Danube cyanide level was far too high - Serb minister

BELGRADE, Feb 16, 2000 -- (Reuters) Serbia's environment minister said on Tuesday that the concentration of cyanide in the Danube resulting from a deadly spill in an upstream tributary had soared to 130 times the permitted maximum at one point.

Environment Minister Branislav Blazic said legal action should be taken against the owners of the Romanian gold mine where the cyanide spill was alleged to have occurred, though only the federal Yugoslav authorities could do this.

Blazic said the waters of the Danube, Europe's largest waterway, had now diluted the cyanide, which entered the river some 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Belgrade on Sunday.

The wave of cyanide, blamed on a spill last month at a Romanian gold smelter half owned by Australia's Esmeralda Exploration Ltd, flowed out of Hungary into Serbia along the river Tisza over the weekend.

The Tisza, a northern tributary of the Danube, has been devastated by the poison and will take years to recover, Blazic said.

Esmeralda has denied responsibility and said it is sending experts to Romania to prove its innocence.

Blazic said Serbian experts had been sent to the gold plant in Baia Mare in Romania to assess the situation.

He said that by Monday, the concentration of cyanide in the Danube had fallen to 20 times the maximum tolerable level, and did not pose a threat to people living in towns along the river.

Dorin Gavril, head of the Water Protection Department in Romania's southern Caras Severin county, told state radio on Tuesday that the cyanide-poisoned waters had entered the Romanian sector of the Danube.

"Pollution is above the permitted level," he said, adding that the exact concentration of cyanide would not be known until late on Tuesday or early Wednesday.

The poisoned stretch of water was flowing downstream at a rate of 30 km per eight to 10 hours, he said.

"The concentration of cyanide in the Danube has practically been normalized, but the devastation in the Tisza remains," said Blazic.

Five hundred kilograms (1,100 pounds) of dead fish were picked out of the Danube at the town of Pancevo north of Belgrade on Monday, he said.

Some 15 tons of dead fish have been found over the last few days on the Yugoslav side of the Tisza, Blazic said. "The wave of cyanide in these concentrations has caused an ecological catastrophe in Hungary and Serbia. Tisza as an international river will be dead for a number of years," he added.

Fishermen living along the Tisza are hanging black banners from their windows to show how seriously they have been affected by the disaster, he said.

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