Principal applicable environmental laws

What are the principal environmental laws applicable to the mining industry? What are the principal regulatory bodies that administer those laws?

The NC and specific Minimum Standards Laws such as the General Environmental Law No. 25,675 are the main sources of environmental legislation, together with the following:

  • the Complementary Title of the Environmental Protection for Mining Activity of the AMC, as amended by Law No. 24,585;
  • the Complementary Rules approved in 1996 by the Federal Council of Mining; and
  • provincial local procedural regulations.

Additionally, there are also many other national and provincial environmental protection regulations (eg, on hazardous and industrial wastes, protection of archaeological and paleontological heritage, water effluents and gas emissions, and conservation of natural resources and flora and fauna).

Regarding regulatory and enforcement authorities, according to article 41 of the NC, the government must issue basic regulations containing minimum standards on environmental protection, natural resources, natural and cultural heritage, biological diversity, and environmental information and education, while the provincial governments must issue the provisions required to complement said basic regulations in order to effectively implement the protection provided by the NC, adapting them to their own environment and development modalities and peculiarities. At a national level, the environmental legal framework is administrated by the Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development. At a provincial level, and regarding the mining industry in particular, the environmental and enforcement authorities are, in certain cases, the mining authorities themselves.

Environmental review and permitting process

What is the environmental review and permitting process for a mining project? How long does it normally take to obtain the necessary permits?

According to the AMC, as amended by Law No. 24,585, prior to the commencement of any of the different phases of mining activity, an environmental impact report (EIR) shall be submitted to the relevant provincial enforcement authority, provided that, until approval has been obtained, no mining activity shall be performed.

The EIR shall be assessed with a technical, scientific and legal administrative process of analysis and assessment and once the process has concluded, the enforcement authority shall issue an environmental impact statement (EIS), containing the terms under which the activity shall be performed in connection with the environment, the community and the authority. In some cases, the environmental authorisation requires summoning the affected community to an obligatory public hearing, although the opinions or objections of those attending do not force administrative decisions.

The specific procedural rules applicable to the authorisation process, as well as the time it might take to obtain the relevant permit, vary from province to province.

The EIS must be updated at least every two years through the filing of a new EIR containing the results of executed environmental actions, as well as any new factors that have been generated.

Closure and remediation process

What is the closure and remediation process for a mining project? What performance bonds, guarantees and other financial assurances are required?

According to the AMC, the environmental protection rules established by Law No. 24,585 are applicable to all those activities related to the closure of the mine. At a national level, there are no detailed specific rules for closing procedures. Only Annex III of the Complementary Rules of the AMC (which determines the contents of the EIR for the exploitation stage) establishes that an environmental management plan shall include: ‘Actions concerning the cessation and abandonment of the exploitation and post-closure monitoring’.

Nonetheless, at a provincial level and as a first mover, the province of Catamarca enacted in 2016 a regulation that foresees specific rules for closing procedures. It includes a guide to be followed for the preparation of the mine closure plan with technical and economical requirements to be submitted before the mining authority at the commencement of the mining activity and that should include a closure procedure for each stage of the mining project, which must be updated every two years once approved.

Under the AMC regime, no specific bonds, guarantees or assurances are required. However, MIL requires companies to allocate an annual amount to a reserve fund to finance prevention and remediation tasks. The amount of this reserve is left to the decision of the mining company. In addition, as a general requirement foreseen under Law No. 25,675, environmental insurance needs to be taken out by any company conducting activities that might involve a risk to the environment. The new Catamarca regulation provides the granting of a guarantees and financial assurances.

The National Secretariat of Mining Policy announced that a mine-closure legal framework would be created, which follows work undertaken in order to analyse and create such a framework or guidelines in this respect. However, there is no certainty nor specific bill or draft of law to be considered yet.

Restrictions on building tailings or waste dams

What are the restrictions for building tailings or waste dams?

The construction and operation of tailings or waste dams are mostly subject to local regulations, which may vary from province to province. National regulations contained in the AMC establish certain general principles concerning technical conditions applicable to mining exploitation, although with a low degree of detail. As regards alarm systems and emergency drills, the AMC provides that in the event of an accident or whenever there is reason to fear that a serious accident might occur, the manager of the mining project shall notify the mining authority without delay. The mining authority will then decide the urgent necessary measures to be adopted to eliminate all danger or mitigate existing damage. At the same time, the mining company shall observe its own action plan for environmental contingencies, which shall be submitted and approved as a condition precedent to obtaining the relevant environmental permit. Again, in this respect, it shall be noted that specific requirements concerning emergency drills and responsibilities related to the rescue of people may vary from province to province, since national rules do not regulate this. Furthermore, according to the AMC, the relevant mining authority shall visit the mining projects (at least) once a year subject to its jurisdiction and, additionally, when it becomes aware of an accident or of any violation of applicable regulations. Above this minimum, each provincial mining authority has its own inspection schedule that is managed according to its own criteria of opportunity and need.

Considering the recent accidents in Brazil, which have had an impact in safety prcedures in the mining sector, revision of technical measures and proceedings could be something to be considered by local authorities, as well.