Is cyanide safe to use in mining?
In May last year, the European Parliament voted in favour of putting an European Union-wide ban on the use of cyanide mining technology by the end of this year.
Three months prior to the European decision, the Australian government released a report containing the findings of eight years of research on the same mining process.
The report concluded that cyanide technology is safe to use in mining.
Both the call for an EU-wide ban and the Australian report were prompted by environmental concerns regarding cyanide.
They came a decade after what some media reports called as the worst environmental disaster in Europe, since the Chernobyl nuclear leak.
That incident in the Romanian town of Baia Mare involved the use of cyanide technology by a mining company, Aurul SA, jointly owned by Romanian and Australian investment companies.
Part of the wall of the tailings dam of a mine broke, and tonnes of water laced with cyanide and heavy metals spilled down a nearby creek and into central Europe’s largest rivers -the Tisza and the Danube.
In Hungary alone, about a thousand tonnes of dead fish were reportedly killed.
Cyanide – in the form of sodium cyanide – is mostly used in gold and silver mining.
Since gold and silver are both soluble in cyanide, sodium cyanide can be pumped into a mine, as part of a leaching process to extract these precious metals from ore.
Proponents of the cyanide process argue it is quite safe, as long as the cyanide-laced substance returned to the surface is stored safely in containment reservoirs.
(Mr) Tamas Kenessy is a political advisor on environmental matters at the European Parliament.
He explains that different European countries have different legislation in regards to cyanide mining.
GRAB KENESSEY 1:
Throughout the European Union the treatment of mining waste is regulated in quite diverse way. There are some Scandinavian countries, like Sweden, where the government tightened up the rules on cyanide mining many years ago. They require companies to use closed systems, from which the substance theoretically cannot get out to the environment. However in other countries, like Romania, or Hungary – mostly Central European or Southern European countries – the regulation is more lenient and the companies can operate open air reservoirs rounded by dams only built of mud and soil.
Tamas Kenessey says the cyanide spill in Romania in 2000 meant an economic wipe-out for the fishermen and tourist operators who depended on the downsteam river systems.
He says the impact was particularly severe for those depending on the Tisza River in Hungary.
GRAB KENESSEY 2
Fortunately the environment recovered in the Tisza region and the river is again in good ecological status. But ten years and several billion euros were necessary to restore this good ecological status of the river. During this ten years, two local industries or economical activities the fishery and tourism went completely bankrupt. Many individuals lost their jobs many companies went bankrupt, and finally the (Hungarian) central government had to save these people with social transfers with a lot of money.
Balazs Meszaros’ family has been fishing on the Tisza River in Hungary for many generations.
However, he says the cyanide accident destroyed both the ecological system of the river and his career as a fisherman.
GRAB MESZAROS 1 (starts in Hungarian, voiced over in English)
I had a mental breakdown, I dream with this disaster. When I see a dead fish it all comes back to me like this happened yesterday. I tried to get over it, but it is impossible.
Balazs Meszaros says the payments he received from the Hungarian government did not make much difference.
GRAB MESZAROS 2 (starts in Hungarian, voiced over in English)
We were hired to operate boats, and also for specie rescue. We got paid minimum wages for this twice for three months. This was all. Once there was a charity organisation here which gave us a food pack, which was worth about 50 dollars. All 262 fishermen received this, except two of them. And once we got an aid of about 500 dollars. But I did not succeed in budgeting it well for the year. And this whole thing happened so quickly, that we could not even get retrained or find another trade. Those who lived off fishing, like me and my father before me, we really hit rock bottom. And we do not know what to do with ourselves ever since. I tried, but I still earn most of my living from casual work and not from fishing.
(Mr) Gabor Figeczky is the head of the Hungarian branch of the environmental group, the WWF.
He disputes claims that the health of the Tisza River has been restored in the years since the cyanide accident upstream in Romania.
Gabor Figeczky doesn’t believe government authorities have done any thorough monitoring of the health of the river, and it’s beyond the resources of the WWF to have done so.
But he says there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that the effects of the cyanide accident are still being felt.
All we know is what fishermen tell us. What they tell us is that still there is a lower catch all along the Tisza River. What we also know from scientific studies is that from these kind of disasters a river can of course recover quite fast in 3 or four years. But it does not mean that before these years fishermen did not have any kind of damage. It does not mean that nature was not totally destroyed. And again what it means is that these disasters give way usually more for non-native invasive species to come back. So first these fish species and plant species will come back, which means that the vegetation and the fauna will completely change on the Tisza River.
(Mr) Peter Gunzburg is the executive chairman of Eurogold LTD.
