“They tell us one thing and they do something else”. The point of view of Eldorado Gold regarding its investments in Chalkidiki is analyzed in Kathimerini by the president of the company, George Burns. “We wish to have a good partnership with the Greek State. We have shown a great deal of patience and we will continue to do so”, says Mr. Burns. As for the attacks by ministers, he points out that they “are misinformed”.

The patience of Eldorado Gold, the parent company of Hellas Gold, has almost reached its limits regarding its troubled investment in Chalkidiki. According to George Burns, who began serving as president and CEO of the company last April, if the government blocks permanently the investment “they will be legally accountable to us” and there will be lawsuits.

“We will use all legal means of action in order to get the necessary licenses and authorizations and I believe that we will win the case”, said Mr. Burns, who we met at the offices of Hellas Gold in Central Athens. “However, if our disputes with the government cannot be resolved in a friendly way, I will do whatever is needed to safeguard the interests of our shareholders and employees”.

No improvement

Does Mr. Burns believe that the Tsipras government supports the investment?

“Every time I meet Mr. Stathakis he gives me the impression that he wishes that we move on. The problem is that his words are not consistent with actions. And this is particularly harmful for the agenda of the prime minister, Mr. Tsipras, who tries publicly and strongly to attract foreign investors and to accelerate the recovery of the economy. I have read this week an article in your newspaper that pleased me. Mr. Tsipras was saying to his ministers that they must reduce bureaucracy and all the pointless issues that prevent businesses from taking off. I thought that this is exactly what we need – but we still see no improvement ”.

Mr. Burns also reveals that, despite the efforts he made in order for a meeting with the prime minister to take place, there has been no response. “I am very encouraged by what Mr. Tsipras says and I would like to have the chance to meet him and discuss all issues”, he says. The head of the Canadian multinational speaks more positively about the leader of the official opposition. “Mr. Mitsotakis speaks publicly, in favor both of our sector and our investment. And the New Democracy party seems to support us politically, contrary to SYRIZA”.

How important is the case of Eldorado Gold regarding the international investors that consider investing in Greece?

“Very important. If you take a look at the investors in our company, they are big names, from the USA, Canada, Europe. The appetite for investment in other sectors in Greece exists – but the investors examine carefully the conditions in which we have found ourselves and the risks that our case exposes ”.

Mr. Burns looks back at the history of the activity of his company in Greece. “We spent more than two billion dollars to acquire these assets, and we spent another billion for their development”, he says. “Both should be operating today. Olympiada is essentially ready – the construction activities have been completed and tests are performed. The construction project at Skouries has been completed by 60%. Our initial planning provided for an expenditure of 190 million dollars at Skouries this year. By mid-year, we were obliged to reduce this amount to 85 millions, because we do not have one single permit of the ones we need in order to proceed. Both projects are affected by the lack of a timely licensing. They are ordinary licenses and permits, the approval of which should not take so much time”.

The investment in Chalkidiki “consists a large part of our business”, he remarks, “which has the result that the delays affect significantly the share price of Eldorado Gold (the investment of the company in Chalkidiki takes a large amount of my time compared to any other issue, he mentions). “Our share price has lost approximately 50% of its value compared to the beginning of the year”, he says (author’s note: over the last five years the share price fell by more than 85%).

Shareholders’ concerns

The other fact, he adds, that had a significant negative impact to the share price is “the large number of communications that the government may possibly resort to the procedure of arbitration”. This has caused “concerns and fear to our shareholders”. As Mr. Burns mentions, “we have not been yet officially informed that the arbitration will take place, nor that there has been any preliminary discussion, as is customary, about the existing problem, in order to find out if it can be resolved without any arbitration”. Instead, he remarks, there have been three Press Releases by the competent ministry, the last of which declared that the procedure would begin on August 31”.

This date has passed “without knowing yet what is the subject-matter of arbitration”, says the president and CEO of Eldorado Gold, expressing his surprise (Mr. Stathakis has set as new deadline the 15th of September). “Today, I can declare you that I am not aware of any pending issue, that prevents the development of these important assets. Meanwhile, we have won 18 cases at the supreme court (author’s note: the Greek Council of State). This situation is ridiculous!”

Given the fact that there are delays of several months, as well as grave attacks (about fraud, insider trading, money laundering, etc.) by ministers of the government, have there been any thoughts that the company acts more aggressively, by being, for example, the first to resort to arbitration?

