The Age
Inquiry focuses on dam safety

Saturday 19 February 2000

Berlin -  An international taskforce that will investigate the effects of the devastating cyanide spill from an Australian-operated gold project in Romania will be pressed to focus on the construction standards of the project, amid doubts that the accident was caused by freak weather.

Sources in the European Commission in Brussels, which will coordinate the creation of the taskforce, and Hungarian officials said questions had been raised about whether construction of the tailings dam had met international standards.

The dam burst on 30 January, releasing a toxic sludge into rivers, killing fish and wildlife and creating Europe's worst river pollution disaster for decades.

Officials said construction standards were likely to become the key issue in assessing the liability of the project owners, who face potential damage and compensation claims for millions of dollars.

Officials said accepted international practice for such mining projects required construction standards for a smelter and its infrastructure to cope with a "one in 100-year weather event".

But they said evidence from people in the accident area had raised doubts that weather conditions, which the project owners have blamed for the break in the tailings dam, were as severe as suggested.

The Australian manager of the Baia Mare project, Mr Phil Evers, said after meeting the European Union's Environment Commissioner at the mine site that weather conditions prior to the accident were "extremely unusual". He said this created a flood that caused the tailings dam to fail.

Heavy rainfall had followed heavier than normal snowfalls in December and January and sudden thawing, which created an extraordinarily large volume of water.

Mr Evers declined to comment on the construction standards of the dam.

Mr Evers said a joint commission of experts set up by the Romanian and Hungarian Governments was examining the construction standards of the dam. Their investigations were likely to assist the work of the EU-sponsored taskforce.

The EU Environment Commissioner, Ms Margot Wallstroem, announced the establishment of the EU taskforce during her visit to the stricken area.

Mr Evers said he was pleased the EU had decided to assess the accident and its impact on the Danube river system. The mine owners also plan to conduct their own scientific investigation of the accident, with an Australian team, including a hydrologist, biologist and chemist, due at the mine site over the weekend.

Describing the contamination of the East European river system as an environmental catastrophe for the people living by the rivers, Ms Wallstroem said she wanted answers about "what happened, how bad is the damage and what can be done to rehabilitate the environment". She said it was also important to establish how the accident happened.

Ms Wallstroem said she wanted a taskforce set up within a few weeks to assess damage and prevent future accidents. The European Community would consider helping fund the taskforce, she said. She also announced that her office would begin work next week on an inventory of potential European ecological time bombs.

Earlier, angry farmers near the spill site at Baia Mare told Ms Wallstroem of previous spills that went unreported until they found livestock dead or blinded.

In Vienna, Mr Philip Weller, director of the World Wildlife Fund's Danube Carpathian program, described the spill as "one of the major river disasters that has happened in Europe in the past decade".

International officials say preliminary findings indicate that about 100 tonnes of cyanide escaped, along with tonnes of toxic heavy metals.

Mr Weller compared the accident to the 1987 spill of tonnes of chemicals into the Rhine at Basel, Switzerland, after fire damaged a warehouse owned by Sandoz AG.

Ms Wallstroem criticised Esmeralda Exploration, the Australian half-owner of the project, for what she said was an attempt to play down the seriousness of the cyanide spill.

"They have to be prudent in what they are saying. This is a serious environmental accident. For the people who depend on this water, it is a catastrophe," Ms Wallstroem said.

She was reacting to a statement by the Esmeralda chairman, Mr Brett Montgomery, that there was no evidence to confirm that the contamination and damage resulted from the overflow at the dam.

The Hungarian Foreign Minister, Mr Janos Martonyi, also criticised Esmeralda, calling its denial of responsibility "immoral and indecent". But the company's stand received backing from the director of the Romanian water commission, Mr Peter Marinescu, who blamed fish deaths in the rivers on bleach used to try to neutralise the initial cyanide spill.

The Federal Government is likely to join a United Nations effort to rescue European rivers from damage after the cyanide spill. The Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, yesterday expressed sympathy to the Hungarian Government and offered technical support for the clean-up.

The head of the UN Environment Program, Dr Klaus Toepfer, has asked the Government to help repair damage from the spill.

Original article