That’s the successor company of the main Australian investor in Aurul SA, the company which owned the Romanian mine where the cyanide disaster occurred.
According to him, the weather was to blame for that incident in 2000.
GRAB GUNZBURG 2
Every company big or small, listed or unlisted, has the responsibility to act as environmentally as it can. The situation in 2000 was that that we had all the relevant and well respected and independent engineers of the design in the construction of the tailing dam and it was a 1 in 100 years weather event which happened to occur as a particularly susceptible time the operation just starting up. Not as if the companies turn a blind eye to environmental responsibilities, but it happens time to time.
Peter Gunzburg says Eurogold LTD continues to invest globally in mining companies which work with cyanide, because it considers the technology to be safe.
And he says it’s much safer now than it was in 2000.
GRAB GUNZBURG 3
Well, since the spill in 2000, regrettable as it was, there is a silver lining to every cloud and the manner in which the cyanide is detoxified has been completely revolutionised since then. So the cyanide does not leave the process plant and travel to a tailings dam, I think you find most places in the world now, that the cyanide is detoxified before the waste water is transported to any tailings dam. Whereas before the spill, in 2000 it was not the case.
Yes I do consider it a safe technology.
Last year, the Australian government finished an eight year-long research project into the use of sodium cyanide in mining.
It concluded that the technology is safe, subject to compliance with a range of federal, state and territory environmental safeguards designed to protect aquatic birds and animals.
(Ms) Melanie Strutsel is the Director for Health, Safety, Environment and Community Policy at the Minerals Council of Australia.
She believes that in some circumstances, the use of sodium cyanide is the best available technology for gold and silver miners.
And Melanie Strutsel says he Australian mining industry is well aware of the need for strict environmental safeguards – and how the weather is one factor that must be considered.
GRAB STRUTSEL 1
There are two types of extreme weather events that you usually get in areas that might have tailing dams. One is obviously related to snow and snow melt, which is much more a European issue and a North American issue. It is not prevalent in Australia. The other is related to high volumes of rainfall. So in Australia there is a very strict regulation on how dams are designed and constructed and how they provide for the potential for high rain fall events as well as very strict regulations about if any water needs to be discharged from these tailing storage facilities, the water quality parameters under which that water can be released.
Melanie Strutsel adds that there’s another factor which makes the use of cyanide mining safer in Australia than in other countries – the amount of sunshine that the country receives.
GRAB STRUTSEL 2
And I guess I would also say that one of the characteristics of cyanide is that it is actually denatured through sunlight. So in a country like Australia, where you have tailing storage facilities that have very small concentration 1 to ten milligrams cyanide per liter, which is a level that is considered safe to wildlife, when that is exposed to sunlight it then further breaks down to cyanaides? which are then considered to be safe and stable chemical substances.
Melanie STRUTSEL agrees that the Minerals Council’s member companies do invest in operations in countries where regulations covering the use of cyanide are not as rigorous as in AUSTRALIA.
But she says that’s a matter for local authorities to deal with.
GRAB STRUTSEL 3
Our members are a mixture. There are a number of companies that certainly have operations within Australia and globally, the larger mining houses. And there are also a number of mining houses which operate wholly within Australia. The regulatory arrangements are obviously the responsibility of the host country, however as an organisation we have developed enduring value sustainable development framework for the minerals industry, which really sets a beyond compliance approach for companies, so it sort of bridges that gap between where there is an existing regulation and where the community expectations sit. —
During a debate in the European Parliament last year, supporters of the proposed ban on cyanide technology argued that the matter was urgent because the rising price of gold was leading to plans for many new mines.
However, it won’t be easy for the European Union to get the ban adopted by its member states.
As the political adviser Tamas Kenessy explains, the European Parliament’s vote is only a signal of a political will, without any legislative power.
Now, he says, it is time for further lobbying to change the relevant EU regulation.
GRAB KENESSEY 3:
It is the European Commission who can change the state of the current regulation. So far the Commission was reluctant to change this regulation, but there is intensive lobbying also from the side of the mining industry and from the side of the environmental NGOs. In 2011 here in the European Union we will have the revision of the water framework directive and in 2012 we will have a review of the waste regulation in the European Union, including the industrial waste directive. And we will see what will happen. I think the European Parliament’s political statement will have an effect on these revision procedures.
The use of cyanide in mining is already banned in several EU member states, including Hungary, the Czech Republic and Germany.
Romanian and Hungarian members of the EuropeanParliament are expected to continue to lead the lobbying for banning of thetechnology in all member states.
Originally published by SBS World News Australia as a radio feature prepared by Szilvia Malik Game in March 2011