Publications > Poverty Times #3 > Learning from Baia Mare

Poverty Times #3

Learning from Baia Mare

by Fritz Balkau

On 30 January 2000 a tailings dam at the Aurul Mine in Romania overfl owed and released 100,000 cubic metres of ef- fl uent containing cyanide into the Tisza River. By the time the overfl ow was detected, the alarm raised and emergency measures taken to staunch the fl ow, heavily contaminated wastewater had reached the Danube River and was on its way to Hungary and beyond. Traces of cyanide, albeit at a very low level, were still detected in the river water when it reached the Black Sea two weeks later.

A storm of protest arose over large quantities of cyanide in the drinking water of numerous towns in seven countries and in water supplies serving thousands of people and agriculture. Accusations, denials, assurances and recriminations fl ew in all directions, and it did not help that some of the reassuring statements by experts about how quickly cyanide degraded proved to be incorrect. The fact that the ecology of the rivers began to recover just a few weeks after the incident was also of less interest to the media. What counted was 70 tonnes of cyanide in the river; over 1,000 tonnes of dead fi sh, depriving local fi shermen of their livelihood; and a shattered tourist industry. Understandably there was indignation that such an accident could have occurred in the fi rst place. So what had led to such a disaster?

An Environmental Task Force, led by UNEP, set about investigating the damage and trying to understand why the accident had occurred. UNEP set up an internet information system to provide updates on the situation and relevant scientific information for a regional audience. The system provided ongoing progress reports on the situation, but also placed particular emphasis on giving practical and unbiased information about cyanide and its use in industry, together with other technical details necessary for a full understanding of the situation. Much of the technical information was retained after the incident and incorporated into a library of documents and other information on the use of cyanide in mining1, underpinning some of the follow-up actions described below.

The Baia Mare spill marked a turning point for a number of functionally related issues such as waste disposal technology, mine management, accident prevention and management of environmental emergencies, the adequacy of current regulations to ensure public safety, and communication with the public. Almost all the players found some defi ciencies in their mandates, practices and methods of communication.

It often takes a disaster to force us to improve safety standards and, even then, the lessons learned are not automatically translated into actual system improvements. The Baia Mare experience, however, did result in major changes inthe way we approach mine safety and respond to accidents generally. How these changes came about is described below.

First it has to be said that some things worked well during the Baia Mare spill. The company eventually blocked the fl ow of polluted water from the mine. The early warning system of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) swung into action and alerted downstream riparian authorities of the polluted water coming their way. Towns downstream were able to block the pumps drawing river water and make other arrangements for drinking water. Pollution levels were measured regularly at key points along the river.

Other things did not work so well. In particular, attempts to neutralise the cy anide in the river were unsuccessful, and simply added more noxious chemicals to the water. Attempts at public information by various parties were guarded, cautious and often insubstantial. Although the physical damage was only temporary there were widespread fears that the cyanide would cause lasting ecological and economic damage. The psycholog ical effect was permanent. Civil Society lost its trust in industry and government experts.

After much debate it was concluded that little else could be done immediately except wait for the pollution to be fl ushed out further downstream. Meanwhile various agencies began to review their mandates in search of measures to prevent such an event recurring.

Almost everyone was quick to suggest solutions. Some advocated simply banning the use of cyanide altogether, and/or anything to do with the mining industry (overlooking the fact that the mine at Baia Mare had been reprocessing old mine dumps causing pollution). But it was already clear that simplistic cure-all options would not be effective in dealing with the multitude of causal factors that had led to this combination accident. A more comprehensive approach involving a variety of stakeholders was needed.

Regulatory agencies reviewed their procedures. The European Commission focused on two things: how to bring the hazardous mining activities under the Seveso II directive; and how to incorporate mine residues into the EU Waste Directive. This review eventually resulted in amendments to the respective directives making mining a more central concern of environmental legislation than previously.

UNEP focused on improving the mining industry’s safety performance. The Assessment Report of the Baia Mare Task Force identifi ed several factors that had contributed to the accident (see box), and UNEP’s programme of work addressed each of these factors in turn.

First, with input from the industry, UNEP prepared new guidelines for the mining industry, on Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level (APELL). These guidelines2 were eventually taken up at international level, and have now become a priority item in the forward work plan of the International Council on Mining and Minerals (see p. 18). A number of companies around the world have already used them to develop their own emergency preparedness plans.

At the same time, the handling procedures for cyanide were reviewed. With the cooperation of the then International Council for Metals and the Environment, a multi-stakeholder process was launched to develop a management code for cyanide – to our knowledge, the fi rst industry code to involve outside partners in its preparation. The International Cy anide Management Code3 (see p. 19), monitored and advised by an international Institute with its own Board of Directors, is now available for global use.

Technical design issues were taken further through the Tailings Committee of the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD). UNEP joined with ICOLD to produce two Technical Bulletins4 laying down design requirements and providing lessons from past incidents as a guide to designers. Future collaborative work involving UNEP and ICOLD will focus on the concept of failsafe design for tailings dams.

To address the issue of adequate review at the fi nancing phase of the design of mines, UNEP joined forces with the World Bank and other fi nancial institutions to investigate how banks evaluate the safety performance of the projects in which they invest. It became apparent that while pollution had been a visible item in such reviews, accident risks, and in particular the Learning from Baia Mare Mind mining Environmental disasters and human tragedies caused by industrial accidents such as Bhopal, Seveso, Schweizerhalle or Tchernobyl have forced governments and industry to improve safety standards, bolstering prevention and accident response. The Baia Mare cyanide spill in Romania in 2000 fortunately had few lasting consequences. But it is a good example of an event that made various players learn from past lessons and adopt new approaches to avoid future accidents. The risk factors in less developed parts of the world are different. Just as with natural disasters, industrial accidents are linked to poverty. People who don’t know where their next meal will come from care little for environmental management regulations and emergency plans, witness the recurrent mining accidents in Africa and China. possible impact on outside communities, as in the case of Baia Mare, were usually not so visible. This initiative has made banking institutions more aware of the need to include public safety criteria in their project screening process.

The fi nal element for improvement was the regulatory process. It became clear that procedures within the regulatory agencies for mine permitting and monitoring do not usually include much emphasis on emergency preparedness, in contrast to on-site mine safety. UNEP has now run two international seminars with mining inspectorates to give this area more visibility among regulatory agencies.

The Baia Mare accident has become one of the classic situations in the mining industry, acknowledged by industry, professionals and NGOs as something from which we can all draw important lessons.

It is also an important example of how environmental investigations, if properly planned to examine the causal factors, can lead to meaningful improvements in environmental security and emergency preparedness. All the initiatives by UNEP and other players were based on the investigations of the Baia Mare Task Force. They have led to real gains, with better technology, management, regulation and emergency preparedness.

The industry was especially marked by this incident, and major companies and their associations have worked hard to deploy new hazard reduction and contingency procedures.

The revised EU regulations will strengthen requirements for mine safety and waste disposal, with UNEP assisting in capacity-building as well as with implementation and enforcement.

The incident made it all too clear that accurate information is in short supply during a crisis, and that viewpoints rather than by facts weigh heavily on public opinion. The presence of a trusted, neutral and accurate information system accessible to everyone is a real asset in mounting a coherent response to environmental incidents. Such a system should aim to foster public understanding of the factors and facts underlying the situation, not just give a description of the event.

Baia Mare caused no human fatalities, but under different circumstances it might well have done so. The lessons learned and applied from the follow-up programme will reduce the likelihood of such accidents and any future fatalities.

Fritz Balkau is Chief of the Production and Consumption Branch of UNEP’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics (DTIE) in Paris.