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World’s longest continuously producing copper mine with over 4,000 years of history

Interview - November 18, 2015

Constantinos Xydas, CEO of Hellenic Copper Mines, looks at Cyprus’ long mining tradition, the importance of technology in its development, and the far-reaching international and historical impact of the nation on the industry.



Before going into detail with the main aspects regarding the mining sector and Hellenic Copper Mines we would like to know about how important has been the mining sector for the development of Cyprus so could you share with us the story behind the world’s longest continuous producing copper mine with over 4,000 years history?

Let’s start first with the early 20th century. After three centuries of Ottoman occupation, in 1878, Cyprus was rented to the British by the Turks. During the Turks occupation, there was no mining activity at all in the island. When the British came, things started changing. They started issuing prospecting permits and showed some interest in mining. In 1912, an American prospector was sent to Egypt by the owners of an American company to find the sources of the pharaohs’ gold. During his trip, as he was approaching Egypt, there was a storm, so his ship got nestled for a few days in Cyprus. He thought that it might be a good idea for him to see if there was any interesting mineral wealth in the island. He rented a few camels. He put all the exploration equipment on them, and started looking around Cyprus. He asked the local people if they knew of any mining activity.

At that time, Cyprus was a 100% agriculture place. He was finally told that there was a place called Skouriotissa. In the Greek language, it means the place of slag. He went to that place and found a monastery just outside the mine and a church called “Our Lady of the Slag”. He parked his camels and equipment, and started exploring. He put all his money and effort in this venture and he finally discovered the ancient Voukassa ore body.

He formed a company supported by two American investors, but with numerous difficulties, since he had to establish an industry in an agricultural country. Step by step, the mine was growing and growing. More high-grade copper deposits were discovered later, namely the Mavrovouni, which is one of the richest deposits found anywhere in the world. They established the Cyprus Mines Corporation Company, with 100% American ownership. This company was fast growing and active in building installations for processing the ore, then opening of new mines, hiring and training people, and in this way, introducing technology to the island. It became the leading industry in Cyprus and then it expanded in the United States.

If you happened to be in the United States some years ago, you would have come across many mines having the word Cyprus in their name. They were subsidiaries of this Cyprus Mines Corporation that eventually became one of the biggest mining companies in the United States. As far as I know, all these subsidiaries have been bought out by new mining enterprises of the USA and eventually the name “Cyprus” was lost.

In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus and occupied the north part of the island. The processing installations of that company remained in the occupied area, plus the Mavrovouni and some other mines, while the Skouriotissa mine, the mine the Hellenic Copper Mines Ltd, operates remained in the free area. In any case, the processing installations were in the north and could not be accessed by the Greek staff. So, the American company stopped the operations and left Cyprus. Unfortunately, as a result of the extensive operations, the lack of legislation, rules, and knowledge of environmental protection, and the sudden interruption of the operations, serious environmental problems were left behind in the mines, the plants and in all areas where ore or tailing had been deposited.

After the American company was established, a strong interest about mining in Cyprus followed, and so we had some more companies coming in. A British company reopened the Limni mines at the northwest of Cyprus, and others opened the asbestos mines, and the chromium mines.

In the early ‘20s, a Greek industrialist established a subsidiary in Cyprus of his Anonymous Hellenic Company of Chemical Products and Fertilizers, in order to do mining businesses on the island. This company became very active in mining gold, copper and iron pyrites, and constructed high standard and capacity ore processing installations in various places on the island. Eventually it was renamed Hellenic Mining Company Ltd.

After Cyprus got its independence, in 1960, the owner of Hellenic Mining Company donated it to the Greek Community of Cyprus, with the Archbishop Makarios, the first president of the republic, as the trustee of the company, having the overall authority over it.

A rapid development of this organization started, not only in mining but eventually it became the biggest industrial group in Cyprus, building the Vassiliko Cement industries, expanding the KEO wines and beer, creating the Hellenic Bank, the Hellenic Technical Enterprises, and finally in 1994 it created with an Australian company the Hellenic Copper Mines.

And since then, how has Hellenic Copper Mines been adapting to the new times, technology and requirements?

As you well know, the production of concentrates is on the one hand a high cost operation, and on the other hand it’s not an environmentally friendly operation. For this reason, you need a high-grade ore to survive and remain viable in this business. After all these centuries and thousands of years of exploitation, all high-grade deposits in the island were depleted. Hellenic Mining, which was still in the mining business producing copper concentrates iron pyrites or industrial minerals, was holding a high level of technology in the area of ore processing and significant installations to apply that technology. But it couldn’t have a source of ore that could continue a viable mining business, despite the fact that it was doing exploration all over the island, after using modern technology, trying to source the so-called massive sulphide ores.

