-The Oyu Tolgoi mine will use only 20 per cent of water reserves in a water resource discovered deep underground-
Interviewed G.Erdenetuya, Environmental Compliance Superintendent in charge of legal compliance with the Environmental Department of Oyu Tolgoi LLC .
Water is a precious treasure in the Gobi Desert. So can you tell us about the water policy for Oyu Tolgoi operating in the Gobi Desert?
We, Mongolians protect and treasure water as much as we treasure the wish granting magical jewel - Chandmani. We have to use water in the development of the Oyu Tolgoi, a project which has enormous significance for future development of Mongolia. We need to use water to mine the minerals and to get the benefit from the project. We understand though the importance of using water efficiently and carefully. Our water policy is a priority for Oyu Tolgoi. We are committed to minimal and the most conservative water use possible. With this goal in mind, we have installed water conserving equipment and procedures from the beginning of the construction phase through to the production phase of the project.
Mongolia has a number of laws and regulations concerning water. How does Oyu Tolgoi comply with these?
Any foreign invested company operating in Mongolia must comply with all laws, standards and regulations. Oyu Tolgoi strictly complies with these laws in all its activities. We have developed an annual environmental protection plan in compliance with all the relevant laws and regularly submit our implementation report and annual water usage reports to the relevant government agencies in a time frame specified by the law. If a business conducts water exploration at its own cost and finds water reserves, it still does not have right to use it. According to the law, use of a water reserve has to be verified by the relevant professional organisations. The Gunii hooloi water reserve, a deep water aquifer found by our engineers, was verified by Order no. 22 by the Minister of Natural Environment and Tourism in 2009. This was based on a decision by the Water Sector Scientific and Technological Council under the Water Authority dated 7 November 2008. The water reserve was evaluated as a B, C1 industrial grade source and approved to be used at flow rate of 870 litres per second. A detailed environmental impact assessment report has been made at each phase of the project by licensed professional organisations and the recommendations are included in the annual environmental protection plan and are successfully being implemented.
According to the Investment Agreement signed with Government of Mongolia, what are the obligations of Oyu Tolgoi concerning water and how does Oyu Tolgoi fulfill these obligations?
According to the Investment Agreement and the laws of Mongolia, the company has to pay to use surface and ground water. Every month Oyu Tolgoi pays the local community for the water we use, this is in accordance with an agreement signed with the local community. There is clause for the provision of the water supply to soum centers which falls directly under the responsibility of the project. A 1.7 billion MNT investment in 2011 of field geophysical exploration and drilling work determined a preliminary domestic and drinking water reserve of Khanbogd soum. Professional organisations recommended to do further detailed exploration work. This year the exploration work continues. The agreement has a clause for an independent organisation to verify the water usage and for the company use the water efficiently.
You said Oyu Tolgoi will use a minimal amount of water and will be water efficient. Does this mean a minimum amount of water will be used or will water be re-used?
Oyu Tolgoi is committed to the conservative use of water policy. As I said earlier, we have installed, at all production stages, water saving equipment. Oyu Tolgoi is working towards the goal of becoming one of most water efficient mining concentrators in the world. The most efficient tailings thickener is planned for use during operation of the Oyu Tolgoi mine. Industrial waste water will be completely drawn back to the concentrator for reuse. 100 per cent of cooling water, underground water from the mine, domestic waste water and vehicle wash water will be reused after treatment. The water re-use model is part of the most conservative water use model in the world. Oyu Tolgoi is committed to implementing water-efficient technology and saving water resources for the local community and future generations.
People say the deep ground water will be all used up and turn Gobi into a desert. How big is the approved water reserve? How much water will the Oyu Tolgoi project use?
Oyu Tolgoi have conducted hydrogeological exploration work in a 100-150 km radius of the Oyu Tolgoi project site, looking for water sources for the Oyu Tolgoi gold-copper mine. This exploration work happened in two phases in 2003-2005 and 2007-2008 and as result, three water aquifers were discovered in the Saxaul valley, Gunii Hooloi and Galba Gobi. Oyu Tolgoi decided to use the Gunii Hooloi water aquifer, 35-70 km northeast of the project site, because of its proximity to the concentrator and because size of the water reserve will have less impact on natural environment. This deep water aquifer covers a total 560 square km in area and contains six billion eight hundred million cubic metres of water. If we assume 100 thousand tonnes of ore will be processed each day, the water usage would total 696 litres per second. This is less than the permitted water usage of 870 litres per second. If we continuously use the water at this rate for 40 years, only 20 per cent of the Gunii Hooloi deep water aquifer will be used and 80 per cent of the resource will remain. Let’s compare the Guniii Hooloi deep water aquifer to a 40 litre bucket. Only eight litres of water from the bucket will be used and 32 litres will remain in the bucket. In addition to this, more than 80 per cent of industrial waste water will be re-used. According to the study 10 per cent will be lost to evaporation or leaks. Monthly and annual water usage and re-usage will be included in the water usage report and submitted to the professional organisations and will be available for public access. The Water Authority has set up 4 control wells around the water aquifer and have installed their own control equipment. This equipment will measure water levels and physical characteristics of the water every minute, the data will then be transmitted via satellite communication so independent monitoring can be done. Results of this work will be accessible and open for local residents and interested parties.
Local residents perceive that when the deep ground water is pumped for use, the area above it will sink and collapse? Is this really so?
No, Gunii Hooloi water aquifer is not the deep ground water talked about by the herders. It is ancient water situated very deep in the ground at a depth of 70-400 metres. This water is not like water contained in a well. It is situated in the spaces between rocks and sediments (gravel, sand and compressed stones). The rocks will remain same even if the water is used. Therefore, there will be no sinking or depression of the soil.
Local residents say when the deep ground water is used, hand-operated wells will be exhausted and local flora will be affected? Is there relationship between surface water and deep ground water?
The local herders hand-operated water wells are very shallow, they have a depth of 5-15 metres.The water wells are fed by precipitation. The Gunii Hooloi water aquifer is situated at a depth of 70-400 metres. Between these two different water sources is a very thick, watertight clay formation. Scientifically, there is very little probability that water levels of surface water sources will drop due to use of deep ground water. Potential impacts are being regularly monitored. We have been closely monitoring both shallow and deep aquifer levels in order to identify any impact and mitigate any risk since 2003. Results of our monitoring show that the hand-operated water wells of herders in the Gobi region are dependent on precipitation and climate conditions. Monitoring and assessment of herder wells, springs and boreholes will continue regularly.
Local residents perceive it is wrong to use water for a mine when there is so little clean water in the Gobi. Tell us about the quality of the water in the deep aquifer?
People think the aquifer contains clean spring water, but they are wrong. The aquifer water has a high mineral content and does not meet the drinking water standards of Mongolia - so is not suitable for domestic consumption. Without filtering and cleaning, the aquifer water can only be used for industrial purposes.