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World: Enviromentalists Call for Mining Standards

by Danielle KnightInter Press Service
October 25th, 2000

Following January's cyanide spill in Romania and new reports on mining disasters from China, environmentalists are calling for governments worldwide to adopt international mining standards. At issue is pollution caused by unstable ''tailings dams'' that retain effluents on mining sites. When these structures collapse, the pollutants -- including heavy metals and other harmful chemicals -- contaminate local surroundings. ''There are no international standards for such structures and time and again we have seen such disasters poison wildlife and destroy ecosystems,'' says Stephen D'Esposito, president of the Mineral Policy Centre (MPC), an advocacy group based here.

He says wildlife along a tributary of the Danube river in Europe has still not recovered from a cyanide spill that resulted from the tailings dam failure at the Baia-Mare gold mine in Northwestern Romania. The top of the dam overflowed and released an estimated 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide-laced wastewater within 11 hours. The cyanide waste from the gold smelter, half owned by the Australian corporation Esmeralda Exploration Ltd, was carried by the Tisza river through Hungary to Yugoslavia where it continued flowing down the Danube.

United Nations experts investigating the spill said the cyanide killed thousands of fish in Hungary and Yugoslavia and was one of the worst river pollution accidents in Europe.

''I think we have to have much more strict rules in the mining sector in countries of this region so this type of accident will not happen,'' Pekka Haavisto, head of the UN Environment Programme's (UNEP) Balkan Task Force told reporters in February at a news conference in Belgrade.

Environmentalists compared the Romanian mining spill to when a tailings dam at the Los Frailes zinc mine in southern Spain ruptured in April 1998 and released an estimated four to five million cubic metres of acid, metal-laden tailings into a major river and over adjacent farmlands. Massive fish kills were reported. This week United Nations officials and representatives from 25 governments are meeting in Perth, Australia to participate in workshops of environmental safety in mining. The stability of tailings dams is one of the main issues being discussed.

''Workshops have examined the role of voluntary codes for the use of cyanide in mining and emergency responses,'' said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UNEP. Last week another major tailings-dam failure was reported. Media reports from China said at least 15 people were killed in Guangxi province when an embankment holding back mine waste collapsed. According to Associated Press reports, the collapse and subsequent wave of wastewater, mud and stones buried or destroyed many buildings, including three worker dormitories.

The Beijing Post reported that the disaster occurred at a government-owned zinc mine. ''This is another in a series of tailings-dam failures around the world,'' says D'Esposito. Since 1971, more than 30 major contamination spills on mining sites worldwide have been caused by failures in tailings dams, according to information compiled by the World Information Service on Energy (WISE), an international network of environmental activists.

One of the more infamous tailings dam failures occurred in the South American country Guyana in 1995 which resulted in 4.2 million cubic metres of highly toxic cyanide-laced mine waste released into the Essequibo River, the nation's main waterway. According to the MPC, the spill killed fish, produced panic in Guyana's seafood export market, and caused major problems for many residents who depend on the river for drinking water, fishing, irrigation, and transportation. Mine sediment was reported as far as 80 kilometres down river. Guyana had no national environmental protection statute nor any adequate mining regulations in place, according to MPC.

The mining operation was governed by a contract between the government and the mine operator, Canadian-based Cambior Inc. The nation's heavy economic dependence on the mine -- which made up approximately 20 percent of Guyana's gross national product -- created an incentive for the government to keep the mine operating despite its environmental problems, argues MPC. The Guyanese government had relied on the company for most of its information and technical expertise about the mine. Cambior maintained that the tailings dam was designed and constructed to meet ''North American standards.'' By judging some tailings dam failures in the United States, environmentalists say North America mines are not exactly models of how to protect the environment and public health.

Earlier this month in the southern US state of Kentucky, a tailings dam failure at a coal mine operated by the Martin County Coal Corporation led to the release of 950,000 cubic metres of coal waste released into local streams. The dam broke as a result of the collapse of an underground mine beneath the slurry impoundment According to local press reports, about 120 kilometres of rivers and streams turned black, causing a fish kill. Some towns nearby were forced to turn off their drinking water intakes that drew water from the contaminated sources. ''How many rivers have to be contaminated before the world adequately addresses unsafe mine-waste disposal?'' asks D'Esposito.

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