Paying for assaults on the environmentEditorial Opinion
Tuesday 15 February 2000
A basic principle of the legal system is that a party that has caused harm to others by breaching reasonable standards must take responsibility for it. In the civil system, this involves compensation. It is now time for world bodies to consider how to set up an international mechanism based on these principles to deal with environmental catastrophes triggered by industry. The disaster now unfolding with the cyanide contamination of Europe's Tisza River is merely the latest example of an accident that has crossed national borders and involves international ownership (in this case, part-Australian ownership) of the commercial company involved.
The Perth-based gold-mining company Esmeralda Exploration is a 50per cent partner in the Romanian gold mine at the centre of the accident, in which 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide-contaminated water washed into a river and through Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Cyanide contamination reached more than 700 times acceptable levels, cutting off the water supplies of more than two million people and reportedly killing up to 90 per cent of fish and algal life in the Tisza. Cyanide can be fatal to humans in concentrations above two parts per million, and lower doses can cause mental retardation.
The degree of culpability for the accident has yet to be determined. Romania and Hungary say the mine operators ignored repeated warnings about a possible cyanide spill. But Esmeralda officials say they are scapegoats for an unforeseen disaster, claiming that freak weather caused the chemicals to spill from the mine's tailings dam.
Whatever the outcome in this case, the issue raises the question of what kind of apparatus is needed to respond to internationally incurred obligations of this kind. There needs to be consensus on environmental standards for industry, perhaps in the form of international treaties, and a system for dealing with breaches and reparations. An existing forum that could develop and oversee such a system would be the World Trade Organisation, which brings together business and governments. The United States President, Mr Bill Clinton, has already flagged the need for the WTO to become more involved in environmental issues. It would overcome an age-old problem that has long stymied progress on the environment: the fact that sustainable development and economic policy are largely debated by different people in different forums. It would also overcome any inequities of the current system, in which the laws, strength and wealth of a nation determine how well any citizens damaged by such a disaster are recompensed. There needs to be an internationally accepted system for business to pay for its mistakes, whether the damage caused is human or environmental.