Conflicting claimsBy Gerson Perry
Feb. 24, 2000
Gold has not brought wealth, only poison to Europe’s rivers. The worst environmental crisis since Chernobyl is creating an international dispute over who is ultimately responsible and the extent of environmental damage caused by the cyanide spill at a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania on January 30.
Nearly three weeks after the incident Romania finally acknowledged on February 17 the magnitude of pollution caused by the cyanide spill. The spill poisoned rivers in Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, killing thousands of fish in its wake as it moved first along the Tisza river and then along the Danube.
Environment Minister Romica Tomescu said Romania "did not ever want to hide or play down the magnitude of the accident."
The Australian company, Esmeralda Exploration, which owns 50 per cent of the Baia Mare mine, has reportedly admitted that the lake which contains the mine’s poison waste had overflowed because of heavy rains, but accused officials along the Tisza of exaggerating its effect.
The company continues to deny responsibility for the cyanide spill. Its chairman said there is no conclusive proof that the company is to blame.
"There is no evidence to confirm that the contamination and the damage said to have been caused is as a result of the tailings dam overflow at Baia Mare," said Brett Montgomery in a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange.
"There is great unanimity that the polluter pays," said EU Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, who was in Szolnok last week to inspect the Tisza.
Wallstrom, the first high-ranking EU official to visit the area, indicated the EU would reallocate funds, apparently for the cleanup of the widespread pollution of rivers in the affected countries.
However, Wallstrom said the EU would not get involved in efforts by Hungary, Romania and other countries to recover damages. She only said the EU was supportive of efforts to obtain compensation, which could run into millions of dollars.
If the case is taken to court, the issue of a possible design flaw in the dam could determine whether the Australian company is ultimately responsible for damages.
Chris Codrington, of the Perth-based Esmeralda Explorations company in an interview with Radio Free Europe said that the dam stayed intact.
This contrasted with a statement by the Romanian environmental ministry, who earlier said melting snow ruptured the dam and caused a breech in the structure that was 25 meters wide.
Ministry spokeswoman Carla Chivu told reporters that the rupture was repaired by Romanian state employees.
Anton Vlad, state secretary in the Romanian Environment Ministry, told reporters, "The Romanian state cannot blame the spill on the (mining) plant before we assess the full results of the tests".
Meanwhile, in a sign of increasing tensions between Hungary and Romania unidentified vandals threw tins of fish at the Romanian Embassy in Budapest, shattering several windows.
In addition, Hungarian Environment Minister Pál Pepó said last week that the preliminary estimate of dead fish in Hungary was about 110 tonnes and called the poisoning "the biggest (environmental) accident in the history of Hungary".
His statement was challenged by Petre Marinescu, head of the Romanian state water company, who said the fish had died not because of the cyanide concentration in the water but because of substances used afterward to neutralize the chemical.
One positive piece of news amid all the conflicting claims is that Australia has announced it would help clean up the rivers.