Ministers and officials from around a dozen countries in the region agreed the plan at an international conference in Romania. It is hoped that the strategy will lead to detailed assessments of the sites as well as triggering the financial, technical and administrative support needed to clean up old mines, smelters and processing facilities
in the region.

Klaus Toepfor, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “We now have a firm commitment from countries in this region to tackle the real and genuine threat from mining and related industries.” He added that the plan also needed support from bodies outside the region such as the European Commission and industry.

Studies on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have shown that numerous old and abandoned mine sites are one of the major causes of pollution in the region, while a new report, Mining for Closure, argues that pollution of water courses from toxic mines wastes or “tailings” is among the over riding issues countries need to address.

The report, by EnviSec, which forms the basis of this weeks agreed plan, also charts a way forward so that countries in the region can reduce the threat of cross border river pollution and other problems such as long distance air pollution.

It identifies lack of mine clean-up, poor enforcement of regulations even where they exist, and insufficient funds for Governments toward mine clean ups in the event of a mining company going bust, as major factors in making mining pollution such a big issue.

A majority of the abandoned sites, in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Kosovo, have been involved in the extraction and processing of metals such as zinc, cadmium, copper, bauxite, silver and gold. Over 150 sites were studied and more than a third of them were found to pose a serious risk to human health, the environment and regional stability.

Even some operational mines in the region can still pose a threat, however. Cyanide pollution from a gold mine in Romania caused serious damage to the River Danube in Hungary in 2000 after wastes were discharged in a tributary.

“The region is blessed with abundant reserves of minerals. Mining, carried out sustainably and to internationally acceptable standards, has, therefore, an important role to play in delivering economic growth and over coming poverty in this part of Europe,” said Toepfor. “Unfortunately, past practices have left a legacy that can no longer be ignored if we are to improve stability both within and between countries.”

“I hope the declaration from this important conference, so ably organised by the Government of Romania, will now finally close this less than sparkling chapter and open a new cleaner, more prosperous and more secure one for the region and its people.”

By David Hopkins

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