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Brussels, 2 June 2003

Mining waste: Commission proposes new rules to prevent pollution and accidents

The European Commission has presented a proposal for a Directive to regulate the management of waste from the extractive industries (mining and quarrying). Because of its composition or volume, this waste can constitute a serious threat to the environment and human health if not properly managed. The proposal seeks to introduce EU-wide rules designed to prevent water and soil pollution from long-term storage of waste in tailings ponds, waste heaps, etc. The stability of these waste storage facilities must also be guaranteed to minimise possible consequences from accidents. Together with the revised Seveso II Directive on the control of major industrial accidents, and a Best Available Techniques document on tailings and waste rock, the proposed Directive will ensure sound management of extractive waste throughout the EU.

"The proposed Directive will help prevent serious accidents resulting from the mismanagement of mining waste, like the disaster in Baia Mare in 2000, where the whole of the Danube was polluted with cyanide," said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström. "It will also minimise chronic pollution of lakes and rivers by waste facilities that are badly operated and monitored. In short, the proposed Directive will make management of waste from the extractive industries safer. We are currently embarking on a historic enlargement of the EU and must ensure that the best environmental standards are applied across Europe."

Tackling pollution

This proposal seeks to improve the ways in which waste from the extractive industries is managed by setting minimum requirements and specifically addressing the environmental and human health risks that may arise from the treatment and disposal of such waste. It covers waste from all sectors of the extractive industry and specifically focuses on operational issues connected with waste management, prevention of soil and water pollution, and the stability of waste management facilities (in particular tailings ponds).

The proposal lists conditions to be attached to operating permits in order to ensure that sufficient environmental and safety measures are in place in order for waste management facilities to receive authorisation. Waste has to be classified before disposal and the method of management tailored to its particular characteristics. This is important for ensuring the long-term stability of the heaps and ponds used for permanent storage of large amounts of waste. Another key provision is that operators of waste management facilities should draw up closure plans, to form an integral part of the overall operating plan. Proper monitoring is also an essential feature of the proposal, during both the operational and the after-care phases.

In addition, the proposal contains an obligation to provide for an appropriate level of financial security to reinforce the "polluter-pays" principle. This entails ensuring that sufficient funds are available to leave waste sites in a satisfactory state after closure, for example, if a company goes into administration, becomes insolvent or even engages in asset-stripping (the so-called "walk away" practices).

In most Member States, these matters are already regulated. However, because of the variety of controls and the diversity of the extractive industry - ranging from very large facilities run by multinationals to SMEs there have to be minimum requirements at EU level. This should create a level playing-field for management of this waste. This is particularly important in view of enlargement, given the number of extractive industry sites in several Candidate Countries and the need to raise standards.

Major accidents and their consequences

The collapse of heaps and dams can have a serious impact on the environment and on human health and safety. The collapse of a heap of inert waste from a coal mine at Aberfan in Wales in 1966 was the worst ever such accident in the UK and caused the deaths of 144 people, mainly children. As for tailings dams, at world level these have failed at an average of 1.7 per year over the past 30 years. At Stava, Italy, in 1985, a fluorite tailings dam failed and released 200,000 m³ of inert tailings, killing 268 people and destroying 62 buildings. At Aznalcóllar, Spain, in 1998, an accident in an area close to the Doñana Natural Park in South Andalusia released into the River Guadiamar 2 million m³ of tailings and 4 million m³ of water contaminated by heavy metals. At Baia Mare in Romania in 2000 a tailings pond burst releasing approximately 100,000 m³ of waste water containing up to 120 tonnes of cyanide and heavy metals into the River Lapus; this then travelled downstream into the Rivers Somes and Tisa into Hungary before entering the Danube. In Baia Borsa, also in Romania, 20,000 tonnes of tailings were released into the River Novat, a tributary of the Rivers Viseu and Tisa.

The measures in the proposal complement those outlined in the Seveso II Directive 96/82/EEC on the control of major-accident hazards involving dangerous substances and include the establishment of a major-accident prevention policy and a safety management system. Public information is also included in accordance with the United Nations Convention of 25 June 1998 on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) to which the EU has signed up. All these measures will apply to those waste management facilities which present a high accident risk but will not be covered by the revised Seveso II Directive.


This proposal has its origins in a Communication issued by the Commission in October 2000 entitled "Safe operation of mining activities: a follow-up to recent mining accidents" (COM(2000)664 final). The Communication was prompted by the mining accidents in Spain and Romania and identified the need for a review of Community environmental policy in relation to the extractive industrial sector as a whole.

Extractive operations often generate large volumes of waste. These wastes, which may be major sources of pollution, include topsoil, overburden, waste rock and tailings.

Topsoil is the upper layer of the ground and usually stored on site and used for re-vegetation once the extraction has finished. Overburden and waste rock are the rock that extractive operations move during the process of accessing an ore or mineral body. They also include rock removed while sinking shafts and accessing or exploiting the ore body, as well as rock bedded with the ore.

Tailings are the waste solids that remain after the mineral processing of ore, which is carried out by a number of techniques. After the ore has been extracted from the mine, the first step in mineral processing is generally crushing and grinding. The fine ores are then concentrated to free the valuable mineral from the less valuable rock. Conventional mineral processing generates tailings, which either leave the mineral processing plant in the form of a slurry consisting of 15-60% solids or as coarse tailings, which are more or less dry. Coarse and fine tailings can be used to backfill mines. Most mine tailings are deposited in on-site impoundments, such as tailing ponds or heaps.

Waste from the extractive industries represents a large waste stream in the EU. It is estimated that such waste amounts to about 29% of total waste generated in the EU each year, with an annual volume in excess of 400 million tonnes.

Waste from extractive industries is subject to the general provisions of the Waste Framework Directive (75/442/EEC). More importantly, facilities for the disposal of waste from the extractive industries are also covered by the Landfill Directive (1999/31/EC). However, the latter contains provisions which are not always adapted to mining waste. It is therefore necessary to create an appropriate legal framework that would exempt waste from the extractive industries from the provisions of the Landfill Directive and establish tailor-made rules.

The text of the Commission proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and the Council on the management of waste from the extractive industries is available on the Europa website at:

The proposal for an amendment of the Seveso II Directive is available on the Europa website at:

For more information on the BAT Document:

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