The Age
Rivers of death grow as cyanide flows south


Monday 14 February 2000

The cyanide spill, described as Europe's worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl, has moved into Yugoslavia, destroying all life in the water, local officials say.

The spill originated in north-west Romania near the border town of Oradea, where a dam at the half Australian-owned Baia Mare gold mine overflowed on 30 January, causing cyanide to pour into streams.

From there, the polluted water flowed west into the Tisza River in neighboring Hungary and then into Yugoslavia.

Eighty per cent of the fish in the Tisza have died since the contaminant entered the country two days ago, Mayor Atila Juhas, of the northern town of Senta, said yesterday.

"Enormous quantities of dead fish are floating on the surface, and the spill continues to spread," he said in a telephone interview.

By yesterday, the concentration of cyanide in the water at the point where the Tisza enters Yugoslavia from Hungary was 0.07 milligrams per litre, down from 0.13 milligrams several hours earlier, Tanjug newsagency reported. But the worst-polluted part of the flow was moving south, and more serious damage was expected later when the polluted waters reach the Danube River, probably early today.

The spill was moving at about four kilometres an hour.

"The Tisza is a dead river. All life in it, from algae to trout, has been destroyed," said Cr Istvan Backulin, the Mayor of another affected town in the north.

"The spill is leaving nothing alive."

Officials from several northern Yugoslav towns held an emergency meeting in Senta on Saturday and urged locals to collect the fish in an effort to reduce the pollution levels.

Restaurants in the region have already removed fish from their menus and the alarm has spread south as far as the capital, Belgrade, which lies on the Danube about 130kilometres to the south.

Cr Juhas said drinking water was safe since supplies come from wells far enough away from the river to ensure that it was uncontaminated. However, wildlife in the area near the river is in serious danger, he said.

Hungary's Environment Minister, Mr Pal Pepo, said quick action from well organised emergency services operators had prevented damage to human health.

Hungary's Prime Minister, Mr Viktor Orban, has called for the appointment of a government commissioner to coordinate damage assessment, any international legal action, and clean-up projects.

Local ecologists said it could take years before marine life reappears in the Tisza. The cyanide spill adds to the high pollution levels already existing in Yugoslavia, caused last year by NATO bombing that targeted oil refineries and factories.

Though Tanjug reported that authorities were taking "adequate measures" along the affected waterway, Cr Juhas said nobody from the government in Belgrade had attended the Senta meeting or provided assistance.

A cyanide solution is used to separate gold ore from surrounding rock.

The Western Australian company Esmeralda Exploration owns 50 per cent of the Baia Mare mine.

Original article