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Conservation groups criticise the Australian Minerals Industry's environmental code for not substantiating its principals with details

JOHN HIGHFIELD: As this fight develops, Australian mining companies are trying to lift their environmental credentials through self-imposed codes and internal audit. Western Mining Corporation recently launched a report on its environmental performance, with Chief Executive, Hugh Morgan, predicting other Australian companies will soon follow.

P.M. has learned the Minerals Council of Australia is drafting an environmental code of conduct to set basic mining standards. The document represents a fundamental shift within the industry to change its practices, and its image of course. As Jonathan Harley reports, the Minerals Council is in a hurry to do it.

JONATHAN HARLEY: The Australian Minerals Industry code for environmental management aims to provide a benchmark for Australian mining operations abroad. The industry has faced growing pressure from green groups to set basic standards, especially in developing countries where regulations and monitoring is more relaxed than Europe, North America and Australia.

Slowing the mining industry has responded to that pressure, spurred along by the commercial and public relations costs of operations gone wrong, such as BHP's Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea. Michael Ray is Manager of Sustainable Development for the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

MICHAEL RAY: Well, I think the mining industry generally has suffered a lot in public opinion. There have been too many disasters in too many places, and because the industry has to date operated something along the lines of a club that is all for one, one for all, nobody criticises the operations of another, one bad operator brings down the standings of the industry right across the board.

JONATHAN HARLEY: Green groups waNorthern Territory a legally-binding code of conduct for mining, including compulsory independent environmental audits of operations. P.M. has obtained a copy of the Mineral Council's second draft of the code, and it falls short of green groups' demands. The document sets out only voluntary codes and specifically rules out prescribing practice.

The Australian Conservation Foundation says the document ignores some key suggestions in terms of substance and process. Dr Helen Rosenbaum is policy analyst with the ACF.

HELEN ROSENBAUM: There's a lot of common ground but I guess the document that the Minerals Council has produced today is really a list of principles with not enough flesh, I guess the ACF would feel, to really give the document a lot of meaning. So what we would like to do is to get into a more detailed discussion about the substance of the document with them, and really make sure that we have a common understanding about what their general principles mean.

It would be very easy to apply principles very generally or to pretend that very general principles are being applied when, in fact, they may not be being implemented on the ground.

JONATHAN HARLEY: While Canada has had a mining code in place since 1990, the Australian industry has been slow to draw up a similar document. But now the Minerals Council appears impatient. Green groups called for a six-month consultative process from the first of several round-table discussions. The Minerals Council is offering no more than two round-table talks and says it can't wait for a six-month consultation period.

The Council has also been working hard to keep the drafting of the code under wraps, and was surprised to learn P.M. had even heard about the code. The Minerals Council declined to comment to P.M. except to say that the document is still in draft form and that the Council's talking with stakeholders about the detail.

The document's an illustration of a fundamental shift within the mining industry, increasingly aware of the need to seem environmentally responsible in its operations. Western Mining recently launched what it titled an environment progress report, an internal appraisal of its environmental record. It was a first for Australia, but lags behind standard practice in Europe and North America. Group Manager, Corporate Relations, for WMC, Geoff Kelly.

GEOFF KELLY: When you compare this sort of report with the sort of reports that are put out in Europe and the US, for some companies in the US and more generally in Europe, it is light in detail. But that's as much about putting systems in place so that you can report detail. The Europeans have been at it for seven or eight years now. This is our first go, and we do think we'll get a lot better at this in future.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Geoff Kelly, Group Manager, Corporate Relations at the Western Mining Corporation, and our report produced by Jonathan Harley.