More heat than light in EU debate

Written by Sean O'Sullivan

Sean O’Sullivan is the government relations officer for the Roşia Montană Gold Project

Passions run high in the European Parliament whenever cyanide and gold mining appear on the agenda, as they did recently on 25 September.

Unfortunately these debates generate more heat than light. There is still deep confusion among many MEPs about the real issues – and there’s a good deal of misinformation in the air. This isn’t lost on some of the members. For example one of the senior MEPs, who was present during the September session, described many of the arguments as ‘show’ and ‘pure electioneering in light of forthcoming European Parliament elections in May 2014.’

These often noisy debates nevertheless generate a bad press for the mining industry in general, and for gold mining in particular. And that’s very unfortunate, not just for the industry, but for thousands of people in Europe’s less well developed nations who desperately need employment, investment, and access to resources.

However, the European Commission – the body charged with initiating EU legislation – has a much more balanced view. The Commission points out that the EU has already passed the commonly referred to Mining Waste Directive (formally, the DIRECTIVE 2006/21/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 15 March 2006 on the management of waste from extractive industries and amending Directive 2004/35/EC). The Mining Waste Directive specifically addresses the question of cyanide use in mining and imposes the most stringent safeguards globally, applied to any mining operation which uses cyanide as part of the extraction process.

As long ago as 2010 the European Commission’s definitive report ‘The Impact of Gold Extraction in the EU’ stated that cyanide could be used quite safely if ‘the safety standards of the Directive are fully applied throughout the EU.’

At Roşia Montană they will be applied, and will be independently monitored to prove it, given that the company behind the project is among the first European companies to join the International Cyanide Management Code (ICMC) which ensures regular third-party monitoring

The key to these safety regulations is that cyanide used to leach out gold is partially destroyed in a neutralisation process before it leaves the closed circuit system it will be used in and reaches the mine tailings pond. The permitted  levels for cyanide in waste water tailings ponds in the EU are set at a maximum of 10 parts per million (ppm) for all new mining operations within the EU after May 2008. The project foresees 3 ppm at the tailing management facility and these are broken down to virtually zero over a short period of time through the effects of sunlight.

The Roşia Montană project is fully subject to those regulations, and is, as mentioned, to be strictly monitored at every stage to make sure they are adhered to.

Meanwhile there’s no doubt that Europe needs major new mining developments. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry, which is in charge of raw materials policy, puts the position plainly in a statement issued in late September: ‘We face increasing demand for unprocessed minerals and metals and, in parallel, strong challenges to the supply of certain raw materials.’

Raw materials, the statement goes on, are the lifeblood of EU industry, with at least 30 million jobs in the EU dependent on access to them. European Vice-President Antonio Tajani says clearly: ‘Innovation in raw materials – be it in mining, processing, recycling or substitution – holds the key to future growth and jobs.’

Accidents in the past have sometimes been devastating and noone can or should attempt to disguise their impact on the environment and thus on the lives of local people. But the fact is that EU legislation has changed massively since those times and the ICMC was introduced within the last decade. Such protections are good and third-party inspection has to be increased, which will be the case at Rosia Montana given its adherence to the ICMC.

It is also vitally important to recognise that the modern European mining industry, so far from damaging the environment, is actually committed to restoring it – even to cleaning up the legacy of shoddy practice by other miners in other times.

The objectors, be they MEPs or environmentalists are blaming the wrong people. Mining provides much needed investment to trigger sustainable regional development, wealth creation and environmental regeneration; as such, European mining is part of the solution, not the problem.