EU must harmonise waste management

Member states must be given the financial and technical means to avoid disasters, writes Katerina Konecná.

Katerina Konecná | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Katerina Konecná

13 Feb 2017

This directive looks at ways to safely manage mining waste. The assessment carried out by the Commission on the state of implementation of the directive showed that most member states have already adopted measures required by the text. However, a number of issues still need to be addressed, mainly when it comes to granting permits and carrying out inspections.

A key element of establishing a facility that could potentially be harmful to the environment is the permit procedure. In order to ensure safe operation, the permit application must include accurate data on all the relevant variables. 

Only then can the permit contain site-specific obligations to ensure protection the environment, as well as human and animal health. These obligations should be based on similar requirements throughout all the member states. 


The strictness of the obligations should depend on the location and characteristics of waste, rather than the member state. However, the starting point should always be the highest level of health and environmental protection.

Continuous monitoring and on the spot inspections are an important part of safely operating waste facilities. Monitoring should be reliable and comprehensive. After all, we are talking about profitable business and potentially hazardous waste.

On the spot inspections carried out by authorities should depend on the location and the characteristics of the waste. In addition, the possibility of performing unscheduled inspections should be guaranteed. If a facility is known to have had problems in the past, inspections should be more frequent and thorough.

One important aspect in mining waste facilities is safety and pollution prevention. Safety of tailings ponds is a key element. Waste from extractive industries can have adverse effects on water, air, soil, fauna and flora and the landscape, and even on human health. For example, tailings ponds are very dangerous, full of accidents waiting to happen.

Just look at the Talvivaara Mining Company case. The company has had a tumultuous few years recently, with its sulphate emissions highly exceeding the permitted levels, causing severe water pollution and a major leak from its gypsum waste pond which was contaminated with nickel, uranium and other toxic metals. 

So far, this has cost Finnish taxpayers hundreds of millions of euros, not to mention the damage caused to public health and the environment.

Proper corporate responsibility is needed, including for multinationals around the world. Criminal law must also be harmonised. As we have learned over the last decade, financial compensation and sanctions are not enough to prevent major disasters.

Member states should have the resources and technical capabilities to avoid any more drastic dam failures. If a disaster does happen, there must be robust financial guarantees.

These should be put in place ahead of time, and the sum should be large enough to cover possible accidents. Even the best protection system can fail, and accidents in mining waste facilities still happen every year - even in the EU. In this sense, sharing best practices and lessons learned between member states is an important mechanism.


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