Gold mine operators do not have industrywide standards on how to handle the toxic cyanide they use. Last week, the United Nations Environment Program, or UNEP, hosted a conference in Paris aimed at developing a code of practice to regulate the use of cyanide in the industry. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten interviewed the conference organizer.
Prague, 1 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Cyanide has been used for decades in gold mining operations around the world, and accidents involving leaks of the highly-toxic chemical happen, on average, at the rate of one a year. But it took January's massive spill of cyanide-laced waste water at the Baia Mare gold mine in Romania to concentrate the world's attention on the issue.
According to environmentalists' estimates, 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-contaminated water spilled from a dam at the mine, leading to the death of hundreds of tons of fish hundreds of kilometers downriver. That accident was soon followed by two other smaller ones, also in Romania.
Many gold mines where accidents happened in the past were isolated from major population centers -- whether in Canada, Kyrgyzstan, or Papua New Guinea. Those spills had a devastating impact on the local environment and inhabitants, but the accident at Baia Mare polluted major river systems at the heart of Europe, including the Danube -- ensuring greater attention on the part of world politicians.
Last week's conference came as a direct consequence of the Baia Mare catastrophe and brought together representatives of the gold mining industry, the UN, EU, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank, and independent environmental experts. The aim, according to organizer Wanda Hoskin, was to start developing standards to ensure that accidents involving cyanide in mining become a thing of the past, or at least much rarer. Hoskin, who heads UNEP's mining environment program, spoke to RFE/RL about the results of the meeting:
"At the end of two days, everyone was in agreement that there need to be codes and standards with respect to the use of cyanide in mining, and the participants agreed that they will start work on developing something over the next year. The idea is to try and have a draft code and the accompanying management system guidelines in place in about 12 months."
Hoskin pointed out that chemical companies in many countries already have their own strict rules on storing and transporting cyanide. The problem is that the mining industry does not:
"The chemical companies have their responsible care program and they do have standards and training in place for the use of cyanide at the production end and in the transport end. But of course, once they sell their product -- whether it's cyanide or any other chemical -- to the end user, they're obviously not responsible anymore."
Mines which use cyanide to separate small bits of gold from ore store the leftover cyanide, mixed with water, in containment dams. But often, those dams are not built to high-enough standards. And if a spill or dam breach does occur -- as in the Romanian case -- the toxic mix is released directly into the local alluvial system.
Hoskin said universal standards on how to build containment dams -- or tailing impoundment -- as they are known in the industry, must be developed.
"Even if it was just pure water behind the dam and the dam broke, a rush of water can cause damage. So the thing is, tailings impoundments have to be properly designed and they also have to be properly monitored and maintained. One of the things that happened in Romania was that because of the climate, there was ice, there was snow on top of the ice, then the weather and you had melting and you also had rain. And what happened was that before the tailings dam was breached, the water was running over the top. Basically this is a situation that if there had been proper maintenance and proper monitoring, it should have never overflowed."
According to Hoskin, many mining accidents involving cyanide are preventable. But she noted that the industry must have contingency plans in case an accident does occur. Here too, conference participants began work on adopting universal standards.
"Once the dam broke in Romania, it flowed into two river systems and then ultimately into the Danube. It basically impacted several countries. If the emergency response had been adequate, it could have stopped much closer to the source."
Last week's conference was only the start of a process, and Hoskin says a final code of practice on the use of cyanide in gold mining will not be ready for another year. At first, the code will be voluntary, but Hoskin hopes that once published, it will put pressure on individual countries to adopt legislation governing mine operations.
Some countries and regions -- among them Turkey and the U.S. state of Montana -- have already restricted or rejected the use of cyanide in gold mining as too dangerous altogether.