Romania and Hungary discuss cyanide spill

BUCHAREST, Feb 15, 2000 -- (Reuters) Romania and Hungary began discussing compensation on Monday for a cyanide spill at a Romanian gold mine that has killed thousands of fish in a major river system.

The spill has poisoned the meandering Tisza River, a beloved part of the Hungarian landscape, and after two weeks has now spread to Yugoslavia, where the Tisza joins the Danube.

Dead fish were seen floating through a Belgrade suburb in the waters of the Danube on Monday, after Yugoslav officials on Sunday reported finding hundreds more in the lower reaches of the Tisza, 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Belgrade. But authorities said the spill did not pose a danger to the city.

"It will take up to 10 years for Hungary's water eco-system to recover, visiting Hungarian Environment Minister Pepo Pal told reporters at the gold plant in Baia Mare in northwest Romania.

He said Hungary would wait for the results of tests in a week or so before deciding whether to ask Romania or the company, Aurul SA, for compensation.

Australian co-owner

Meanwhile the Australian mineral development company Esmeralda Exploration , which owns 50 percent of Aurul, denied responsibility and said it was flying a team of environmental experts to Romania to prove its innocence.

Anton Vlad, state secretary in the Romanian Environment Ministry, told reporters: "The Romanian state cannot blame the spill on the Aurul plant before we assess the full results of the tests."

He and Pal toured the smelter's tailings dam, used to contain the toxic slurry waste, and later held talks with Aurul managers.

The incident has embarrassed Romania as it tries to clean up its record as a major post-communist polluter, and was set to cloud the launch of accession talks with the European Union.

"The Romanian government has shown full readiness to examine the consequences of this serious ecological accident," Foreign Minister Petre Roman said before leaving for the start of the talks in Brussels on Tuesday.

Ferenc Laszlo of the Vituki Institute of Water Pollution Control in Budapest said the institute estimated that 100 tons of cyanide had been released.

EU aid

He compared the spill with the 1986 Sandoz disaster in Switzerland, when dioxin poured into the Rhine following a fire and wiped out fish along 300 miles (500 kilometers) of river.

In Brussels, the European Commission said on Monday it might allocate some economic aid earmarked for Eastern Europe towards helping clear up the spill.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom was expected in Romania on Thursday to assess the damage and ask authorities how the EU could assist.

The incident ranks alongside the spillage of toxic waste at the Donana nature reserve in southern Spain two years ago as one of the worst ecological disasters in Europe since the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986.

Tom Popper of the Regional Environmental Center near Budapest said that in addition to cyanide, which dissolved and was swept downstream, the spill had apparently released heavy metals such as lead which could collect along the riverbeds and banks and posed a greater long-term danger.

"This is something that is going to have to be watched for a long time," he said.

Romanian authorities dispatched teams of experts to monitor the Danube, which flows into Romania from Serbia and ends in a delta which is one of Europe's leading nature reserves.

Romanian public radio quoted local experts monitoring the Danube on a 120-mile (196 kilometer) stretch inside Romania as saying that no traces of cyanide or heavy metals had been found so far.

Original article