by Norm Greenwald
Toxic chemical spills and accidents are a controversial issue with the general public and emergency services. Modern gold-mining processes use cyanide solutions to extract the precious metal from ore. It is then discarded in large ponds or “tailings dams”. The toxicity of cyanide is well known, and although industrial use of this substance has caused relatively few fatalities, public concern is running high. Following a number of spills during transport and from tailings dams in the 1990s, the mining industry started a review of safety procedures for cyanide usage.
Following another highly publicised accidental release of large amounts of cyanide and tailings from the Baia Mare gold mine in Romania in January 2000, the industry committed itself to framing an International Cyanide Management Code for the Manufacture, Transport and Use of Cyanide in the Production of Gold (referred to as the Code). Under the auspices of UNEP and the International Council on Metals and the Environment, a multi-stakeholder steering committee convened, representing the gold mining industry, governments, non-governmental organizations, the workforce, cyanide producers and fi nancial institutions. This committee devoted almost two years to drafting an international voluntary programme for safe management of cyanide in gold mining.
The Code1 is an emergency management instrument that covers the whole life cycle. It addresses risk prevention, safe operations, emergency preparedness and possible responses to accidents. It sets comprehensive performance goals: manufacture of cyanide for use in the gold industry; cyanide transport to mines; cyanide handling and usage in gold production; decommissioning of cyanide facilities at mines and fi nancial guarantees; workforce health and safety; emergency responses; workforce training; and public awareness of cyanide use in mining.
Companies voluntarily commit to the Code, but purchasers and users must only deal with cyanide producers and transporters using safe procedures. Third-party auditors will assess operations for compliance every three years. Auditors must meet criteria for experience, expertise and confl ict of interest and use a published audit protocol. Summary audit results will be posted on the internet for review by interested stakeholders and the public. The International Cyanide Management Institute (ICMI), a non-profi t organization, monitors Code implementation.
Preparing, then implementing the Code proved an innovative process, involving community and government representatives as well as industry. Its comprehensive reach, spanning the entire life cycle, from production and use to disposal, will make accidents a less common occurrence in the future and make mitigation easier.
Norm Greenwald is the manager of the International Cyanide Management Code.