The Age
Eastern Europe's river of poison

Saturday 12 February 2000

BAIA MARE, ROMANIA- In the foyer of the Hotel Carpati in Baia Mare, northern Romania, the 40-year-old manager of Esmeralda Exploration's blighted gold mining operation gets a slap on the shoulder from the local guys who run the recently privatised copper smelter on the other side of town.

"If there's anything we can do to help, just let us know," they assure Phil Evers, the Broken Hill-born mineral processing expert whose manner and dry wit are as Australian as the kangaroo company logo stitched into his winter parka.

Just before 11pm on a Sunday in late January, however, Mr Evers' Australian good humor deserted him when he took a call from workers at the year-old, $30 million treatment plant just a couple of kilometres from the centre of town.

Freak weather, the worst in 25 years, had caused a spill of a cyanide solution from the mine's 94-hectare tailings dam seven kilometres downstream - devastating news for a company that was building credentials as a good corporate citizen in a part of the world where foreign capital has become the elixir of once-moribund economies.

For more than two days, on next to no sleep, Mr Evers and his team worked frantically to stem the flow and in the early hours of the following Tuesday, 1 February, they succeeded. But not before an estimated 100,000 cubic metres of contaminated water had escaped to course its way through the streams of Transylvania and on into eastern Hungary. The Tisza River, the country's second-biggest after the Danube and a critical resource in the east, has been among the hardest hit, with more than 50 tonnes of dead fish hauled from its waters. The total killed is expected to exceed three times that amount.

The contamination was described as a "European catastrophe", by an European Union official yesterday. The European Commission's Vice-President, Ms Loyola de Palacio, said in Budapest that the EU would investigate how it could help, including financially.

Mr Evers, referring tongue-in-cheek to the international fallout that has engulfed Esmeralda and its Romanian joint venture company, Aurul S.A., says: "When I left Australia 16 months ago, I thought this was going to be a difficult assignment - and I haven't been disappointed."

His uneasiness is palpable, sitting in Baia Mare and looking set to carry the can for what environmentalists and some officials allege is a European catastrophe second only, perhaps, to Chernobyl.

Mr Evers switches on a tape player to record the interview with The Age, apparently so that he will be able to assess his own performance in crisis management. But with litigation almost certainly pending, the tape is quite likely insurance also.

As he talks about the toughest two weeks in his 22-year career, that has included stints with some of Australia's biggest mining houses, 300 or so kilometres downstream at Szolnok in eastern Hungary - ironically Baia Mare's "twin city" - talk of crisis is reaching fever pitch and the mood is angry and unforgiving.

For Dr Kazmer Kaposvari, the director-general of the city's water and sewerage authority, the cyanide spill must have been the result of carelessness. Hungarians blame the spill for wiping out fish and other wildlife, as well as rendering unsuitable water normally used by more than two million people.

"I sure wouldn't want to be in the shoes of those Australian guys," he says.

The throw-away line is the sort that might feed paranoia on the part of the Australians who, despite being a 50-50 partner in the project, seem to be the ones in the gun.

Mr Evers won't be drawn on the issue. As far as he knows, the four Romanian partners in the venture, but namely 45 per cent stakeholder Remin, are facing equal scrutiny.

But he notes that the project has been treated "to the letter of Romanian law", with regular audits and inspections throughout its short history.

But on the cause and effect of the cyanide spill, the municipal "twins" - two old Eastern bloc cities that bear the common hallmarks of totalitarianism (grey apartment blocks, colorless streetscapes and smoke-belching Trabant and Lada cars), are poles apart.

Like his Perth-based masters, Mr Evers is sceptical about water testing around the time the poison entered Hungarian territory, where Environment Ministry officials put initial readings of cyanide at 700-plus times the "safe" limit of 0.1mg/litre.

Although he concedes that at the point of discharge the cyanide was measured at 126mg/litre, "after 75 kilometres and three rivers in flood conditions you would have to question the magnitude of those (other) readings". Levels of 20 times recorded at points below Szolnok yesterday are just as hard to fathom, Mr Evers says.

As well, he's sceptical about whether it was cyanide or other factors that killed the fish, ruining the livelihoods of workers from several Hungarian villages. The company would like to see fresh independent testing along the lines of international practice.

"At this stage no one has been able to make a positive link with the death of the fish and a clear cause," he says, adding: "I'm told there are regular occurrences in winter where fish do die from causes that can (involve) depleted oxygen levels in the water because of ice-caps and, also, in flood conditions, silt and mud on river bottoms ... can have aerobic qualities that rob the water of oxygen."

And what's even more curious, according to Mr Evers, is the absence of reports of dead fish in the Romanian county of Maramures, where the spill originated.

In Szolnok, Dr Kaposvari's week has unfolded in grim fashion. The emergency phone call he got from water authorities in the north of the country came well ahead of the poisonous flow.

Although he and his colleagues had two days to prepare for the onslaught, his quandary was compounded by an inability to switch off pipes that draw water from the river for more than 10 or 12 hours. To shut down the city's reticulation would have risked the leaching of contaminated water into underground pipes.

Instead, after closing off the river intake while the most contaminated stretch of water passed through, the city relied on its state-of-the-art filter system, installed only a year ago, to deal with the residual poison.

The action might have spared Szolnok the worst of the cyanide cocktail but it almost certainly means that the filters will need to be replaced at a cost of more than $A102million.

As a result of the preventive action, the 57-year-old Dr Kaposvari says water in city taps is probably only marginally tainted. But he recognises that consumer confidence is shot.

"I consider that the biggest problem I now have is just that," he says despairingly. "The citizens have a lot of doubts and no amount of my giving interviews and saying `It's all OK now' is going to change that quickly. And high-tech solutions are not always easy to communicate."

The Mayor, Mr Ferenc Szalay, puts the cost of the disaster at billions of forints and reckons that it could take the fishing industry a decade to recover. It may also take the townsfolk several years to regain their confidence in the town's only water source, the Tizsa.

Yesterday, a day after the poison swept past Szolnok, consumption was still more than 70 per cent below normal. Several light industrial complexes remain closed. Tankers were still delivering water to hospitals and plastic water bags to schoolchildren. Coca-Cola and other corporates were helping to pay for the emergency procedures.

Dr Kaposvari is stunned that the disaster could be allowed to occur. "I'm angry with the Romanians and with the company because the technology they use there is out of fashion. They are not allowed to use such technology in the European Union.

"Besides, the fact that they were using cyanide so close to the rivers system is just madness."

But Mr Evers is quick to douse what he says is a myth. Although not new, the "carbon-in-pulp" or "carbon-in-leach" technology is commonplace, he argues, and is used in gold mining in France.

"These suggestions are absolutely unfounded and total rubbish," he says.

Despite his confidence, Mr Evers looks slightly uncomfortable when confirming that a second, much smaller, contamination occurred last Sunday from a neighboring tailings dam operated by Esmeralda's joint venture partner, Remin. He also concedes that Aurul had been sanctioned over a number of small incidents at its treatment plant in the past year, although he declines to elaborate on the penalties that were imposed.

The Hungarian Government has rejected an accusation by Esmeralda Exploration that it had exaggerated the environmental damage.

"A person who calls a five-kilometre long carpet of dead fish floating along the river `grossly exaggerated' is either genuinely unaware of the facts or wants to ignore them," said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Gabor Horvath.

A panel of independent experts is expected to finalise its investigations into the disaster within a week or so but the environment ministers of Romania and Hungary were expected to give a hint to their thinking overnight.

Original article