New EU agreement on mining waste not up to standard

A new agreement on a proposed Directive on mining waste is not up to the standards of other EU laws on waste and water, and would leave rivers and lakes vulnerable to serious pollution, WWF have warned.

The Environment Council agreed the proposed Directive to minimise the negative environmental effects of waste from the extractive industries this week. The rules aim to prevent water and soil pollution from the deposition of mining waste into ponds or heaps, the two most common storage methods.

Waste from the extractive industries forms about 30% of the total waste generated in Europe every year – approximately 400 million tonnes. The environmental impacts of such large volumes of waste range from physical effects on ecosystems, such as smothering of riverbeds, to pervasive acid drainage and leaching of heavy metals and other dangerous substances used for mineral processing.

In addition, waste heaps and ponds can collapse such as in Aberfan in Wales in 1966, and Stava, Italy in 1985, both with serious casualties; as well as in Aznacollar, Spain in 1998, and Baia Mare, Romania in 2000, both causing extensive damage to freshwater ecosystems.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said: “The text agreed by the Council offers a good framework to tackle pollution problems posed by mining and quarrying waste – not only during the operation of waste facilities, but also after their closure. In particular, it will help prevent serious accidents. I was at Baia Mare and saw the dreadful effects that the cyanide polluted water had on fish and plants in the affected rivers and on nearby wildlife.”

The Commission says that the text agreed by the Council covers the planning, licensing, operation, closure and after care of waste facilities and provides for a major-accident policy for high-risk facilities.

However, WWF argue that the agreement could still leave rivers and lakes vulnerable to serious damage. The group argues that the proposals exclude most of the so-called “non-hazardous” waste storage sites from several provisions of the directive. Sites for storing this waste would not require the same authorisation as the storage of “hazardous” waste.

“So-called non-hazardous waste is estimated to make up the bulk of the 400 million tonnes EU total annual mining and quarrying waste production,” said Eva Royo Gelabert, WWF European Water Policy Officer. “While silt and ash may not be toxic, it can still smother and kill people. It can also kill fish and destroy aquatic life with all that means for nature and mankind.”

WWF is also concerned that some of the current proposals to manage “hazardous” waste are weaker than international recommendations such as those from UNEP and the Baia Mare Task Force, established by the Commission after the Romanian spills. For example, proposals exclude remediation of pollution from closed or abandoned waste storage sites.

“WWF urges Ministers not to agree such a weak Directive and to act on the lessons learnt from recent mining and quarrying waste disasters across Europe,” said Gelabert. “This waste is a serious environmental hazard that requires strong management measures to protect people and nature.”

The final adoption of this Directive is expected in the second half of 2005. The Directive would then enter into force before the end of 2005 and Member States will have at least two years to transpose it.

By David Hopkins

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