The Age
Romanian town smells the stench of a cover-up


Saturday 19 February 2000

Residents of Baia Mare, whose town reeks of cyanide more than two weeks after a devastating leak at a nearby mine, are not convinced by Government reassurances and fear the worst for their region.

They say there are dead fish floating in their wells, and accuse the local authorities of not admitting the full scale of the damage in the region caused by a cyanide spill at a gold mine six kilometres from Baia Mare on 30January.

The mine involved in the cyanide spill is half-owned by Perth-based Esmeralda Exploration Ltd.

The authorities confirm that five wells at Bozanta, the nearest village to the disaster site, are contaminated, but the Baia Mare residents say that some water sources have not been checked.

"The water has not been analysed where I live," says Sorin Marian, "so I go to a neighbor's house every day to get my water. There was no trace of cyanide (in the water) there."

Mr Andrei Muresan, an official with the Romanian Public Health Agency, admits: "In some wells the cyanide content is five to seven times over the accepted limit, and in others, it is as high as 50 times the norm.

"But the water is not a health risk unless it is consumed in enormous quantities," Mr Muresan said.

Cyanide-laced water poured from a split reservoir through the region and into Hungary's Danube and Tisza Rivers, devastating the region on a scale Hungarians compared to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Romanian authorities are re-assuring Baia Mare residents that sodium hypochlorite (bleach) has been poured over the area and into the water to neutralise the toxic effects of the cyanide.

But the residents complain they can still smell the cyanide and fear their animals will be poisoned when they are put out to graze in spring.

In Baia Mare, pollution is nothing new.

The churning, murky yellow waters of the Sasar River, which runs through Baia Mare after it has "washed" several mines in the area, "are so polluted that there hasn't been a single fish living in the river for years," said an engineer, Mr Fodor Ipacs.

For Mr Ipacs, the recent disaster was just the "tip of the iceberg".

Residents of the northern suburbs of Baia Mare, where there is a lead factory, are suffering from lead poisoning or tuberculosis.

Child mortality rates are extremely high. A 25-year-old mother explained that one of her daughters died of tuberculosis at four and her other three children all have the disease.

The Baia Mare region was plundered under the communist regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu for its base and precious metals, without any attempt to protect the environment.

"When Ceausescu made a working visit here, the metal works factories were closed for a few days in advance, to bring down the pollution level," a driver, Mr Stefan Petreanu, remembers.

Only a few years ago, before a 350-metre chimney was built to expell the toxic fumes, the town was "plunged in thick fog and you had to breathe through a handkerchief", Mr Petreanu said.

Less than a kilometre from the town, trucks are unloading tonnes of earth mixed with metal residues to reinforce the barrier wall around the reservoir that caused the disaster.

Original article