Ellatzite-Med AD Plans to Invest Over BGN 1.2 Billion to Expand Copper Production

Investing BGN 1.3 billion in the mining and processing of copper near Etropole for 23 years, Ellatzite-Med AD is preparing a new BGN 1.2 billion investment to extend the operation and expansion of the mine of the same name until 2041. This was announced to journalists by the company’s executive director Eng. Dragomir Draganov.

The company has already submitted the necessary documents to the ministries of energy and environment, which must approve the prolongation of the concession contract, which expires in 2031. This includes the adoption of an environmental impact assessment for the project, providing for an increase in the concession area for all activities from the current 1650 hectares to 2170 hectares.

Following public consultations, a decision must also be taken by the Council of Ministers. If everything goes smoothly, in 2025 investments should start in preparation for the next stage of exploitation of the deposit, where ore with copper, gold and silver content is extracted by the open-pit method.

“So far we have not taken any bank funding, we will continue to use our own funds to develop our business, so we will make the investments gradually,” Draganov said.

Development plans. Waste is resource

The company, which is part of the Geotechmin group, estimates that it will cost about 700 million BGN to prepare for the start of additional mining at the mine, which is 2 km by 2km at the top and 600 m by 600 m at the bottom. It is planned to continue the exploitation of the deposit after 2031 on the pushback method – removing rock and ore from the existing walls and deepening it by a hundred metres.

Ellatzite-Med employs over 2,000 people in five municipalities – mainly in Etropole, Chavdar and in neighbouring Mirkovo, where the company’s Flotation plant is located. Around BGN 300 million will be needed to increase the capacity of the existing tailings dam, Draganov added.

Currently, only one of the two tailing dams receives waste and 30 hectares of it are forested. The other is closed and reclaimed. However, the waste is seen as a potential future source of valuable raw materials, as it contains copper, silver, gold, and molybdenum. Their content is too low and it is not profitable to extract them at the moment, but technologies for extracting the valuable metals from the tailings are being developed, explained Alexander Grigorov, director of the Environment Department in charge of environmental protection.
Investments in the next stage of the mine’s development will also be needed in drainage and wastewater treatment systems. It currently has two wastewater treatment plants, and a third one is currently under construction, Grigorov said.

Draganov added that so far the management of Ellatzite-Med has never been restricted the necessary environmental investments.

Working around the clock, worse weather is better

Excavators are present 24 hours a day in the mine near Etropole and trucks are driving down the spiral roads. There are tree 8-hour shifts and one shift off. Work stops only in extremely dense fog or very heavy snowfall, says Ivaylo Nikolov, Director of the Mining Complex. Paradoxically, in bad weather the production is higher, he adds.
The average productivity is 6 and a half hours per 8-hour shift, which is among the highest in the country. The result is 16.2 million tonnes of ore mined annually in 2022, from which 204 thousand tonnes of copper concentrate with a 22 percent copper grade has been extracted. This, considering that the mine is one of the world’s poorest in copper content, with only 0.286 percent copper in the ore, compared to an average of 0.4 to 0.7 percent in similar mines.

In the coming years, the copper grade near Etropole will drop to 0.26 percent, which makes the company to work even harder to increase production efficiency.
The company’s goal is not to run out of ore quickly, as many global companies do, but to sustainably develop the region, Draganov said.

Automation and digitalization raise production by nearly 19%

The current production has been reached by implementation of processes automation and digitalization. The traffic of about 30 trucks operating in a shift at the open pit has been optimized. Precise excavator navigation and setting of digging limits has also been introduced. A dispatch center constantly monitors the machines’ performanceAll of this has increased machine productivity by 18.9 per cent.

Each of the operators has a mobile app that can monitor in real time the production and transport of the excavated rocks. There is also an SOS button in case operation must be stoped or if accidents occur, which are extremely rare.

The company has its own manufacturing plant for explosives. A radar system monitors the stability of the mine walls every two minutes. If there are some indications for deformation within the collected images, it analyses whether there are risks for unacceptable events.
A drone sweeps the entire open pit mine once a week and performs photogrammetry, the geodetic images of which are also used to analyze the geometry of the mine after blasting process. More recently, the data is also being used to design future mining activities.

Route under the mountain

The mined ore is hauled to the first crusher complex. It is located in the middle of the mine and the coarsely crushed ore goes from there along an underground rubber conveyor to an open pit stockpile. From there, it is transported through an underground tunnel, 6.5 km long under the Stara Planina Mountain, to the processing plant, where the ore is processed into copper concentrate.

Then, the concentrate is sold to Aurubis, located in the near city of Pirdop. Copper, silver and gold are extracted from it. A small part of the concentrate is sold for processing in Serbia or China, when the plant in Pirdop is undergoing maintenance, Draganov explains.

Since 2017, the company also has a facility that converts some of the mining waste into materials for use in roads or other infrastructure. Now, on average, up to 6% of the open pit waste rocks is used in the construction industry, instead of going to the mining waste facility. This makes Ellatzite-Med part of the circular economy by turning waste into raw materials.
This is also part of the company’s strategy for its development until 2041. The company’s efficiency would help to keep producing copper concentrate despite the negative trend of depletion of the deposit’s resources.

This is also important for maintaining employment in the region, as the company is the main employer there. The average monthly gross salary in 2022 was BGN 2,649. This year the wage has already been indexed by 20 percent and new negotiations are due this autumn under the Collective Labour Agreement.