Rivers of deathBy Duncan Welch
Feb. 17, 2000
Cyanide which leaked from a gold mine in Romania into the Szamos and Tisza rivers last week has been described by officials as one of Hungary’s worst ever ecological disasters, and Europe’s biggest since Chernobyl. It could affect some two million people in Hungary and thousands more in Serbia after entering the lower Danube over the weekend.
When the cyanide first entered Hungary, levels were 200 times the allowable maximum, and the Romanian Environmental Ministry told reporters that levels 700 times the norm had been recorded.
An estimated 30-40% of the flora and fauna of the upper Tisza region has been destroyed, according to Sándor Szôke, director of Hungary’s Environmental Protection Authority.
The toxic substance originated from a burst reservoir in a mine owned by Aurul, a Romanian-Australian joint venture. Esmeralda, the Australian contingent, owns a 50% share.
While efforts were being made to protect the remaining wildlife and to provide local residents with safe drinking water, a dispute has already arisen over who is to blame and who should pay for the clean-up.
Gábor Bagi, Deputy State Secretary at the Foreign Ministry, called in the Romanian Ambassador to Hungary, Petru Cordos, to pass on information regarding the disaster and to urge those responsible to be called to account.Serbia has said it will sue Romania.
"We trust in the readiness of the Romanian side to co-operate," said Gábor Horváth, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry. This statement came at a time when there was talk in the Hungarian press of Hungary suing Romania over the spill.
Zoltán Illés, head of Parliament’s Environmental Committee told State radio that both Romania and Australia should pay for the damage Hungary has suffered.
"It is very sad that this environmental havoc should happen to Hungary at the beginning of the 21st Century. This has to be resolved and Hungary will find the legal foundations either in international or private procedures to seek compensation," Horváth said.
Romania is keen to blame Aurul but at press time the only sanction authorities had levied was a Ft45,000 ($173) fine for failing to report the leak to the authorities immediately.
Aurul was also ordered to cease operations although its license has not yet been revoked. "We have issued repeated warnings over the past year to the Aurul plant, asking them to double-check all their technical equipment," Virgil Diaconu, Romania’s Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection, told Reuters.
"We asked them to take all the steps needed to ensure maximum environmental safety, but it seems they ignored those warnings," he added.
Esmeralda, based in Australia, said: "It is important to stress that the incident was an overflow and not a structural failure or leak."
Heavy rainfall in the region had caused an overflow at the plant.
The Australian Company also disputed the purported cause of the spill and questioned official estimates of environmental damage. In a statement issued by Esmeralda, Chairman Brett Montgomery said: "These claims cause me considerable skepticism." He claimed that a number of factors may have caused the damage, and that due to the volume of water and the distance it traveled it was unlikely the cyanide could cause such poisoning.
"Although the full details of the Romanian testing are still some days away, all indications to date support our belief that the accident did not cause a major environmental disaster," Montgomery said.
In Hungary, however, Gábor Kováts, head of the Lower Tisza Water Affairs Management Office, indicated that the cyanide concentration measured on the lower section of the Tisza was 14 times above the acceptable level. Kovats did not rule out the possibility that the concentration would increase over the next few days.
Aurul’s CEO Philip J Evers, who has resigned his position, told the Hungarian news service MTI that the company’s predecessor also had been responsible for cyanide leaks. Aurul set up at the plant last year and had been fined for minor offenses.
The Romanian Government’s block on the mine’s operations is costing the company $350,000 a week, Evers said.