Hungary says heavy cyanide damage to Tisza river

BUDAPEST, Feb 15, 2000 -- (Reuters) Hungarian officials, assessing damage from a cyanide spill in Hungary's second biggest river, said on Monday the Tisza had been polluted by 100 tons of slurry containing the deadly poison.

"It sounds incredible but it was a disaster," said Ferenc Laszlo of the Vituki Institute of Water Pollution Control in Budapest.

"I would compare it with the Sandoz disaster," Laszlo added referring to a 1986 chemical spill by the Sandoz company which wiped out fish along a 300 mile (500 kilometer) stretch of the Rhine river.

The wave of deadly cyanide, blamed on a spill last month at a Romanian gold smelter half owned by Australia's Esmeralda Exploration Ltd ESE.AX), washed out of Hungary into Serbia and the Danube River over the weekend.

Esmeralda, based in Perth, Australia, has said there was an overflow on January 30 along a 25-metre (yard) length of the 2.4-mile (3.8 kilometer) tailings dam due to heavy rain and snow in northwest Romania where the mine is located.

But the spill has left behind a huge trail of dead fish and wildlife as well as big question marks in Hungary over whether the country, hoping to join the highly environmentally conscious European Union in a few years, was adequately prepared for what has been called the worst ecological disaster in Hungary in decades.

Karoly Pinter, an official of the Hungarian Agriculture Ministry in charge of fisheries, said at least 100 tons of dead fish had been pulled from the Tisza and the full figure would be higher.

Further information needed

"It's not a dead river but it is not so strong," he said. "We need further information and further tests to determine the extent of damage."

Tom Popper, a press information officer with the Regional Environmental Center just outside Budapest, said that in addition to cyanide, which dissolved in the river and was swept downstream, the spill apparently had released heavy metals such as lead which posed more of a long-term danger.

"This is something that is going to have to be watched for a long time," he said. "Lead was being used in the process and it could be collected along the river."

Officials said Hungary had been caught off guard by the danger lurking just over the border in Budapest, although Hungary had conceded that Romania was quick to sound a warning once the spill occurred.

"We should have know much more about this potential pollution source," Laszlo said.

Hungary has started to take steps to obtain restitution for the damage. Some published reports have estimated the damage in Hungary alone at some $10 million, but there has been no official confirmation.

In addition, there are intangibles, such as the pain many Hungarians feel at the damage to the meandering Tisza which many feel is the most Hungarian of the country's rivers.

"Hungarians love the Tisza," Laszlo said. "It belongs to the Hungarian scenery - and its waters are very clear."

Original article