MAC: Mines and Communities

Hungarian victory against cyanide for gold mining

Published by MAC on 2010-01-19
Source: The Ecologist (2010-01-08)

Government and opposition join hands in banning toxic chemical

Great victory against cyanide for gold mining

Stephanie Roth, The Ecologist

8 January 2010

A landmark ban in Hungary on the use of cyanide in mining looks set to make huge improvements in public health. Now the country's neighbours need to follow her lead...

In early December Hungary's parliamentarians voted with a virtually unprecedented majority to ban all metal processing based on cyanide.

Cyanide is a chemical compound used to separate the ore from precious metals such as gold and silver. Hungary is the first EU member state to have taken such progressive step; this almost ten years after the tailing dam at a gold processing plant in the North Romanian town of Baia Mare broke and 100.000 cubic meters of toxic cyanide and heavy metal-laced waste water escaped into the River Tisza and into Hungary. More than 1,400 tons of fish died and the accident destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of fishermen.

A second somewhat similar accident happened again in Northern Romania just a few weeks later in March, and spills from these sites have continued to occur at regular intervals.

Highly toxic

What, you may ask, does a cyanide spill in Romania have in common with a cyanide ban in Hungary ten years later? A lot; is the answer. With the current gold price rendering previously uneconomic gold deposits feasible again, gold mining proposal have been mushrooming in the CEE region; including Hungary. 90 per cent of these expect to use large quantities of cyanide.

Cyanide is highly toxic but it's also dead cheap. If you want to know just how toxic it is, then consider this: during the Second World War hydrogen cyanide was used in the Nazi gas chambers of Auschwitz and Maidanek where it was released from Zyklon B pellets.

Rather than promoting existing and far less toxic alternatives, the EU currently allows for the use of cyanide with complex and, some would say, highly ineffective management plans. Roughly 80 per cent of Hungary's rivers feed the country from its neighbours which are precisely the countries with those sizeable gold deposits. The EU may care for environmental protection but it also cares for economic competitiveness with its resource hungry trade partners such as China and India.

EU ineffective

When countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania joined Europe there was hope amongst civil society that EU membership would lead to greater environmental innovation and less risk. To a certain extent this may be true but many would point to the example of cyanide and argue that, from a practical point of view, it hasn't gone far enough. Whilst the Baia Mare accident is very much still in living memory, it seems unbelievable to many that vast amounts of cyanide - several tons per mine every year - may still be used in gold mining in modern-day Europe.

An opinion poll carried out in Hungary in early December 2009 showed that 74 per cent of the electorate favours a cyanide ban in mining, and in Romania an opinion poll asking the same question in April 2008 showed 66 per cent in favour of a ban.

Joinging the EU, understanding its characteristics and finding the vigour and space to act within it is perhaps one of the reasons why this change for better has taken that long. But now that it's happening, it is occurring fast and with impressive results.

A coordinated campaign

The 'Cyanide-Free Hungary!' coalition which campaigned for the ban consisted of several environmental NGOs, such as Protect the Future (Védegylet), Greenpeace Hungary, Friends of the Earth Hungary, and LMP - Hungary's green party.

It was joined by 50 Hungarian NGOs and 13 NGOs based in the EU including several from Romania and Bulgaria. The bill which aimed at amending Hungary's mining law, was promoted by five cross-party Members of Parliament (MPs) and the vote in plenary resulted in 365 votes for the cyanide ban and one vote against.

Cooperation between government and opposition is extremely rare, and such active and overwhelming support from the part of the MPs is virtually unprecedented in Hungary. It took the campaigners a mere two months to pass the bill. The commissioning of an omnibus opinion poll has been their sole expense.

According to Javor Benedek, one of the campaigners, the cyanide ban in Hungary is hopefully just the first step: 'We wanted to show that banning cyanide in metal mining is possible even as an EU member state and even simple when "will-ed". At a time when concessions for gold and silver deposits have been issued in Hungary and the CEE region, this is a vital step to safeguarding environmental and human health. We hope that our neighbours will use this example as a precedent.'

As the tenth anniversary date of the Baia Mare accident draws near (31st January, 2010), the coalition's partner NGOs in Bulgaria and Romania are gearing up to lobby hard for a cyanide ban in their respective countries during this year and the Hungarian NGOs are pushing for an EU-wide cyanide ban.

It has taken ten years for this change for better to take place. Seeing it happen from close up I have come across a colourful and uncompromising group of campaigners for whom environmental protection is utterly unrelated to national boundaries. Judging by the speed of their campaign and their determination, they are likely to continue shaping their countries in the years to come. I am ‘hope-full' again.


