Urgent action needed to prevent another Baia Mare disaster

Inadequate monitoring and acceptance by Romanian authorities of inappropriate management of tailings were the root cause of the Baia Mare mining disaster, according to the findings of an independent report.

The International Task Force for Assessing the Baia Mare Accident found that the disaster was finally triggered by severe, but not exceptional, weather. Urgent actions need to be taken in order to identify, manage and reduce the environmental threat from abandoned tailings ponds, says the Task Force’s report.

The accident took place on 30 January 2000 when approximately 100,000 cubic meters of liquid and suspended waste containing about 50 to 100 tons of cyanide and other heavy metals was released into the Danube catchment area, travelling 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles) into the Black Sea (see related story).

“When I created the Task Force I gave them three main tasks: Find out what happened, why and what should be done to reduce the risks for the future,” said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström at the report’s release. “With this report they’ve fulfilled my demand and we have a clear and concise document which will be accessible to all.”

The Task Force has put forward a number of recommendations designed to strengthen regulation of mine work:

  • closed-circuit tailings management facilities should be prohibited, unless equipped with adequate provision for emergency discharge and storage of excess water;
  • cyanide and other hazardous process chemicals should be removed in the plant before the tailings are deposited in the tailings ponds;
  • existing EU legislation on mining and ore processing should be clarified and strengthened;
  • steps should be put in place to promote a safety culture in mining and ore-processing operations; and
  • binding conditions for the closure and after-care of mines need to be introduced.

The Task Force has also recommended that:

  • European Union legislation relating to mining and ore processing activities should be brought together into one guidance document; and
  • the role, funding, and decision-making procedures of the International Commission for The Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) need to be strengthened.

The report’s recommendations have been welcomed by conservation organisations. WWF is calling for immediate implementation of the report, including a banning of open disposal of cyanide waste in tailings ponds, a complete inventory of toxic mining waste dumps, and a comprehensive assessment of the dangers involved. The initiative should be supported by governments and finance/insurance companies backing global standards for all phases of mining operation, including adequate monitoring of projects, and agreeing on no-go zones in areas where there is high risk to biodiversity or human health.

“This has been a laudable initiative and we are very pleased with the comprehensive report that the Taskforce compiled, said Philip Weller, Director of WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme, who lead the NGO delegation at the Taskforce. “We expect strong EU and accession country initiatives to tackle these toxic pollution threats. These disasters are completely preventable.”

The challenges are enormous, both in Europe and around the world, says WWF, pointing out that the island of New Guinea is particularly affected by mining companies (see related story), with the Freeport mine in Grasberg throwing 200,000 tonnes of mining waste per day into the Ajikwa River system in Irian Jaya. “European, North American and Australian mining companies often behave appallingly in other continents,” added Weller. “We need a worldwide policy. It doesn’t make sense that industrialised nations are tough on mining, only to see their companies exporting bad practices to other places in the world.”

Following the Accident in the Baia Mare mine in Romania, the Commission undertook a thorough review of EU environmental regulations and how they relate to mining activities. The resulting programme of action contains three priorities relating to industrial risk management, management of mining waste and integrated pollution prevention and control. A proposed revision to the Seveso II Directive on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances

is due by mid-2001, and a reference document is being prepared on best available techniques to reduce everyday pollution and to prevent or mitigate accidents in the non-ferrous metals mining sector.

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