Budapest Sun
Tisza dead for years to come?

By Carl Kovac

Feb. 24, 2000

Investigators say it will be some time before the health hazards created by a disastrous cyanide spill into Romanian, Hungarian and Yugoslavian waterways early this month are fully determined.

Concentrations of heavy metals, primarily lead, copper and zinc, lurk in the beds of the afflicted rivers and environment officials fear they could work their way into the food chain.

"It is impossible to give an estimation of what the health hazards will be," said Miklós Marek, a senior advisor at Hungary’s Institute for Environmental Management. "We need a wider and more detailed investigation."

"It remains to be seen how much of the heavy metals was distributed along the rivers or if there are concentrations," said János Zsilinszky, senior advisor to the executive director of the Regional Environmental Center (Rec) for Central and Eastern Europe.

The Netherlands has already sent experts to the region, and the European Union and the United States have promised technical and financial assistance.

The spill occurred on January 30 at the Aurul SA precious metals recovery facility near Baia Mare, Romania, when 100,000 cubic meters of sludge contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals flowed over a 25-meter length of a 3.8-kilometer (2.4 miles) earthen tailings dam and into the Lápos River, a tributary of the Szamos River.

Aurul, an Australian-Romanian joint venture, uses a cyanide process to recover gold and silver from mine waste material, a process prohibited in EU countries.

The spill went unreported to authorities for two days. By that time, the contamination had traveled via the Szamos to the Tisza River in Hungary, the country’s second-longest waterway.

The spill had little lasting impact on municipal water facilities along the Szamos and Tisza (which draw their water from much deeper wells), but wiped out practically all aquatic life in the rivers.

As of last week, more than 150 tons of dead fish had been pulled from the Tisza. Fish along one stretch of the river were found to contain 2.6 milligrams of cyanide per kilogram of weight.

"The fish include bottom feeders such as carp, and predators such as catfish and pike. These are all fish that people eat," said the Rec’s Zsilinszky,

"The Tisza is dead for years to come, and there are several species that are gone forever," said Gábor Horváth, spokesman for Hungary’s Foreign Ministry.

The cyanide plume reached the Danube in Serbia last week. Officials said the cyanide had been sufficiently diluted so as not to pose a major problem to drinking water. However, there was still enough to kill fish and micro-organisms in the river.

Through its Tisza River Response Project, the Rec which has been a leading institution in helping NGOs in the region, is supporting every effort to deal with the urgent tasks in the aftermath of the disaster, and is seeking to mobilize funds to support the participation of citizens and access to information through environmental NGOs.

The Rec is also offering its expertise to assist international governmental activities aimed at achieving restitution of the damages, prevention of further accidents and to facilitate the institution of environmental management with businesses, especially those with a high-environmental risk.

Original article