Twenty Years After Baia Mare - A Gold Industry Success Story

On January 30, 2000 at the Aurul gold mine near the city of Baia Mare in Romania, an earthen tailing dam overtopped and burst releasing more than 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-bearing solution into the Tisza River, part of the Danube river system.  While no human lives were lost, the release resulted in a massive loss of fish, disrupted river traffic in the Danube system, and focused the world’s attention on the risks of cyanide use in the gold mining industry.  The event followed a series of previous accidents in the 1990s involving cyanide that also made international news, including major releases of cyanide-containing solutions at mines in the United States, Guyana, and Kyrgyzstan.  These had already sensitized public opinion to the use of cyanide in the gold mining industry.

Unfortunately, the Baia Mare incident was preventable. In the ensuing public outcry over the weeks that followed, some called for banning or limiting the gold industry’s use of cyanide.  It was a tenuous period for the gold mining industry.  Such a ban would have had serious implications for the global gold industry as cyanide is the most efficient chemical extractant for recovering the great majority of the world’s gold.

The incident catalyzed a global effort by the gold mining industry and its stakeholders to improve the industry’s performance in managing this chemical that is critical for industrial mines to process gold.  With the encouragement and leadership of the United Nations Environment Programme and the former International Council on Metals and the Environment a multi-stakeholder process was initiated the same year and concluded in early 2002 with development of an international code of best practices for cyanide management, the International Cyanide Management Code (Cyanide Code).  It was envisioned that this Cyanide Code would serve as a framework for assurance to the industry’s stakeholders that cyanide was being properly managed by the gold mining industry.

Over the next three years the Cyanide Code program took shape with input from a broad spectrum of stakeholders.  It was a complex process involving input from governments, environmental NGO’s, and the gold mining industry.  By 2005 the Cyanide Code and its administrative organization, the International Cyanide Management Institute (the “Institute”), became fully operational.

In late 2005, the first companies, nine mining companies and five cyanide producers, became signatories to the Cyanide Code, formally committing to implementing the Cyanide Code at their operations and to having them periodically audited by independent third-party experts.  On April 17, 2006, the first mining operation was certified in Australia.

Two decades after the Baia Mare tailings disaster, and thirteen years after the first certification, it is time to reflect on development of the International Cyanide Management Code and its future.

As created, the Cyanide Code is a voluntary industry program focusing on the safe and environmentally sound production, transport, and use of cyanide by the gold mining industry. Through its nine principles and 31 standards of practice, the Cyanide Code sets out auditable expectations for management of cyanide in relation to worker health and safety, water management, environmental monitoring, documentation, emergency preparedness and response, training, decommissioning, financial assurance and stakeholder engagement.  The Cyanide Code is dynamic in nature, and has been revised over time as technology has advanced and best practices for cyanide management have evolved. 

There are clear indicators that the Cyanide Code is having an impact on safe management of cyanide by the industry.  Although historical statistics might have led one to expect otherwise, no major environmental incident involving cyanide has occurred since the program was developed.  The absence of any major incidents can largely be attributed to the enhanced diligence and care taken by the mining industry, whether through becoming signatories and having operations certified under the Cyanide Code or by simply operating to the rigorous practices expected by the program.  Although future incidents always remain a possibility, the level of emergency planning and response has been greatly improved in conjunction with the Cyanide Code.

Despite the absence of major incidents, sensitivity to cyanide’s use remains, governments and communities can be apprehensive, and cyanide is still newsworthy.  Sadly, human fatalities and environmental incidents have occurred in the years since Baia Mare, although infrequently and at operations not aligned with the Cyanide Code.

Today, 48 gold mining companies have signed on and committed to implement the Cyanide Code’s provisions at their 134 operations around the world.  As of 2017, the program also has been open to the silver industry.  An important feature of the Cyanide Code is the requirement for not only mining companies to become signatories but also the producers and transporters of cyanide, thereby securing the entire supply chain.  Twenty-five cyanide producers and 122 cyanide transporters also are Cyanide Code signatories.  The global reach of the Cyanide Code is demonstrated by the fact that the signatory mining companies with participating operations in 33 countries account for the vast majority of the sodium cyanide used in the industrial gold mining industry.  Another way of looking at the scale is to realize that better than half of the world’s gold production by cyanidation at industrial mines is taking place under the conditions laid down by the Cyanide Code. 

The Cyanide Code continues to gain support, with new signatories and certified operations being regularly announced.  While most of the major international gold mining companies are signatories, the majority of mining signatories are mid-tier and smaller producers, including companies with a single gold mine producing as little as 50,000 ounces of gold per year. 

A key to the program’s success has been its rigor, through requiring certification of participating operations through triennial audits by independent third-party auditors, and its transparency, by requiring public posting of audit reports and the credentials of the associated auditors on the internet.

These characteristics have also contributed to the Cyanide Code’s success, as demonstrated by the recognition it has received, its use by governments, non-governmental organizations, and financial institutions, and its incorporation into other initiatives for protection of health and the environment.  The Cyanide Code is now widely described in literature, produced not only by academics but also governments and non-governmental organizations.

The success of the Cyanide Code rests with the companies that continue to elevate their performance through commitment to the Cyanide Code’s Principles and Standards of Practice.  Through their actions these companies demonstrate the great value and global importance of corporate responsibility and assurance to their stakeholders.

The Cyanide Code is now one of the most established and mature certification schemes in the minerals sector.  Although challenges remain, such as ensuring that the Cyanide Code’s expectations continue to reflect changes in the industry, the program’s growth and recognition by the industry and external stakeholders through the past decade is an indication of its continued value to the industry in protecting workers, communities, and the environment.

A detailed list of the operations covered by signatory companies' applications, along with the full text of the Cyanide Code and its implementing and administrative documents, are available at www.cyanidecode.org.  We invite you to read our 2018 Annual Report, which can be viewed here

Date: 
Thursday, January 30, 2020