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Prague (AFP) Nov 17, 2013
Czech gold deposits are whetting the appetites of foreign prospectors hoping to see the new government lift a mining moratorium in the aftermath of snap elections.
But rather than a dream come true, the prospect of a gold rush is a nightmare for environmentalists and residents of the hilly region south of the capital Prague, a popular resort area that holds the biggest deposit.
"No one wants an opencast mine here, in this wonderful natural setting near the Vltava river," says Jiri Stastka, mayor of the central village of Chotilsko.
A few hundred metres from the village, the Vesely Vrch wooded hill -- or Merry Hill -- and its surroundings conceal around 140 tonnes of the precious metal worth an estimated 100 billion koruna (3.7 billion euros, $5 billion).
Known as the Mokrsko deposit, this is just over a quarter of the Czech Republic's estimated 380-400 million tonnes of gold, which is around one percent of the globe's deposits.
But locals fear irreversible environmental damage, particularly the pollution of groundwater since toxic cyanide is used in the extraction of gold.
"The hill would become a hole 200 metres (650 feet) deep, whose bottom would lie below the river. Cyanide is dangerous for the environment, one can never rule out an accident due to the human factor," Stastka told AFP.
Astur Bohemia, the Czech subsidiary of Canada's Astur Gold, recently applied for a five-year licence to exploit minerals in the containing two grammes of gold per tonne in the deposit.
It is one of five companies queued up for gold mining permits from the Czech environment ministry.
Others include Delta Bohemia, a branch of Delta Gold Corporation, headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, with operations in California and Australia and local Czech company GTS Potamon.
Gold mining in the lands now comprising the Czech Republic stretches back two millennia. It flourished between the first to third centuries under the Celts and then again with Slavs in the 14th century.
But standing in its way now is a moratorium on gold mining, which the government imposed in the 1990s in response to similar requests by foreign prospectors.
"No gold deposit is currently being exploited in the Czech Republic," industry ministry spokesman Filip Matys told AFP.
Not all that glitters...
Prospectors are now betting on the next government -- a likely coalition of the left-wing Social Democrats, the populist ANO movement and the centrist Christian Democrats -- lifting the moratorium.
"The cyanide-based technology is used without problem worldwide, for instance in New Zealand," said Astur Bohemia spokeswoman Olga Bubnikova, adding that "the process occurs in a closed circuit, in double-shell tubs".
She also spoke of the "great economic potential" of the Mokrsko deposit, which "could benefit not only the company but also the Czech state and the region."
By law the cash-strapped Czech state could receive up to a tenth of the value of recovered deposits.
"(Astur Bohemia) has promised us wonders, but we prefer to live without its money and leave the gold to future generations who will perhaps use a different mining method," said Stastka.
The environment ministry said it had stopped examining Astur Gold's request over procedural errors. Its spokesman Matyas Vitik added that a potential change to the law reversing the moratorium would require "many preliminary analyses".
"Environmental protection is a priority," he told AFP.
Jiri Bendl, head of the Vesely Vrch civic association, said the project was "detrimental not just in terms of ecology but economics too".
"If we leave the gold to future generations, our citizens and the Czech state won't lose anything. The only loser would be the mining lobby."
He added that he backed a movement protesting a giant gold mine project in Rosia Montana in Romania, where Canadian company Gabriel Resources wants to dig up 300 tonnes of gold and 1,600 tonnes of silver.
They plan to use 12,000 tonnes of cyanide a year, which is 12 times the amount used for mining in all of the European Union.
"The situation here is different from other parts of the world that mine gold, mainly with regards to population density," Bendl told AFP.
"In New Zealand, it is undoubtedly possible to stake a claim to an extraction zone without bothering anyone, but in central Bohemia it's unthinkable."
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