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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Spill Analysis

Air Date: Week of

Guest host Laura Knoy (kuh-NOY) talks with Bob Moran, a geochemist, who says spills like the one in Eastern Europe are common because oversight can be lax at mines where regulators are also the owners.


KNOY: Baia Mare is the latest in a series of cyanide spills from gold mines around the world. In the last five years there have been at least five major incidents. Bob Moran is head of Moran and Associates, a Colorado-based firm that consults with governments and companies on how to clean up after mine disasters. He says it will be a long time before the river cleans itself out, but no one knows just how long.

MORAN: There's an incredible number of unanswered questions relating to the environmental chemistry of cyanide. The mining people understand the chemistry very well within the processes of mining, smelting, milling. But the environmental side has not been studied adequately.

KNOY: And why not?

MORAN: My sense is that there is first a general discreditation of government roles in a lot of environmental affairs. They have in essence been told to stay out of the way of business development. So in essence, a lot of this has become a self-policing industry.

KNOY: What was the Romanian government's involvement in the mine?

MORAN: As far as I can tell, the Romanian government had something between 40 and 50 percent ownership of the mining property, and that's common. I've seen similar situations in Chile and in Kyrgistan and Indonesia, et cetera. There's no incentive to police aggressively if it would hurt your income, especially for a relatively poor developing country.

KNOY: So the foreign owners come in. They give the Third World country partial ownership. And then the two of them have a vested interest in keeping things quiet.

MORAN: Yeah, they have a vested interest in keeping quiet. It maybe sounds a little less nefarious to say they're also interested in making money. And there's no one else that's an independent party looking over their shoulder.

KNOY: We've been talking about spills in poorer countries, but there have been mining accidents and environmental problems with mines in this country, in your own state of Colorado.

MORAN: Yes, that's true. We had a significant spill in 1991 from a site called the Summitville site. The volumes of water were much less than in the current spill event in Europe. But nevertheless, the costs for clean-up, depending on whose numbers you believe, have varied between about $150 and $200 million so far, and it's clearly not cleaned up.

KNOY: Dr. Moran, are there international or local regulations that would help prevent more accidents like this in the future?

MORAN: There are lots of regulations in various countries. The problem is more seeing that they actively enforce their regulations. Clearly there have to be some movements toward truly independent oversight. The consultants or whoever would be overseeing a spill like this would have to be making their living from a source that's separate from the mining industry. Secondly, I think there has to be some new form of financial assurance required. In other words, if a spill like this occurs, the company, even a foreign-based company, needs to be held liable to pay for the costs. These costs should not be subsidized by the taxpayers of the various countries involved.

KNOY: Bob Moran is a water quality and geochemistry consultant. He joined us from the studios of KUVO in Denver. Dr. Moran, thanks for speaking with us.

MORAN: My pleasure.



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