Eventually, in the 1980s all mines closed down. After years of exploration without the desired result, the company considered the big change in technology. It became evident that what was missing was not a high-grade deposit. What was missing was a change of technology. It was not easy, for the mining developing team believe me, to persuade a company, that was a giant at the time with all its subsidiaries, to make the big change and trust this change against a technology applied for decades. It took us about 10 years to prove that with new technology we could continue minerals wealth exploitation in Cyprus. And that’s how we started building up the company, on the 2nd of January of 1995. It took us 17 months, 12 days and a few hours to build the Skouriotissa project, and since then, we operate producing copper cathodes, the famous product of Cyprus in the ancient times. This is the story of the creation of Hellenic Copper Mines Ltd.

Nowadays, is the mine a consortium of foreign companies?

No, no. Eventually, the Hellenic Mining Company left because the Group didn’t want to stay any more in the mining sector. We had some shareholders from Greece, then a fund from the UK, but finally, today, the company is 100% in private Cyprus hands.

However the story of mining and Cyprus goes far beyond the 20th century…

The copper mining and metallurgical production in Cyprus commenced 5,000 years ago. Cyprus is not the country where copper was produced for the first time, but for sure, it is a country in which the copper industry was developed to an industrial scale, vertically integrated. The Skouriotissa mine, this very mine, with a history of 4,500 years, was the biggest and most famous mine in Cyprus in the ancient times.

The study of the slag proves that the evolution of the metallurgical processing of the difficult sulphide copper minerals was developed or at least optimized in this mine, because in the early times, the metallurgists were using oxide or carbonate or native copper minerals that were easy to produce. When these, after a few hundred years, were not anymore available, they could process difficult minerals, the sulphide minerals, to produce copper. This needs the application of sophisticated and difficult technology. If you study the slag and you can read metallurgy through the composition of a slag, you see one innovation and metallurgical discover made after the other – that is how the technology was improved, starting from the primitive and old and going to the most recent one.

When I say recent, I mean Roman to medieval times slag. Many ancient historians, geographers and writers refer to this mine. Not to mention Homer who, in his Iliad, mentions Cyprus as a copper-producing country that donated the copper to Agamemnon, the leader of Greeks, to make his weapons.

It has been very important for the economic and social development of Cyprus. It’s also the largest employer in the region, so it gives a lot of revenue to the country, right?

The mining industry of Cyprus, in which Skouriotissa always played a key role, has contributed substantially to the economic, social, technical, industrial and administrative development of the island. For decades in the 20th century, it was the key exporting activity. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, 60% of the exports of Cyprus were mineral products. The mining industry was the source of skilled human resource offered to the local community, because as I said before, CMC, the first mining company that came to the island at the beginning of the 20th century, found here agriculturists, shepherds and farmers. They had to train these people to become industrial workers and administrators. It was the contribution of mining that changed, eventually, the people and modernized the country. It created the industrialization of Cyprus and the contact to the international markets and industrial development.

This mine has survived through the years. That means that you have added value through technology. You are doing the entire processing. How important is to be able to do the entire process in place?

Unfortunately, Cyprus’ mining industry does not have any comparative advantages. First, it’s an island without energy minerals so far. We have one of the highest costs of electricity. Also, because of so many centuries of mining exploitation, we don’t have high-grade deposits anymore. Further to that, as you know, the mining industry today is not anymore a labor-intensive industry. It is capital intensive or technology intensive. Cyprus is small and not the best place to source capital, especially in the recent history of the island.

On top of these, we are subject to the cyclicality of the prices that is creating difficulties in the survival of the mining industry. Our defense towards these difficulties is the deep know-how, the application of state-of-the-art technology and high productivity. These are the key things that supported the company all through the years. By producing cathodes, the value added is much higher compared to the production of concentrates. That’s one thing. We also produce constantly a high-grade product because of the process we apply and the house keeping we have.

These are some advantages that supported the company in difficult times. Another characteristic of the company is that it is a successor of a mining know-how that was developed in Cyprus through years and centuries. In developing the technology of this product at Hellenic Copper Mines, we took elements from conventional technology and combined them with a modern concept of mining.

There is one more characteristic of us doing mining in Cyprus. As you know, we are the only mine on the island, and we are the first to introduce hydrometallurgy in Europe. So we had to put our ideas and resolve many technical problems locally. That is, innovation has always been our driving force.

Looking to the future, which are the possibilities of reopening old gold mines and how you perceive what is going to be the future of the mine.

