The Age
Cyanide spill firm sees hope in report


Friday 21 April 2000

Troubled Australian gold miner Esmeralda Exploration sees a glimmer of hope in a United Nations report which criticised the company's Romanian operations after a major cyanide spill.

A lawyer for the Perth-based Esmeralda Exploration mining company said yesterday the report - which found four Eastern European rivers were contaminated after the spill - had also determined there were high levels of contamination already in the water.

The UN report blamed the poor design of the Baia Mare facility, 50 per cent owned by Esmeralda, and bad weather for the January 30 spill.

It found 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide-tainted water spilled from a dam at Baia Mare, 75 kilometres from the Hungarian border, and contaminated the Tisza River.

Tonnes of dead fish washed up on the banks of the Tisza River and its tributaries shortly after the accident.

The report, released on Wednesday, said while the immediate health risk to humans was minimal, chronic problems could arise later because the spill occurred in an area already contaminated with heavy metals.

Esmeralda's solicitor, Mike Hardy, from Clayton Utz, said yesterday these high levels of "background contamination" in the river added weight to the company's claims that there were other factors involved.

Mr Hardy said it was easy to blame Esmeralda for the disaster but there had been a long history of "notorious" industry practices along the Tisza River which contributed to the contamination.

He said team of scientists working for Esmeralda would study the UN report to determine the validity of its findings.

But the Hungarian Government is laying the blame squarely at the feet of Esmeralda and has retained a Melbourne law firm, Slater and Gordon, to handle a damages claim. No writs have been issued so far.

Hungary describes the spill as the worst environmental disaster in Europe since the Chernobyl meltdown.

The spill occurred when a dam storing cyanide-contaminated water - used to extract up to 35 per cent of additional gold from mine tailings - burst its banks. after heavy snow and rainfall in the area.

The Mineral Policy Institute, a Sydney-based lobby group opposed to cyanide mining, said the UN report proved Esmeralda should be held accountable for the disaster.

MPI director Geoff Evans, who has just returned from Hungary, said it was time for the Federal Government to introduce tough regulations covering the offshore operations of Australian mining companies.

"The disaster has destroyed the economies and lifestyles for people from Romania all the way through to Hungary and Serbia. These practices were also seen with BHP at its Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea," Mr Evans said.

Greens (WA) MP Giz Watson said the UN report would add weight to any future legal action against Esmeralda, which has been hampered until now because of a lack of independent scientific evidence.

A paper delivered by Colorado geochemist Bob Moran at a UN conference last month contradicted industry claims that all the cyanide used in the operation broke down quickly into harmless substances.

Original article