Budapest Sun
Helter smelter: more Esmeralda gold?

Duncan Welch

Jun. 29, 2000

In an ironic twist that Hungarian fisherman will not find amusing the gold smelter in Romania, that made international news when cyanide spilled from its reservoir, has reopened just as the Tisza River fish stocks have been replenished.

The smelter is jointly owned by the Romanian Government and Esmeralda Exploration.

The Australian company claims to have changed the plant's equipment in order to better cope with future overflow problems.

"We've now satisfied all of the requirements that have been placed on us by the (Romanian) Government and are restarting operations to return to normal operational capacity," Michael Hardy, Esmeralda's lawyer told the press last week.

This development occurs at a time when 80,000 catfish have been reintroduced to the stricken river that suffered a 60% loss of life when 130,000 cubic yards of cyanide-polluted water flowed out of the Romanian plant in February.

Thomas Popper, media information officer at the Regional Environmental Center based in Hungary is not convinced.

"I believe very limited changes were made to the plant, but it was essentially a decision by the Romanian Government to allow it re-open."

Despite the decision János Gönczy, Hungarian commissioner for the revitalization of the Tisza and Szamos River, is confident of successfully bringing back the Tisza's aquatic life.

"There's a good chance we can improve the fish stock in the river."

While many fish had died during the disaster, some species and flora were less affected, which leaves Gönczy and others to hope.

But there is no such satisfaction for a quick outcome in regards to the question of who will pay for the damages that are estimated to be over $3.6 million.

It is still a major point of contention for all the parties involved.

The Romanian Prime Minister Emile Constantinescu has said the damage was caused in various counties but not to the Tisza; Esmeralda's lawyer said they had not even been notified of legal action, while István Horváth, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tisza department, said discussions of responsibility are in process.

Despite the slow pace of compensation donations to help the river and those Hungarians who earn their living by the river have come flooding in from tobacco giant Philip Morris ($100,000), Nokia ($90,000 for bio-monitoring) and the US Embassy ($25,000 for relief and $650,000 worth of laboratory equipment).

Australia's deputy Environmental Minister Roger Beale met with Hungarian Environment Minister Ferenc Ligetvári last Friday (June 23) and took time to announce that Australia will give Ft50 million ($179,000) to help combat the damage suffered by the disaster stricken river.

Ligetvári added that legal compensation claims are impossible to avoid and that documents relating to the disaster and the Australian company Aural have been forwarded to Hungary's Australian lawyer, Ádám Bisits.

In the eyes of János Martonyi, Minister of Foreign Affairs, there is a silver lining in these muddy waters.

"The recent tragedy drew attention to the fact that the Tisza has been polluted for decades. The warning came at the last minute to stop the pollution.

With fish back in the river and the mine re-opening, the fisherman, Esmeralda's accountants and shareholders, and the Romanian Government are sure to be keeping their fingers crossed.

Original article