Our exports go mainly to European Union countries. The magnitude of our exports is of the order of $20 million to $40 million a year, and this is a notable part of Cyprus’ overall exports. Our production is between 2,500 and 5,500 tons of cathodes per year. However, the capacity of the electrowinning plant, for metal production, is higher. That is why we are now building our second sister project to the first one, called the Apliki project. It’s a three deposits area, a few kilometers from the Skouriotissa plant and mines and the two projects will be combined in the end to have economies of scale. They will reach a higher production, at least up to 6,000 tons cathodes per year. The company owns a number of promising prospecting permits, which shall support the operations in the next 20 years.

There is potential and economic viability.

Yes. Speaking about exploration, we have a strong exploration activity all over the island. In the last year for example, we had a Spanish crew that executed extensive, geophysical exploration in a number of our permits. Our prospective permits exist in many areas of the island. Certainly, we have to be very careful with the best use of land in the island, because we don’t compete with tourism, for example. We don’t compete with good land for agriculture. This is a restriction for us, but we still have targets that could be eventually developed into mining projects. One significant target is the areas of old mines because, as a mining person, I could assure you that there’s no limit as to when a mineral deposit is exhausted. It’s always a competition between technology to lower the cost and the lowering of the ore grades.

If we speak about gold, if we speak about copper, we have to speak about the environmental responsibility of every company. We have read that you have a partnership with a Jordan company that put solar panels here. You are trying to be self sufficient, which it is also really important.

The environmental protection issue is a major matter in all industrial activities today, especially in mining. In principle, we measure all potential environmental impacts including the dust levels, ground vibrations, noise, the quality of underground water, and whatever may have a detrimental effect to the environment. Cyprus is densely inhabited place. There is no remote place, everywhere you go there is a village next to it, a forest or an installation or human activity, so we have to find a way to live in harmony together with other human activities on the island. We are subject to the European rules and our county rules with which we have to comply. It all starts with good design. As I told you before, the hydrometallurgical concept in the mining industry, is a state-of-the-art one, not only from the technology point of view but also from environmental point of view.

So has the use of hydrometallurgy represented a major factor in the environmental responsibility of this company?

Absolutely. There was no chance to operate this mine and produce this mineral wealth for the country if we had not applied the hydrometallurgical technology, neither from the economic viability, nor from the environmental point of view. It all starts from the design, the selection of technology, the layout, the proper selection of equipment, and many other details to be taken into consideration. Most importantly is the honest and responsible application of the environmental policy of the company and the statutory rules and obligations and the compliance with them day in day out. We are proud to state that we comply with all those rules, not because we have to, but mostly because we live in this environment, we love our country and we respect the planet and the future generations that shall live on it.

The next chapter is also to use renewable energy in order to be self-sufficient and add value to the production. Could you tell us about this path of environmental and efficient use of the energy sources?

The mining industry is a high-energy consumption one. That’s why we have installed two units of renewable energy. The first is a solar plant of half a megawatt capacity. The second is a full heat recovery system at our power generation, that is, we exploit the heat of the exhaust gasses and of the cooling tower as well, for producing the hot water which is absolutely needed in our process. Otherwise this heat would have been produced after using fossil fuels. In fact, what happens is that we increase our recovery of copper from the ores, that is, we produce some copper that otherwise would need a lot of extra energy to be produced if we did not exploit these two sources of energy. An example of an immediate usage of this heat is the enhancing of the activity of the bacteria that we use for our leaching operations. This is an area of research that the company is doing in cooperation with research institutions and universities. We are at a well advanced level in using microbiology in hydrometallurgy, in our effort to increase the efficiency of the indigenous acidophilic bacteria that exist in the ore – they are all local and not pathogenic of course – I have to stress that. Their activity is substantially increased at elevated temperatures, so this energy – heat – that we receive from the two sources I told you before, is given to our bacteria leaching applications. We can confirm significant increase of the copper extraction efficiencies. This is a straightforward, clear exploitation and usage of the renewable sources of energy in mining.

The environmental sector is something that people keep in minds because they think about the old methods of extraction and the footprint of the past. It’s very important to showcase at the COP21 how Europe and also mining companies are using the latest state-of-the-art technology and committed to the environment. In order to portray Hellenic Copper Mines at the COP 21 summit, what would be the sentence that you’d like to use?

Well, I could say that our aim is the rehabilitation of mining activities of the past by operating with today’s ideas and know-how and to provide the world with irreplaceable materials that secure its current way of life, after using the knowledge that science provides us today. Mining and hydrometallurgy require the application of the most advanced development of today’s technology. It is my strong opinion that application of the advances in science and technology and the honest respect of the environment is the only way to provide society with metals, ores and other natural resources at a reasonable cost and in contrast to the depletion of the natural resources of the planet and in a safe environment.