Hungary's Parliament votes to ban cyanide-based metal mining

By LMP/Greenpeace Hungary/Protect the Future!/Friends of the Earth Hungary

11 December 2009

BUDAPEST, Hungary, Dec. 7, 2009 - This afternoon Hungary's parliament - the so-called National Assembly - voted for a ban on all cyanide-based mining technologies on Hungarian territory. The bill which was initiated by the 'Cyanide-Free Hungary!' coalition was adopted in plenary with 356 voted for and 1 against.

The 'Cyanide-Free Hungary!' coalition which was initiated by Protect the Future (Vedegylet), Greenpeace Hungary, Friends of the Earth Hungary, and LMP - Hungary's green party 'Politics can be different!' consists of 50 Hungarian NGOs and 13 NGOs based in the EU. The coalition's aim has been to ensure the passing of a bill to amend Hungary's mining law by introducing a ban on cyanide-based mining technologies. Cyanide is used to separate metals such as gold, silver and copper from the ore. The bill was promoted by 5 Members of Parliament (MPs) namely Jozsef Angyan (Fidesz), Kalman Katona (independent), Andor Nagy (KDNP), Sandor Orosz (MSZP) and Gabor Velkey (SZDSZ).

The campaign coalition's aim was to ensure that a change in law make the use of hazardous cyanide based mining technologies impossible in Hungary. Mining accidents such as the Baia Mare cyanide spill should never happen again. In January 2010 it will be 10 years since this disaster in Romania caused a massive trans-boundary pollution killing much of the aquatic life in the Tisza and Danube rivers. "This is so much more than just a symbolic step," explains Benedek Javor, LMP's spokesperson. "The Hungarian mining authorities have actually issued permits regarding precious metal exploration in the Borzsony, Matra and Zemplen mountains. With the high gold price companies are eager to grab up concessions. We have to make sure that applying dangerous mining technologies may never even be thought of in these areas of outstanding natural beauty."

"The ban on cyanide-based metal mining is an important precedent and will hopefully not fail to affect our neighbors. But it will also encourage the EU to promote similar regulatory action, thus making the region and the whole of Europe a safer place to live", comments Szegfalvi Zsolt, director of Greenpeace Hungary.

"All this is of even greater importance as we are witnessing ever new gold mining plans popping up around us, like the one close to Certej in Transylvania just a while ago", adds Robert Fidrich, campaigner of MTVSZ/Friends of the Earth Hungary.

Zsolt Boda, spokesperson for 'Protect the Future!' stresses the virtually complete parliamentary consensus as it came to voting the amendment: "We are delighted that matters of environmental safety are beyond political colors and indeed are a matter of common understanding, support and cooperation between all political actors."

Today, Hungary has acted and set a vital example to show that change for better is possible and is sometimes even simple. Today's vote will dramatically change the dynamics in any trans-boundary consultations on metal mining that involve Hungary. Following this success the 'Cyanide-Free Hungary!' coalition is now heading for international action and cooperation in order to achieve an ever more widespread ban of cyanide-based mining technology.

Background:

30th January 2000 marks the date when one of the largest environmental accidents occurred in Central Eastern Europe (CEE). In the late evening of that day the tailing dam at the gold processing plant 'Aurul' in the North Romanian town Baia Mare broke and 100.000 cubic meters of toxic cyanide and heavy metal laced waste water escaped into the Lapus and Somes rivers and into the River Tisza. More than 1.400 tons of fish died and the accident destroyed the life basis of hundreds of fishermen along the River Tisza in Hungary. In some Hungarian towns the drinking water supply had to be cut down for several days. In Romania the village Bozinta Mare situated near the dam was affected most as the spill ran through the village and poisoned the drinking water and the soil. The reasons for this accident were identified later on to be a combination of mistakes in the construction of the dam, poor risk management and extreme weather conditions. The second accident happened just a few weeks later in March 2000 at the Baia Borsa mine, North Romania, when the tailing dam broke and 20,000 tons of heavy metal sludge escaped into the river system. In contrast to the Baia Mare accident this one did not affect the whole upstream river systems but caused a severe pollution with persistent heavy metals. The mine in Baia Borsa was owned by the Romanian state, the reason for the accident was the poor safety equipment of the dam due to lacking financial resources. Whilst the damage that both these accidents caused to the Romanian population and its environment have never been fully acknowledged, major and minor mining spills from these mine sites have since continued to occur at regular intervals.

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