By Tuvan Gumrukcu
ANKARA (Reuters) - Canada-based Alamos Gold has defended its environmental record at a mining project in western Turkey against a wave of protests, saying it had paid for future reforestation at the site and denying cyanide would leak into the surrounding area.
Thousands of Turks and opposition lawmakers protested on Monday in the Canakkale province against expected pollution from the mine, saying Alamos had cut down more trees than it had declared and would use cyanide, contaminating water in the region.
In an interview in Ankara, Alamos CEO John McCluskey said protests against the project near the town of Kirazli were based on politically-motivated misinformation.
The area at the site now largely stripped of trees would begin to return to its previous state after the six years envisaged for the project, he said.
"We've already paid for it ... As part of the forestry permit, we have paid about $5 million (and) a big component of that fee is to pay for reforestation," McCluskey said, adding that only government authorities were allowed to cut trees, not the company.
"In six and a half years, the whole focus of this area will be to replant. And in a decade, maybe a bit more than that, it will look like a forest again," he said.
Critics of the project fear that the mine's use of cyanide will harm the ecological structure of the mountainous area, and will contaminate soil and water near the Atikhisar dam.
McCluskey, however, said cyanide would only be used in the final step of the process to extract gold, and that the company had taken measures to ensure there would be no leaks into the environment. Operations would not affect the watershed, he said.
"Not only do we make that impossible, if we didn't make that impossible we shouldn't even start, because by the time you've added the cyanide to the process it's because there is gold there. And if you lose the cyanide, you lose the gold," he said.
CLAIMS OF POLITICAL AGENDA
Toronto-listed Alamos has a market value of $2.8 billion and produced 125,200 ounces of gold in the second quarter. A significant element of its future production plans is in Turkey.
In a two-hour interview on the sidelines of meetings in Ankara, McCluskey said it was impossible for the Canakkale mine to affect the Atikhisar dam because the mining solution would have to flow uphill to reach a separate watershed.
"In order to say something otherwise, they just have to lie," he said when asked about the claims of protest leaders.
Major construction projects under Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's government have sparked protests over the years, with 2013 opposition to the redevelopment of Istanbul's Gezi Park growing into nationwide anti-government unrest that prompted a violent security crackdown and hundreds of arrests.
Earlier this year, students in Ankara protested against plans to cut down hundreds of trees to build a dormitory on a school campus.
The government says such projects support the economy, which had been driven for years by a construction boom which ended in last year's currency crisis and recession.
Protesters against the Alamos mine on Monday marched to the site where they were allowed entry to a field on the property.
TEMA, a charitable group, has said 195,000 trees had been cut down for the project, well above the 46,000 target previously announced by Alamos' Turkish unit Dogu Biga, which has said only 13,400 trees were felled.
The Turkish government rejects charges that the mine will damage the environment.
McCluskey said the demonstrations were a political attack aimed at creating unrest.
"It is a very cynical thing to say, but I believe that this whole attack is essentially just an environmental cloak that is being put over what is really a deep political agenda," he said.
"What I've never experienced in the past is where there has been very deliberate misinformation about this project that is being published in an effort to get very rapidly a very emotive social media response."
(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Birsen Altayli in Kirazli, Turkey; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and David Holmes)