Eastern European Governments Agree to Tackle Mining Pollution

CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania, May 16, 2005 - A strategy for cleaning up old mines, smelters and processing facilities in Eastern Europe was adopted Saturday by governments at an international conference in Romania. The plan to reduce the environmental risks of mining was agreed by ministers and officials from a dozen countries in the region.

The more than 150 mining operations of concern are found in Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Kosovo. Some abandoned, and some still in operation, they have been extracting and processing metals such as zinc, cadmium, copper, bauxite, silver, and gold.

Over a third of these site pose a serious risk to human health, environment and regional stability experts have concluded. Studies, carried out on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), have found numerous old and abandoned sites that now present environmental, social and political problems.

Operational mines in the region also can pose a threat to the environment. In January 2000, cyanide pollution from the Baia Mare Aurul gold mine in northwestern Romania killed all the aquatic life in Hungary's Tisza River and downstream in the River Danube after a retention dam broke, spilling 100,000 cubic meters of wastewater.


Mine tailings from the Baia Mare gold mine cover the Tisza River. Damages were estimated at US$190 million. (Photo courtesy Tailings Info)
In 1999, the Romanian environment authorities had alerted the management of the Baia Mare mine to the potential risks associated with the dam after former employees of the company revealed that mistakes were made during the construction of the tailing basin.

There has been a lack of mine clean up and reclamation policies until the last half of the 20th century, poor enforcement of regulations even where they exist, and insufficient funds for governments to undertake mine cleanups when mining companies go bankrupt. Poor management of mines, a loss of mine records as a result of political instability, unscheduled closures, conflict and illegal mining add to the problems.

The action plan, "Reducing Environment and Security Risks from Mining in South Eastern Europe and the Tisza River Basin," aims to tackle the issues confronting governments, local authorities and industry.

UNEPís Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said, "We now have a firm commitment from countries in this region to tackle the real and genuine threat from mining and related industries. I hope this commitment will be matched by support from governments outside the region, bodies like the European Commission, industry and others so that we can put mining in this region on a sustainable track."

Under the new agreement, detailed assessments will be conducted for sites whose operation has become a source of pollution and tension in this volatile part of the world.

Higher health and environmental standards for the operation of new mines, and planning for their eventual closure and decommissioning are also part of the plan.

The strategy accelerates the establishment and extension of early warning systems on key rivers and tributaries to warn countries in the region of pollution incidents.


Baia Mare Aurul mine in northwestern Romania. Now half owned by Australian mining company Transgold SA, called Esmerelda when the spill occurred, the company was ordered in March to cut production by 85 percent while a Hungarian court determines its liability. (Photo courtesy DEH Australia)
Finally, participating governments hope the strategy will trigger the financial, technical and administrative support needed to clean up the old mines, smelters and processing facilities.

"Mining, carried out sustainably and to internationally acceptable standards has an important role to play in delivering economic growth and overcoming poverty in this part of Europe," Toepfer said. "It thus has its role in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. These cover everything from eradicating poverty and improving human health to provision of safe and sufficient amounts of drinking water, food security and environmental sustainability."

"Unfortunately," he said, "past practices have left a legacy that can no longer be ignored if we are to improve stability both within and between countries. I hope the declaration from this important conference, so ably organized by the government of Romania, will now finally close this less than sparkling chapter and open a new cleaner, more prosperous and more secure one for the region and its people."

Pollution, in the form of old chemical stockpiles, ageing nuclear reactors and damaged and decaying factories has become a key issue in states of the former Soviet Union.

The conclusions of "Mining for Closure," a new study released by UNEP under its Environment and Security (EnviSec) Initiative, form the basis of the agreement reached by governments this weekend at Club-Napoca.

The early warning systems for alerting national authorities and neighboring countries about spills and accidents is one of the "Mining for Closure" recommendations.


Albania has deposits of phosphorite, bauxite, gold, silver, kaolin, clay, asbestos, magnesite, dolomite, and gypsum. Exploration for chromite and copper concessions here led to the recognition of an area worked for gold by ancient Romans. (Photo courtesy Taiga)
The report recommended a comprehensive inventory of pollution hot spots and a prioritized program of cleanup or closure of those sites deemed too hazardous to operate or to be left in their current state.

The establishment of independent mine closure laws overseen by a single government agency in each country was recommended, as well as capacity building for bodies such mine inspectorates.

"Mining for Closure," recommended the enactment of effective laws and guidelines that outline the role and responsibilities of governments and mine operators. Pollution liability as well as funds for remediation and the rehabilitation of sites at the end of their economic lives would be handled this way.

The Mining for Closure recommendations also urge those involved to involve all stakeholders including local communities.

Local community involvement in solutions to these problems might ensure that schools, clinics and other essential services continue for residents even after a mine is closed.

The agreed action plan charts a way forward so that countries in the region can reduce the threats of cross border river pollution and other problems such as long distance air pollution.

In another recent study by EnviSec - a collaboration between UNEP, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations Development Programme, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization - concludes that environmental degradation can undermine local and international security by "reinforcing and increasing grievances within and between societies."

Focused on "environmental hot spots" in the Southern Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, the second EnviSec study concluded that a declining environment can lead to unrest by "weakening states" and diminishing the authority of governments. Pollution of water courses from toxic mines wastes was seen as among the most important issues these countries need to address.

At the same time, because many pollution problems are shared between communities and countries, the EnviSec report found that working together to solve environmental problems can build trust, understanding and more stable political relations.

The agreement reached this weekend to deal with these issues is seen as help for those countries about to accede to the European Union, such as Romania, or who are seeking accession, to meet the EU environment and safety regulations.