The European Commission has responded to the recent mining accident in Baia Mare, Romania with an investigation and a series of recommendations for tailings management.
On 30 January 1999, a tailings pond, which was reprocessing old mining tailings and redepositing the waste into a new tailings pool, burst its banks at Baia Mare. Approximately 100,000m3 of wastewater containing up to 120t of cyanide was released into the Lapus river, and via the Somes and Tisa rivers into the Danube.
Investigations into the accident showed that a sudden temperature increase from -13°C to 9°C had caused a thick layer of snow that covered the pond to melt. The temperature change was accompanied by heavy rainfall. As the facility had a closed-circuit tailings management system, there was no outlet for the excess water created by these conditions and the pond burst.
The EC report concludes that Baia Mare’s closed-circuit system, although environmentally and economically worthy, provided no outlet for the emergency discharge of excess water. There was only a simple visual monitoring of water levels: difficult to achieve when the surface of the water was obscured by a thick layer of snow. It also notes an absence of clear responsibility for the final decision on safety in a permitting process which is ‘overcomplex and diffused’.
The report recommends:
•The prohibition of closed-circuit tailings management facilities, 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 tailings ponds.
•A series of measures to clarify and strengthen existing EU legislation on mining and ore processing.
•Steps to promote a ‘safety culture’ in mining and ore processing operations.
•The introduction of binding conditions for the closure and aftercare of mines and tailings management facilities.
•The early ratification by all member states and the EC of the relevant conventions and protocols.
Other recommendations included:
•EU legislation pertaining to mining and ore processing activities should be compiled into a single industry guidance document; and specifically to the Baia Mare case,
•Strengthening the role, funding and decision-making procedures of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube river.