Ban on Cyanide in Gold Mines?

An EU-wide ban on the use of cyanide in mining technologies would lead to significant environment improvements, according to a European Parliament resolution. The Resolution, adopted in Parliament on the 5th May 2010, explicitly calls for a ban on the use of cyanide mining technologies in the EU by the end of 2011.

Background

Cyanide mining technologies, normally used for the extraction of gold, have been heavily regulated ever since the accident at Baia Mare in Romania in 2000. Cyanide-contaminated water and heavy metals entered river systems, causing extensive pollution through Romania, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria. Other environmental accidents involving cyanide mining technologies have also been reported.

The Consequences of the Baia Mare Disaster

As a result of the disaster, Hungary and the Czech Republic proceeded to ban the use of cyanide-based mining technology. An EU report on the Baia Mare disaster blamed design faults at the mine and led to the adoption of the Mining Waste Directive (Directive 2006/21/EC on the management of waste from the extractive industries).

Directive 2006/21/EC on the management of waste from the extractive industries includes measures, procedures and guidance to protect the environment and human health from damage resulting from the management of waste from the extractive industries: 
• Requires Member States to ensure operators produce waste management plans to prevent or reduce waste production, to encourage the recovery of extractive waste when possible and to ensure the short and long-term safe disposal of such waste. These plans had to be reviewed and amended every five years. 
• Requires the identification of major-accident hazards by Member States in the design, construction, operation and maintenance, closure and after-closure of waste facilities and requires Member States to draw-up major accident prevention policies.
• Provides procedures for closure and after-closure of waste facilities. When placing extractive waste back into extractive voids, operators must monitor the waste and the void and must prevent or minimise water status deterioration and soil pollution when flooding voids. 
• Requires Member States to establish a penalty system for infringements of these rules. 
 
The Directive had to be transposed by the Member States in 2008.

Debate in the European Parliament

MEP Ader (EPP, Hungary) had highlighted the problem that several cyanide mining projects were awaiting licence across Central Europe, in a written question in January 2010. MEPs Ader (EPP, Hungary) and László Tokés (EPP, Romania) tabled a question for the Commission on imposing a general ban on cyanide mining, which was debated in Plenary on 21 April 2010.  
The MEPs asked the Commission whether it would propose a specific EU-wide ban on the use of cyanide in gold mining, given the obligations under EU law to prevent and control water pollution.

In support of his argument, MEP Ader pointed out that the risks of cross-border environmental damage outweighed the cost of a general ban on cyanide mining. MEP Ader pointed out that the EU gold mining industry represents only 1% of global gold production and was performed mostly by multinational companies.
MEP Ader considered that existing EU legislation had strengthened the rules on the use of cyanide in mining technology, but rules and proper financial guarantees were still missing and that the implementation of the existing legislation depended upon the governments of each Member State.

The View of the Commission

Responding to MEP Ader’s question, Commissioner Cecilia Malmström explained to the European Parliament that the Commission considered the 2006 Mining Waste Directive to be “…an up-to-date, proportionate and appropriate approach to the risk of using cyanide”.

In light of the requirements of the existing legislation and lack of adequate alternatives to cyanide use for gold extraction the Commission did not support a general ban on the technology. The Commissioner also pointed out that Member States are responsible for decisions to open gold mines on their territories.
 
In conclusion the Commission considered the implementation and enforcement Directive were priorities. The Commission would reconsider its position if alternative technologies emerged in the future. The Commission will carry out an evaluation of existing alternative mining technologies in 2012.

The Resolution

Following the debate in Plenary a Resolution was adopted in the European Parliament on 5 May 2010 by 488 votes to 48 with 57 abstentions. The adopted Resolution:
• Calls on the Commission to propose a complete ban on the use of cyanide mining technologies in the EU before the end of 2011. 
• Calls on the Commission and Member States not to support any mining projects that directly or indirectly involve cyanide technology in the EU.
• Calls on the Commission and Member States not to support any mining projects that directly or indirectly involve cyanide technology in third countries until a general ban is applicable.
• Calls on the Commission to amend Directive 2006/21/EC on the management of waste from the extractive industries, to require companies to be have insurance to compensate for damages and to cover all remedial costs for restoring the ecological and chemical status in case of an accident or malfunction.
 
Although the Resolution is non-binding, it may lead to the Commission adopting an EU-wide ban in the future. However the Commission is unlikely to propose any ban before the review in 2012.