The Age
Mining company could face charges over poisoned river


Sunday 13 February 2000

BUDAPEST - A Romanian Government minister has hinted that criminal charges are likely to flow from investigations into the deadly cyanide spill from an Australian-owned gold mine that has caused an environmental emergency in eastern Hungary.

Mr Anton Vlad, Romania's Environment Protection Minister, said he believed the spill of more than 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide-laced water from a tailings dam connected to the mine could not be remedied by fines alone. Criminal charges remain the authorities' main weapon under recently toughened local environment laws.

His comment, to a Romanian newspaper, follows a series of meetings between Mr Vlad and his Hungarian counterpart, Mr Pal Pepo. They are seeking a range of measures, including European Union funds, to combat the effects of the disaster.

With the crisis about to enter its third week, fishermen along Hungary's badly poisoned Tisza River increased calls for retribution against the mine operator, Aurul SA, which is 50/50 owned by the Perth-based Esmeralda Exploration and Romanian interests. They said their livelihoods had been destroyed.

"There have been fishermen in my family for four generations," said a distraught Mr Istvan Nagy, 57. "My wife has been crying for three days. "A guy my age can't do anything else - I'm too old."

Mr Nagy, with colleagues, spent much of yesterday pulling dead perch and catfish from the river near Szeged, in southern Hungary, where seven barges have been anchored to trap carcasses. At the height of the danger, cyanide levels in the Tizsa, Hungary's second biggest river, are said to have sky-rocketed to 700 times "acceptable" levels of 0.1mg/litre. The spill started on 30 January and lasted more than two days.

The company has acknowledged the spill but believes that reports of damage are greatly exaggerated. There was isolated speculation in the Hungarian media last night that unusually high levels of snow and ice on the river may have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of fish, a possibility being promoted by the Australians.

Mr Nagy was unconvinced, however. "I don't want to say that we should slit their throats but they have to pay. They have ruined our lives."

A panel of four independent experts, appointed by the two countries, reported yesterday that with some alterations to the 94-hectare tailings dam, they were inclined to recommend a restart for the mine which is situated at Baia Mare, in northern Romania. A final decision, however, rests with the two ministers.

The manager of the plant, Mr Phil Evers, said yesterday he believed the improvements being proposed by the experts, although onerous, could be put in place within a reasonably short space of time.

It has emerged that Mr Evers resigned from his post two days before the spill and will leave the company in two weeks. The resignation is not thought to be linked to the mishap, but was taken for personal reasons.

Romania's Mr Vlad yesterday appeared to concur with the company's view that the effects of the spill had been overstated. He said "the disaster is not as huge as (the Hungarians) have declared in the mass media".

But Hungary's Mr Pepo responded: "We have unspeakable damages," adding that the damage was limited by swift action by Environment Protection Agency officials.

Local environmentalists say the damage will take years to repair. "The whole food chain has been killed," said Mr Imre Gyorgy Torok, the deputy director of the Lower Tisza Water District Authority.

Original article