundwater continuously flowing into and though the tailings. And rather than conveying all surface water around the tailings, the damaged diversion channel allows surface water to continuously enter and flow through the tailings. The destroyed ice barrier no longer provides any protection for the diversion channel or head dam, allowing ice to build up at the inlet to the diversion. This leads to overflows into the tailings disposal area, as ice "pounds away" at the sides and base of the diversion channel.

Downstream the failures continue. According to Dr. Glotov, the tailings retention dam was designed to be constructed with a "key trench" cut into solid bedrock beneath the whole length of the dam to prevent groundwater flowing under the dam. It was also supposed to be solidly connected to the rock at either end of the dam with concrete to prevent groundwater flowing through the sides of dam. The retention dam relied on a pair of metal siphon tubes to convey excess surface water due to peak flood events over the top the of the retention dam. No back up spillway to convey excess water over the dam was designed or built. The overflow control siphons have been as badly vandalized as the thermistors and ice barriers at the upstream end of the tailings area. Only the skeleton of the siphon remains as the pumps and piping necessary to operate the siphons were removed and the metal left on site was heavily vandalized. As a result, no system is in place to convey peak flows over or around the tailings area.

The detection of cyanide in groundwater supplies in the town of Karamken downgradient of the tailings area led to investigations of the subsurface structure of the retention dam. Those investigation showed that the dam was not built as designed and was not "keyed into" underlying bedrock. Subsurface investigations through boreholes demonstrated that the retention dam actually overlay a 20-30 meter thickness of porous alluvial valley fill and weathered bedrock. The investigation also showed a porous fault zone along the side of the dam that had not been detected, or not been revealed, in pre-construction studies. Therefore, rather than the retention dam being a barrier to groundwater flow, the dam allowed groundwater to flow under and around it. Indeed water was pushed downward and beyond the downstream end of the dam by the huge weight of water and tailings held back by the dam. Pollutants released under and through the retention dam exceeded cyanide standards 3 kilometers (more than 1.5 miles) downstream of the tailings area. Pollution control efforts downgradient of the dam were added after the pollution was discovered. These included a row of pumped wells immediately beyond the downstream "toe" of the dam and injection of clean water beyond the pumped wells to dilute pollutants.

The range of problems at the Karamken tailings site reads like a checklist of defects to prevent when closing and reclamation a tailings sites. The site suffers from:

  • lack of an effective closure plan;
  • lack of resources to implement an effective closure plan;
  • dependence on control technologies that require extensive maintenance to function;
  • inability to prevent wholesale vandalism;
  • failure to isolate the site from surface water and groundwater flows; and
  • failure to construct the facility as designed.

This set of characteristics leave the Karamken sites and the community and watershed downstream from it vulnerable to continuing pollutant releases and potential dam failure due to overtopping or oversaturation. While the problem is well recognized by specialists at NEISRI, activists at MACE, and regulatory agencies such as the Ministry of Natural Resources, no governmental or private funding source is available to address the short-term or long-term risks the sites present.

The complex set of problems at Karamken result from a combination of inadequate design, inadequate review during construction, lack of effective closure methods, and lack of resources to insure or maintain closure. The site is a visually striking example of how bad conditions can get without effectively designed or financially guaranteed reclamation and closure plans.

Though gold and silver mining is expanding in Magadan and other mining regions of Russia, the disclosure, independent assessment, and financial guarantee of reclamation plans commonplace in the U.S. and Canada have yet to be adopted. However, even U.S. and Canadian firms and facilities funded by international financial institutions fail to publicly disseminate reclamation plans, regulators have yet to conduct independent technical reviews of reclamation plans, and mine operators have yet to establish bonds, insurance or independent bank accounts to guarantee that reclamation plans are conducted. The pattern of activity and images from the Karamken site will serve as powerful example of the environmental consequences of abandonment of mine waste sites without effectively guaranteed closure.

Just as the disclosure, review and financial guarantee of reclamation designs has yet to emerge in Russia, no abandoned mine land reclamation program exists there either. The backlog of leaky, rusty and risky mine waste sites in the former Soviet Union, including Russia and the newly independent states, is huge and a growing threat to ecological and community resources in areas that never saw much benefit from the original mining activity in the first place.

The prospect for a full and effective reclamation of the Karamken site under the current circumstances in Magadan Regions is somewhere between slim and none - much closer to none. And the potential for emergence of a future operator of the site, even in this period of high gold and silver prices, who might address reclamation as a part of a new phase of precious metal production, is reduced by the poor conditions at the site. These constraints prevent an effective response to the environmental risks at Karamken in the short run.

Whether a successful effort to reclaim the site can be mounted or not, Karamken stands as a visible warning to those who see the site or study its condition, of what to avoid in future mine and mill development in the Russian Far East and across that enormous country. While the site provides examples of problems to avoid, and therefore lessons to be learned, Karamken is still a very important site for those concerned about the environmental and watershed impacts of mining in Russia, one the world's most aggressive mining nations.

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"Some people in the community were behind mining, [they] thought, mining is good for money. Some Navajo families were compensated for [past] mining on their lands. They were rich for a while. But it seems like to Navajos or native people, it's not good for us. As of today, I've seen these families suffer; many are gone from alcoholism, and [many] didn't spend the money in the right way. There's nothing there, now they're suffering again. This is almost where we're headed again. In the long run, I think it's not made for the native people to be so rich off the Earth. Uranium mining, it's like it's an omen."

--Mitchell Capitan,
Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining

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