“We want to have a good partnership with the Greek State. We have shown great patience, and we will continue to show patience”, he replies. Regarding the attacks by ministers, he says that “they are misinformed” and encourages them to discuss their information with him and the executives of the company: “They have never raised these issues in our meetings”.

We have a strong local support

Regardless of what happens in courts, the local reactions against Hellas Gold still go on. Can such a large-scale project succeed when it faces such an intense opposition by a part of the local population?

Mr. Burns firstly points out that “we have a very strong local support”, while the forces that are against the investment are “minor”.

“Look, I work in the mining sector for almost 40 years. In every area of the world that I have worked there are people who are ideologically opposed to mining extractions. A good company, such as our company, discusses with the people and tries to find a solution to the issues they pose. But there are people who will not support mines regardless of what the conditions are. Usually, when it is clear that the objections [author’s note: of the people opposed to the mines] are unfounded, the public administration and the government allow the operation of the company”.

Why this does not happen in the Greek case? Are the reasons political?

“I cannot say that. But what happens is very disappointing”.

The company’s critics insist however, that the flash smelting metallurgy process is inapplicable and dangerous for ore processing in the area, due to the high arsenic content in the concentrates. It is a view that has been adopted last November by the ministry of Environment, rejecting the technical study of the company for the metallurgy plant.

Leading scientists

Does the head of Eldorado Gold consider that this particular method is legally shielded and technically feasible?

“Certainly. We have the leading company in the world using this technology, in Finland; they have performed all the tests and have supplied all the technical documentation.

These leading experts have assured us that this method will succeed. Who says that it will not? I don’t understand it at all!”

(Regarding the rejection of the technical study last November, one more appeal of Hellas Gold to the Greek Council of State is pending. A trial date has not been set yet).

“I am an executive in the mining sector, but I am also an ecologist”, concludes the president and CEO of the parent company. “I believe that there can be a balance between these two, and the sector over the years has improved the method of planning, operation and closure of the mines. People who are unconditionally opposed to the mines have mobile (cell) phones, cars, access to electricity. None of the aforementioned would have existed without the extraction of the metals that are used in their manufacture”.

Critics and pending issues

The conflicts between the movement against mining extractions and the mining companies have lasted at least two decades in Chalkidiki, since the time of the Canadian company TVX. The reactions against Hellas Gold, subsidiary of Eldorado Gold, are in their peak since 2011, when the plans of the company for Olympiada and Skouries have been approved by the Papandreou government (by George Papakonstantinou as the competent minister).

People opposed to the investment argue that the technology proposed by the company for the mining plant of gold, silver and sulfuric acid that will operate, namely the flash smelting process, cannot be applied in the ore of the area, as arsenic content is high. The company replies that the method has been thoroughly tested and proven by the specialized Finnish company Outotec, of which the favorable opinion has been repeatedly accepted by the Greek Council of State.

The SYRIZA-ANEL government, has raised from the very beginning significant obstacles to the development of the investment, rejecting technical studies, reviewing permits that have been issued and delaying the issuance of new permits. The technical study for  the construction of the metallurgy plant, that has been rejected last November by the ministry of Environment, had been submitted on December 22, 2014. The administration, according to the current legislation, must respond to such requests within three months. The company has appealed to the Greek Council of State (December 28, 2016) against the decision of the ministry.

Respectively, according to “Hellas Gold” the following are pending: the approval of the technical study regarding the new enrichment plant at Madem Lakkos (delay of 31 months), the approval of the technical study regarding the closure of the old depleted part of the Olympiada mine (delay of 17 months), extensions and modifications of permits and licenses that are related with the enrichment plant at Skouries, the reconstruction permit of the water treatment plant of the Olympiada mine (the particular request has been submitted on September 8, 2016), etc. Finally, the consultation of the Central Archaeological Council (KAS) of Greece is pending for two years now, regarding the antiquities that have been found at the Skouries deposit.

 

39 years in the sector: George Burns began his career in the mining sector in Anaconda in 1978. He served as CEO in Centerra Gold and, until the end of 2016, in Goldcorp. He was appointed as president and CEO of Eldorado Gold at the end of last April. Since then he has traveled eight times to Greece, seeking solutions so that the investment of the company in Chalkidiki can proceed. He has also visited Greece one more time in March with his predecessor, Paul Wright.

 

[SOURCE: KATHIMERINI, SUNDAY EDITION, by Giannis Palaiologos, September 10, 2017]