Massive leak in Sweden renews calls for stricter regulations on mining waste
The accidental release of a million cubic metres of copper-contaminated water at a Swedish mine has led to criticism of EC regulations on mining waste.
The accident at Swedish-Canadian mining group Boliden’s Aitik copper mine released contaminated water into the Vassara River in the far north of Sweden on 10 September following the collapse of a mining waste dam.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said that the accident was the latest of many failures involving mining waste and added pressure on the European Union to adopt new laws to control mining waste. WWF said that the incident occurred only a few days after an EC team published a report of high-risk East European mining waste dams, and that it was still awaiting a promised review of existing legislation, which includes a recommendation for a new law.
“No one should fool themselves that this is just an eastern European problem”, said Eva Royo Gelabert, WWF’s European Water Policy Officer. “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, maintenance and monitoring of mining waste dams.”
Last week the EC’s Baia Mare Taskforce, set up to investigate January’s contamination of the Tisza and Danube rivers by a 100,000 cubic metres leak of cyanide-contaminated water from a gold mine waste pond, published its list of 23 ‘high risk’ mining waste dams in Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary. Boliden owns none of these mines but was responsible for the toxic spill in April 1998 that devastated the Donana wetland in southern Spain, WWF says.
The NGO says that a long-awaited EC review of existing legislation concerning mining waste which endorses the introduction of a new law, was promised by European Commissioner Margot Wallstrom after the Baia Mare disaster and supported in the Communication, Promoting Sustainable Development in the EU non-energy extractive industry, but is yet to be published.
“It is lucky that on this occasion the amount of toxic substances involved was very low”, said Royo Gelabert. “It is just a matter of time before there is another, more serious, accident involving mining waste. The only questions are when and where.”
Boliden said that it was unsure of what had caused the dam wall at the mine to burst, making a 100 metre hole, but that investigations were underway. After the spill was noticed production from the concentrator plant was halted and repair work began, with both the mine and concentrator resuming production on 11 September.
The company has a permit to release 100 kilos of copper waste annually at the mine, producing 18 million tonnes of copper and two tonnes of gold per year.
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 EU level. WWF said that its recommendations were taken seriously by the EC but that it was still unclear what it proposes to do about mining waste safety, or when. The organisation said, however, that the fact of the accident occurring four months before Swedish presidency of the EU, could lead to action.