Progress on mining waste welcomed

Debris created by mining constitutes the largest single waste stream in Europe but until now environmental regulations governing its disposal have been limited to say the least.

The European Parliament and Council of Ministers have managed to overcome a deadlock on the proposed Mining Waste Directive and announced a conciliation agreement which will allow the planned regulations to move forward.

The extraction industry creates an incredible 20% of Europe’s total waste.

If not properly managed, such waste can become a serious and long-lasting threat to the environment and human health because of its composition and volume.

The directive aims to introduce EU-wide rules designed to prevent water and soil pollution from the storage of waste in tailings ponds and waste heaps, with particular emphasis on the short and long-term stability of such waste facilities.

Together with the revised Seveso II directive and a reference document on Best Available Techniques, the forthcoming directive will ensure environmentally sound management of waste from extractive activities throughout the EU.

“The text agreed by the European Parliament and the Council is a very good result and offers a specific legal framework to tackle environmental and human health impacts throughout the life-cycle of mining waste facilities and to prevent accidents” said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas.

“I congratulate the British Presidency and hope that Parliament and Council will both adopt the agreement swiftly.”

Waste from the extractive industries involves materials such as topsoil, overburden, waste rock and tailings, discarded during the prospecting, extraction and treatment of mineral resources.

It represents the largest single waste stream in Europe, accounting for over 20% of all waste generated.

Environmental impacts from the management of such waste range from physical impacts to ecosystems, for example from the smothering of river-beds, to pervasive acid drainage, and leaching of heavy metals and of other dangerous substances used for mineral processing.

The collapse of facilities hosting mining waste such as slag heaps, tailings ponds or dams can also have widespread devastating effects on people and the environment, potentially of transboundary nature, as demonstrated by the serious accidents that occurred in Aznalcollar, Spain, in 1998 and Baia Mare, Romania, in 2000 both of which led to extensive damage on freshwater ecosystems and large socio-economic effects.

These accidents prompted Commission action, including the proposal for a mining waste directive.

The text agreed by the Parliament and the Council maintains the approach taken in Commission’s proposal and deals with the planning, licensing, operation, closure and after-care of waste facilities.

All extractive waste is covered by provisions proportionate to risks and focusing on the prevention of water and soil pollution and the stability of waste facilities.

Operators have to draw up waste management plans at the design phase. The directive lists conditions to be attached to operating permits in order to ensure that sufficient environmental and safety measures are in place before waste facilities receive authorisation.

The provisions cover not only the operational phase but also closure and after-care, and include proper monitoring. Damaged land has to be rehabilitated and relevant financial guarantees must be put in place.

Public participation in the permitting process is an essential feature of the directive. The ‘burden of the past’ is also addressed by requiring inventories of the most polluting historical sites to be drawn up.

Waste facilities have to be classified and those of high-risk are in addition subject to a major-accident policy.

This covers the prevention of major accidents and the setting up of emergency response systems, including information to the public and consultation in case of facilities with potential transboundary impact.

As a result of the conciliation, the content of the waste management plans and permits has been enhanced, obligations on water protection have been further specified, more stringent environmental safeguards have been introduced with regard to transitional provisions and to excavation voids where waste is placed back and financial guarantees cover the rehabilitation of all land affected.

By Sam Bond

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