13 May 2005

Mine Plan Agreed to Tackle Europe’s Ticking Pollution Time-Bombs

Clean Ups of Old Sites and Coherent Policy on New Mines on the Cards Under Landmark Agreement to Boost Regional Environment and Security

(Re-issued as received.)

CLUJ-NAPOCA/NAIROBI, 13 May -- An historic strategy to reduce the environmental risks of mining in Eastern Europe is to be adopted today by governments attending an international conference in Romania.

The plan, agreed at the end of the conference by ministers and officials from around a dozen countries in the region, is likely to lead to detailed assessments of sites whose continued operation has become a source of pollution and tension in an already volatile part of the world.

It is hoped that the strategy will also trigger the financial, technical and administrative support needed to clean up old mines, smelters and processing facilities in the region.

Higher health and environmental standards for the operation of new mines, alongside sound planning for their eventual closure and decommissioning are also part of the plan.

The strategy will also accelerate the establishment and extension of early warning systems on key rivers and tributaries in order to warn countries in the region of chronic pollution incidents.

Studies, carried out on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), have concluded that numerous old and abandoned sites are now cause for environmental, social and political concern.

The sites, found in the countries of Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Kosovo, have been involved in the extraction and processing of metals such as zinc, cadmium, copper, bauxite, silver and gold.

Over a third of the more than 150 of these sites, some of which have been abandoned or ‘orphaned’, may pose a serious risk to human health, the environment and regional stability experts have concluded.

Even some operational mines in the region can pose a threat. In 2000, cyanide pollution from a gold mine in Romania caused serious damage to the River Danube in Hungary after wastes were discharged in the Tisza River, a Danube tributary.

The action plan, in the form of a declaration from the “Reducing Environment and Security Risks from Mining in South Eastern Europe and the Tisza River Basin”, aims to tackle a wide range of issues confronting governments, local authorities and industry.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director, said: “We now have a firm commitment from countries in this region to tackle the real and genuine threat from mining and related industries. I hope this commitment will be matched by support from governments outside the region, bodies like the European Commission, industry and others so that we can put mining in this region on a sustainable track ”.

“The region is blessed with abundant reserves of minerals. Mining, carried out sustainably and to internationally-acceptable standards has therefore an important role to play in delivering economic growth and over coming poverty in this part of Europe. It thus has its role in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. These cover everything from eradicating poverty and improving human health to provision of safe and sufficient amounts of drinking water, food security and environmental sustainability,” he added.

“Unfortunately past practices have left a legacy that can no longer be ignored if we are to improve stability both within and between countries. I hope the declaration from this important conference, so ably organized by the Government of Romania, will now finally close this less than sparkling chapter and open a new cleaner, more prosperous and more secure one for the region and its people,” said Mr Toepfer.

Pollution, in the form of for example old chemical stockpiles, ageing nuclear reactors and damaged and decaying factories, has become a key issue in states of the former Soviet Union.

Another study, released recently by UNEP under its Environment and Security or EnviSec Initiative, concludes that environmental degradation can undermine local and international security by “reinforcing and increasing grievances within and between societies”.

EnviSec is a collaboration between UNEP, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The same study, which focused on environmental ‘hot spots’ in the Southern Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, also concluded that a declining environment can lead to unrest by ‘weakening states’ and diminishing the authority of governments.

Meanwhile, the report emphasizes the role the environment can play in promoting peace. This is because many pollution problems are shared between communities and countries.

Working together to solve environmental problems can build trust, understanding and more stable political relations.

Pollution from mines and related industries has been pin pointed by countries in South Eastern Europe and the Tisza River Basin as among the biggest environment and security threats.

A new report from the EnviSec group called Mining for Closure argues that pollution of water courses from toxic mines wastes or ‘tailings’ is among the over riding issues countries need to address.

The report identifies the reasons why mining in the region has become such a big issue.

These include the lack of mine clean up and reclamation policies in the countries concerned until the later half of the 20th century; poor enforcement of regulations even where they exist and insufficient funds for governments for mine clean ups in the event of a mining company going bankrupt.

Other factors include poor management of mines; a loss of mine records as a result of political instability, unscheduled closures, conflict and illegal mining.

The report, whose recommendations form the basis of this week’s agreed action or work plan, also charts a way forward so that countries in the region can reduce the threats of cross border river pollution and other problems such as long distance air pollution.

In doing so, this will help those countries about to accede or who are seeking accession to the European Union to meet its environment and safety regulations.

The recommendations include the setting up and extending of early warning systems for alerting national authorities and neighboring countries of chronic pollution spills and incidents.

A comprehensive inventory of pollution ‘hot spots’ and a prioritized programme of clean up or closure of those sites deemed too hazardous to operate or to be left in their current state.

The establishment of independent mine closure laws overseen by a single government agency.

Capacity-building for bodies such mine inspectorates so they can effectively deal with the legacy of old mines and ensure that new ones meet sound environmental and security standards.

Effective laws and guidelines that outline the role and responsibilities of governments and mine operators. These will cover areas such as pollution spill liability and the need to set aside funds for remediation and the rehabilitation of sites at the end of their economic lives.

The Mining for Closure recommendations also urge those involved to involve all ‘stakeholders’ including local communities.

The report says it is important for the stability of communities and countries to ensure that wider social and economic issues are taken into account including solutions to ensure that schools, clinics and other essential service continue after a mine is closed.

Notes to Editors

The Sub-Regional Conference “Reducing Environment and Security Risks from Mining in South Eastern Europe and the Tisza River Basin”, is being held 12-14 May 2005 at the Hotel City Plaza, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Mining for Closure: Policies, Practices and Guidelines for Sustainable Mining and Closure of Mines, along with other key documents and conference papers can be found at www.envsec.org 

For More Information Please Contact Eric Falt, Director of UNEP's Division of Communications and Public Information (DCPI), on Tel: +254-20-62-3292, Mobile: +254-733-682-656 or +1-917-434-9338, E-mail: eric.falt@unep.org; Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson/Media Services, on Tel: +254-20-62-3084, Mobile: +254-733-632755, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org

UNEP News Release 2005/26