Mining in the Rhodopes

Rhodope Mountains

Rhodope Mountains

2700 people in the Rhodopes are now engaged in mining and processing of ore. Gold in the Rhodopes is currently being extracted in only one place – in the “Chala” mine near the Haskovo Mineral Baths, the ore being transported from there to the concentration installations of “Gorubso – Kardzhali” in the city center. For the last two years the Kardzhali metallurgical plant OCK has not been working, but lead and zinc are still mined in the ore fields of Lucky, Madan and Zlatograd.

In Rudozem there is an important functioning enrichment plant, now owned by “Vurba Batantsi” , and is also the headquarters of “Rudmetal” – a company that has undergone management privatization, Rudmetal has only a single, but productive, mine “Dimov Dol”. In the village of Lucky there are two mines and a flotation plant, which employs half of the adults in the community. In Madan the local mining company employs over 700 people, but with far more than this needed to supply and repair it. Overall, this is the Rhodope mining at the moment – of course we are excluding proposed mining projects in the coming years for 1 billion levs (about $ 0.5 billion) which we will describe in more detail in one of the next chapters.

"Gorubso" - Madan

“Gorubso” – Madan

Mining in the area of Madan is expanding. There, in 2012 “Vurba Batantsi” – a joint venture of KCM and “Minstroy” got quickly under way as “ Gorubso – Madan “. Within three years, the enterprise is planning to increase its yield by 60%. The average metal content (lead and zinc) in Madan ore is currently about 4.5 %. It is enriched in Rudozem and the concentrate is sold to KCM, as is the case for all Rhodope mines. In the KCM plants the lead-zinc ores yield silver as well.

Listed sites today correspond to only 20% of the yield achieved in the socialist years. But from a village with 200 houses Madan has become a town and has expanded one hundredfold. In 1960 the Rhodope ore deposits placed Bulgaria 8th in the world in production of lead and 12th in zinc and over more than a quarter of century more than 3 million tons of ore has been extracted annually. This has brought about a dense network of mining related activity in the mountains.

During the years of socialism, involving compulsory labor service and voluntary Brigades (praised by poets and actually achieving a heroic ethos), mining towns in the Rhodopes have grown pools of miners, well-stocked shops, gardens, restaurants and flourishing kindergartens.

But annual average incomes of surface miners are low at about 800 levs ($ 450), although the best men working underground earn up to 2000 levs. This money is not so bad for immediate needs and the prospect of decent pensions also supports the social status of the miners. However working conditions are severe and since 2000 the media has reported 19 deaths due to accidents.

It is interesting to look back at the development of modern mining in the area under a German initiative in the 1930s. After signing a contract for German funding at the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 (Bulgaria was an ally of Germany in both World Wars), the local mining company transported loads of ore by trucks over the mountains to the rail line in Plovdiv, north of the Rhodopes. Ideally this would have been done in winter given the snowy mountain roads. A test delivery was undertaken for processing in the metallurgical workshops of “Shtoltenberg” near Aachen, close to the west border of Germany. In places the mountain road was buried or had collapsed; several times tons of ore had to be reloaded from one truck to another manually. The local self-taught miners were soon augmented by a group of German technicians who supervised the mines and the construction of buildings and roads. They also helped to build power plants and an impressive modern aerial ropeway to transport the ore.

With the arrival of the Russians in 1946 the scale of operation change became much more extensive, but the principles and most of the methods remained the same. For about 15 years after the 50s, there was a boom in mining and local happiness coinciding with a period of very high world metal prices. Then in 1989, was the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also the beginning of a phase of cheap raw materials, which deepened the agony of privatization. Thus we can see how cyclic phases in world metal prices play havoc with the lives of people in an isolated mountain area depending on one main industry. Currently the price phase is favourable, but maybe we are on the tail of the better times. Global events are certain to happen but difficult to predict.

In Madan miners dominate the city. 55% of the adult population in Lucky is employed in “Lucky Invest” group of KCM. Technological development is the area’s most developed in Lucky, and the company in Rudozem is trying to keep up. In Zlatograd and Rudozem mining is no longer structurally municipalities: in the first case shifted from tourism, the second – from the industry. Nearby, close to Kardzhali in the village of Enyovche the gold mine is already exhausted.

In many places, ore mining is the last chance for locals to receive a salary. Many, indeed, are not aware that their grounds livelihoods will suffer because of this salary. In the village of Sedefche men are eagerly waiting for the company to provide work.  However there will be only crude ore extraction since the ore will be shipped to Kardzhali for processing. “Gorubso – Kardzhali” has optimistic plans for three, four or even five new gold mines in the Rhodope Mountains. They are relatively small, but with good enough returns at current metal prices. In the village of Sedefche, proximity to houses is less likely to cause the company a problem if they compensate the owners – which is only viable if gold prices remain high. Yet another dilemma for locals caused by their mines.

But even that looks like good luck in Krumovgrad, where an opencast mine is about to collapse “Ada Tepe” – a historic site of an extinct volcano near the city. There has been gold mining there since long ago, but apparently the modern methods of the Canadian “Dundee Precious Metals” are what will put an end to the wonderful landscape. This is on top of the drying up of the river Krumovitsa in the summer where there are plans for a flotation plant with tailings, the dump of which will be watered by sprinklers to prevent dusting over the city, which is 3 km away. But a tailings pond will extend up to the local fields of the people where today they may be poor but as yet not hungry.