Budapest Sun
Hungarian-Romanian relations poisoned

Water Hazards

By Tamás S Kiss

Mch. 16, 2000

Hungarian officials have derided Romania as being unfit for the European Union (EU) after a mine in the town of Baia Borsa dumped a second poisonous spill into the Tisza river in as many months.

Some 20,000 metric tons of sludge from the state-run Baia Borsa lead and zinc mine spilled into the Vaser river on Friday after a containment dam burst following several days of rain and snow melt.

The mine is located about 380km northwest of Bucharest and very near the origin of the recent cyanide spill. Just as that spill did, Friday's pollution has flowed into Hungary's Tisza river.

The Romanian environmental ministry said it notified Hungarian authorities according to the terms of bilateral agreements, although authorities there played down its environmental repercussions.

Meanwhile, Hungarian officials said that the spill could be more harmful than February's cyanide spill from a Baia Mare gold mine.

"I would be amazed if Romania would be allowed even in the vicinity of the (EU's) negotiation table," said a furious Gábor Horváth, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on Voice of America Radio.

"This is the sixth similar environmental incident in Romania in recent years that has caused very serious damage to Hungary," Horváth said.

"I mean how can anyone in his right mind imagine that this can go on without any limitation, without any proper sanctions made and at the same time allow Romania to sit down at the negotiations table with the European Union?"

Horváth said Romania had refused to provide Budapest adequate data on the spill. "They are simply not providing us regular and specific details of the concentration of heavy metals in the mud flow," Horváth said. He added that Hungary will ask the EU, UN and international environmental groups to investigate and identify all hot spot industrial sites along the Tisza and other regional rivers as Hungary is unable to cope with the situation.

He said that authorities would distribute drinking water to affected communities if necessary.

The mayors of 20 settlements along the upper Tisza sent a petition to the Prime Minister's office demanding immediate action.

Local experts said four nations along the river would be affected by the 20km spill, whose zinc and lead content measured several times the permissible level.

Three UN experts were expected in Hungary this week to pin-point the most hazardous industrial locations in Hungary and Romania.

The lead poisoning hit a section of Hungary's Tisza river that was actually spared by the cyanide spill, said János Gönczi, Government Commissioner for the Tisza river.

"All the efforts that the environmental protection and water management bodies have made so far to mitigate the damages done by the cyanide must be fully re-evaluated from scratch and we are faced with an even more dangerous new problem now," Gönczi said.

"About 96% of Hungary's freshwater resources come from outside Hungary therefore we must place special emphasis on the protection of water quality that could endanger our drinking water supplies."

After the cyanide wiped out the Tisza's fish and also killed some endangered eagles, wildlife experts had new concerns.

"We are trying to be optimistic but of course a catastrophe has occurred," György Gadó of the World Wildlife Federation in Hungary said. "It is a fact that life in this region can never be restored to what it was before," he added.

Gadó said the cyanide and heavy metals in the Tisza will affect the food chain for years to come.

János Martonyi, Hungary's Foreign Minister, said that the countries of the Carpathian Basin (Romania, the Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary) need stricter and simpler agreements to avoid similar spills like the recent ones affecting the Tisza.

"Romania is just as responsible for the hazardous pollution as the polluting mine itself," said Martonyi. "It should be easier to also determine who's responsible," he added.

"It is strictly an environmental issue, therefore we should rule out any political tensions that might arise," Martonyi said.

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