Background - News & Events (Landing) 2016

The International Cyanide Management Code – It's Not an Oxymoron

Winter 2005/2006

Author: Edward M. Green.

When most people think about gold mining, they envision an old-time miner panning for nuggets in a stream. Those old days of gold mining, however, are virtually over, replaced by a vibrant, world-wide industry mining “microscopic gold.” In what is certainly a remarkable industrial success story, mining companies in the United States and around the world are able to mine low quality ore containing microscopic flecks of gold (a fraction of an ounce per ton of ore), and do so profitably. As with many industrial processes, however, the mining of microscopic gold poses some environmental problems. In this instance, the most significant issue is that the success of microscopic gold mining largely depends on the use of a weak cyanide in water solution to separate (“leach”) the gold from waste rock as the finely crushed ore is put through a flotation system. While this weak cyanide and water solution is generally environmentally benign since it flows through a closed system, there have been a number of occasions when these closed systems failed, resulting in significant waterfowl and fish kills.

During the 1990s public concern over the use of cyanide use in gold mining increased due to a range of environmental concerns, including a number of spills at mining operations. In 1998, voters in Montana approved an initiative banning any new mines using the cyanide leach methods. Although attempts to get a cyanide ban on the ballot in Colorado have failed, the need for action was clear after a huge spill of tailings into the Danube River system in January 2000 led to significant social and economic impacts from losses of fish. It was this spill that catalyzed the development of the International Cyanide Management Code under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (“UNEP”). Forty stakeholders were invited to a meeting at UNEP's headquarters in Paris in May 2000 to discuss what could be done to improve the management of cyanide in gold mining operations. These stakeholders represented gold mining companies, producers of cyanide, various governments and intergovernmental agencies, non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”), the World Bank, and technical consultants. The workshop resulted in a commitment by the gold mining industry to develop and implement a voluntary code for management of cyanide in gold mining to reduce the risks of cyanide use.

UNEP and the International Council on Mining and Metals selected a multi-stakeholder steering committee to work on this voluntary code, with the entire project funded by contributions from gold mining companies and cyanide producers. During a 13-month period ending in January 2002, the steering committee reached consensus on nine principles and standards of practice dealing with cyanide production and transportation, handling and storage, operations, decommissioning, worker safety, emergency response, training, and dialogue with stakeholders and the public.

Following the completion of the steering committee's work, Crowell & Moring LLP was retained to review the Code, assist in developing procedures for independent third party auditing of operations wishing to become Code signatories, and help in establishing the International Cyanide Management Institute (“ICMI”), a nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to administer the Code, and to develop and provide information on responsible cyanide management practices in the gold mining industry. The ICMI's primary responsibilities in administering the Code are to: (1) promote the Code's adoption; (2) evaluate its implementation; (3) manage the certification process; and (4) make information on safe management practice for cyanide widely available.

The ICMI's website can be accessed at As readers who go there will see, implementation of the Code is intended to be transparent. Independent third-party auditors must meet the ICMI's requirements for auditors, and the summary audit reports of audited operations, as well as any necessary corrective action plans, will be posted for the public to see on the website. In addition, there are strong dispute resolution provisions regarding both auditor credentials and the certification or decertification of operations. Finally, the ICMI is itself governed by a multistakeholder board of directors consisting of both industry, governmental, and NGO representatives.

Following public announcement of the Code's availability for application by signatories in Fall 2005, 17 significant gold mining companies, cyanide producers, and cyanide transporters have applied for signatory status. Gold mining company signatory applicants represent over one quarter of the world's gold production. Thus, the Code and the Institute are off to a good start – with expectation that many more gold mining companies, producers, and transporters will apply for signatory status.

In sum, the Code represents an effort by the modern gold mining industry to adhere to best practices in the management of cyanide. The Code is a great step forward for an industry which is much maligned by environmentalists – and not well understood by the public. Everyone will be watching closely to see if it can succeed and obviate the calls for further governmental bans on the use of cyanide. Beyond that, the future will tell us whether the Code can serve as an effective model for meaningful industry self-regulation more generally.

Edward M. Green
Senior Counsel – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1 202.624.2922