European Draft Mine Waste Law Emerges

BRUSSELS, Belgium, June 3, 2003 (ENS) - The European Commission has issued a draft European Union law on the management of mining waste, designed to minimize operating emissions and prevent accidents. The text is one of three proposed initiatives to improve mine waste safety outlined two years ago in the aftermath of serious pollution incidents in Spain and Romania in the late 1990s and early 2000.

The proposal seeks to introduce EU wide rules designed to prevent water and soil pollution from long term storage of mining waste in tailings ponds and waste heaps.

A key element of the new law is a requirement for mine operators to draft waste management plans. For high risk waste facilities, a safety manager should be appointed, and plans to prevent major accidents drawn up. A classification system for waste facilities would be drawn up after the law is adopted.

The proposal exempts mining waste from the provisions of the 1999 landfill law - a position advocated by the mining industry.

New conditions are to be attached to operating permits. The public will be granted full access to permit information, in accordance with the principles of the Ĺarhus Convention on public participation in environmental decision making.

The proposal includes requirements on monitoring operational mining waste facilities as well as for closer supervision of their closure.

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Fish dead of cyanide poisoning on the bank of Hungary's Tisza River, March 2000. (Photo courtesy Zöld Pók Hálózat)
It sets specific limits on levels of cyanide in the tailing ponds of gold mines - 50 parts per million (ppm) falling to 10 ppm within 10 years - designed to prevent any reoccurence of the 2000 cyanide spill that started at a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania and contaminated rivers through Hungary all the way to the mouth of the Danube River.

Mine operators will have to provide financial guarantees to ensure "appropriate liability cover" is available in respect of possible environmental damage. "Less robust and lesser known companies may well struggle to arrange the necessary guarantees," the Commission suggests.

National authorities will be required to inspect waste facilities "at regular intervals." European Union countries must record and exchange information on the implementation of these measures and lay down penalties for non-compliance.

The Commission claims to have adopted a "flexible" approach that leaves member states "ample room for manoeuvre."

Prescriptive requirements in respect of waste management plans, cyanide limits and water pollution reduction measures are necessary to protect the environment and harmonise controls across Europe, the Commission says.

All operators of mines and quarries will be affected by the proposals, although unpolluted soil is exempt, and inert waste is subject only to a limited set of requirements.

The Commission estimates that the new regime will increase mine waste management costs by five to 10 percent on average.

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Map shows present EU countries in dark blue, candidate countries in light blue. (Map courtesy European Union)
Waste from the extractive industries represents a large waste stream in the European Union. It is estimated that such waste amounts to about 29 percent of total waste generated in the EU each year, with an annual volume in excess of 400 million metric tons.

The other two tools - a revision of the Seveso II law on major accident hazards and the drafting of a best available technique reference guide for mining waste - are also underway.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said the new draft law comes just in time for the extension of the European Union to include 10 more countries next spring. The membership of the EU will increase from the current 15 to 25 on May 1, 2004, when Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia are due to become members.

"We are currently embarking on a historic enlargement of the EU," Commissioner Wallstrom said, "and must ensure that the best environmental standards are applied across Europe."

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