Swedish Mine Spill Prompts Calls for Stricter EU Law

STOCKHOLM, Sweden, September 11, 2000 (ENS) - A million cubic metres of copper contaminated water was released into the Vassara River in northern Sweden on Saturday following the collapse of a mining waste dam at Boliden's Aitik copper mine.

The mine owner, Boliden Ltd., temporarily suspended production at the mine near Gällivare above the Arctic Circle over the weekend. Production resumed today.

The company says it released the tailings tainted water into the watershed after a 100 metre (325 foot) section of an internal containment wall eroded, resulting in the release of water and tailings into the settling pond. To maintain the level in the settling pond, the excess water was released.


Aitik, an open pit operation established in 1968 near the town of Gällivare, north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden, is one of Europe's largest copper mines. Gold and silver are also extracted. (Photo courtesy Boliden)
The company said it believes that the amount of metal contained in the water released as a result of this incident is "well within the permitted levels for the operation during the course of the year."

The cause of the erosion of the internal wall is not yet known. Independent consultants and Boliden personnel have begun to investigate the cause of the incident.

The incident is Sweden's biggest mine waste dam collapse to date.

Established in Sweden in 1924, incorporated in Canada in 1997, Boliden Ltd. is a mining and metals company with exploration, mining, smelting and manufacturing operations around the world.


Boliden vice president of environmental affairs Lars-Åke Lindahl spent 12 years with the Technical Department at the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo courtesy Boliden)
Boliden is the company responsible for the toxic spill in April 1998 at the Los Frailes zinc and silver mine near Seville, Spain that poisoned the Donana wetland, one of Europe's most important bird migration stopovers. Up to 6.8 million cubic metres of solid waste and water were spilled when the earth deep beneath the tailings pond shifted due to the added weight of the mine and its tailings. That mine resumed operation in April 1999.

"It is lucky that on this occasion the amount of toxic substances involved was very low," said Eva Royo Gelabert, World Wide Fund for Nature's (WWF) European water policy officer. "It is just a matter of time before there is another more serious accident involving mining waste. The only questions are when and where."

This incident comes eight months after a dam wall failed at a mine tailings reclamation facility at Baia Mare in northwestern Romania, spilling tons of cyanide laced waste water down the rivers of Eastern Europe to the Black Sea.

Last week the European Commission's Baia Mare Taskforce published a list of 23 "high risk" mining waste dams in Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary.

But the WWF says it is long past time for new, stricter European Union legislation governing the control of mining waste.


Hungarian fishermen collect dead fish from the Tizsa River after the Baia Mare cyanide spill last January. (Photo courtesy WWF-Canon/Nigel Dickinson
"No one should fool themselves that this is just an eastern European problem," said the WWF's Royo Gelabert. "The accident in Sweden shows that too many mining waste dams, east and west, are not properly built or maintained. New legislation is needed before another disaster strikes. A new directive should be brought in regulating the design, construction, maintence and monitoring of mining waste dams."

The European Commission review of existing legislation and proposal for new European Union law promised by Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom after the Baia Mare mine spill and endorsed in the Commission's document "Promoting Suistainable Development in the EU non-energy extractive industry," has yet to be published.

In April 1999, WWF published a report "Toxic Waste Storage Sites in EU Countries" giving evidence of pollution problems caused by spillages and leaks from mining waste dams in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK, and a series of recommendations for action at European Union level.

WWF says its recommendations "were taken seriously by the European Commission" following the Baia Mare disaster, but two years after the Donana spill and almost nine months after Baia Mare it is still not clear what the European Union proposes to do about mining waste safety - or when.

The Swedish mining waste dam collapse, four months before the Swedish Presidency of the European Union takes over on January 1, 2001, will lead to renewed calls for legal action.