Hungary to sue Australian company over spill

BUDAPEST, Feb 16, 2000 -- (Reuters) Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Tuesday that Hungary would sue the Australian company which ran a Romanian gold smelter blamed for a devastating cyanide spill in the Tisza River.

Orban said the spill, which wiped out fish and plant life along almost the entire length of Hungary's second river, had caused damage whose full extent was still impossible to estimate.

"We are facing a very serious natural disaster but fortunately there were no human injuries," Orban told a news conference where he named fisheries expert Janos Gonczi to coordinate efforts to deal with the aftermath of what has been called Hungary's worst ecological disaster in decades.

Hungarian towns and cities, which depend on the Tisza for drinking water, shut intake valves as a wave of water laced with cyanide measured at more than 10 times the maximum safe level washed downstream, flowing into the Danube in Serbia at the weekend.

Serbia's environment minister, Branislav Blazic, said on Tuesday the concentration of cyanide in the Danube had soared to 130 times the permitted amount at one point.

Orban said Hungarian legal experts were preparing to seek compensation on three legal fronts, two of which involved going directly after the company which ran the gold smelter in Baia Mare, northwest Romania, where the spill occurred two weeks ago.

The smelter, which uses cyanide and huge quantities of water to separate gold from low grade tailings, is half owned by Australia's Esmeralda Exploration Ltd.

Esmeralda has acknowledged a spill took place but says the extent of damage as reported in Hungary, where some officials say 90 percent of life in the Tisza has been wiped out, is greatly exaggerated.

"No doubt it's a serious incident, but it's been blown out of proportion by the media in all countries," said Philip Evers, operations manager at the smelter.

"I don't feel that there's been a major ecological disaster," he added.

An independent team of experts was expected to fly in from Australia later this week to investigate the incident.

Orban said Hungary was developing cases to sue the smelter in Romania, the parent company in Australia and the Romanian government.

"There are three main directions and two of them belong to the private company while one of them belongs to the case between Romania and Hungary," Orban said. He added that while the Australian firm effectively controlled the Romanian company which had caused the pollution, Romania also has "a very clear responsibility as a state". Hungary and Romania have agreed to cooperate in seeking compensation, but both countries have been clearly overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and are hoping a visit by European Union Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom this week might result in a European-backed effort to bail them out.

Hungarian officials said a full survey of the damage to water life in the Tisza, which is beloved by Hungarians for its clear waters and meandering vistas, would be completed by late this month.

Tibor Muller, an Environment Ministry official in charge of rehabilitation, told Hungarian news agency MTI in Debrecen, eastern Hungary, that scientific and technical experts familiar with the Tisza would be involved in the survey.

He added that full rehabilitation of the Tisza might take 10 to 15 years, but about 95 percent of the river life could return in three to four years.

In Strasbourg, European Commission President Romano Prodi said Europe needed better civil protection plans to cope with such disasters.

"The time has come to set up emergency procedures for civil protection in Europe," Prodi told the European Parliament. "We need structures in place before disasters happen so we can react quickly."

Original article