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Mining Projects Need Stiffer Standards - Report

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK -- Less than one month after a devastating mining incident rocked the United States, a coalition of some of the world's leading environmental and humanitarian aid groups is calling for tighter environmental and safety rules for the global mining projects financed by the World Bank.

The demand for stronger safety rules stems from an independent analysis of the Bank's new guidelines on private-sector mining.

Releasing a 20-page report this week, the coalition said the Bank's existing guidelines are plagued by "serious shortcomings" and could result in long-term pollution problems among other calamities.

"The guidelines lack measurable standards for critical issues, such as preventing water contamination and disposal of toxic wastes," the coalition noted in a statement.

"These new guidelines simply will not protect communities from the harmful impacts of large-scale mining," said David Chambers, a mining expert at the Center for Science in Public Participation (CSP2).

CSP2 was joined in the coalition by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), Oxfam International, EARTHWORKS, and the Bank Information Center.

Those specializing in international environmental policies point out that investments in mining, oil, and gas continue to be the most profitable source for the World Bank's private arm, called the International Finance Corporation (IFC).

In recent years, many environmentalists have blamed the IFC for lending money to private companies for mining projects that have polluted local communities and sometimes spawned violent conflicts among local groups.

The IFC's social and environmental policies are subject to particular scrutiny because they are also used by the private banks, including Bank of America, Citigroup, and HSBC, that have signed the Equator Principles -- a commitment to environmentally and socially responsible lending.

"The biggest problem with the guidelines lies in their lack of specificity," explained WWF's Marta Miranda, raising a concern frequently expressed by environmental watchdogs and other experts in the field: that vague rules are open to interpretation and evasion, especially by corporations driven primarily by economic, rather than humanitarian, motives.

Last month's collapse at Utah's Crandall Canyon mine trapped six miners, who are presumed dead, and killed three would-be rescuers while raising a number of questions about the effectiveness of existing safety laws in the United States.

The Utah deaths follow on the heels of 2006's Sago mine disaster in West Virginia that killed 12 people. Another 13 were killed in an explosion in a Brookwood, Alabama mine in 2001.


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Mining industry watchdogs argue, however, that it doesn't take an explosion or collapse for a mine to devastate a community.

"Modern mines are enormous operations that leave behind scarred landscapes, polluted water, and damaged communities," says EARTHWORKS on its Web site.

The group has co-sponsored a campaign with Oxfam to "clean up" the gold mining industry around the world.

In 1996, a Philippines mine leaked 3 to 4 million tons of waste into the Makulapnit and Boac River system over several months. The initial spill caused a flash flood that required the evacuation of 1,200 residents, destroyed road crossings, and eliminated all aquatic life downstream from the mine, the groups say.

They describe similar incidents in various countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia that destroyed marine life, contaminated drinking water, dislocated local communities, and even caused civil strife.

The IFC has been widely criticized for its support for large-scale mining projects that caused armed conflicts and environmental damage in countries like Peru and Ghana. In 2005, it was forced to face an investigation for its lending practices in Guatemala.

But despite all this, the IFC is continuing to support private mining companies in many parts of Africa and Asia.

According to WWF's Miranda, the situation demands the IFC take immediate action on setting "clear and measurable" targets in its environmental health and safety guidelines.

Otherwise, as Payal Sampat of EARTHWORKS warned in a statement, large-scale mining projects will end up not only causing "massive amounts of pollution and waste" but also displacing entire communities.

The coalition said it wants the IFC to rewrite its guidelines by involving independent experts and civil society organizations interested in documenting whether its operations are contributing to poverty alleviation or not.

"If IFC is going to remain involved in this sector," said the antipoverty group Oxfam's Keith Slack, "it must demonstrate clearly that its projects are protecting communities and the environment, and are helping reduce poverty."

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