Crumbling industrial infrastructure an environmental time bomb

By Mihaela Rodina

March 13, 2000

(Rtr) - Romania's crumbling industrial infrastructure and millions of tonnes of undisposed toxic waste have become environmental time bombs for the country and its neighbours after two major pollution incidents in less than six weeks.

A major cyanide leak from the Australian-owned Aurul gold mine at the end of January flowed down Hungary's Tisza river into the Danube, decimating local ecosystems and leaving hundreds of tonnes of dead fish in its wake.

Then last week, prompted by a combination of negligence and severe weather, 20,000 tonnes of contaminated mud laced with heavy metals flowed from the reservoir of another mining complex, threatening to cause further environmental damage along the same network of rivers.

Though the Romanian government did its best to play down both incidents, it has now issued a severe warning to companies who do not abide by environmental protection regulations.

"At first we only applied administrative penalties, but we will go as far as shutting down companies which break laws over pollution," said Romanian Environment Minister Romica Tomescu.

After the disaster at the Aurul mine, the government warned managers of other mines in northern Romania about new risks of flooding and demanded that measures be taken to avoid further accidents.

"But nothing was done," said Tomescu.

From the Communist regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania has inherited obselete industrial infrastructure which was built without any regard for environmental protection.

The government has compiled a list of 41 trouble spots around the country which pose serious pollution risks. These include mineral treatment plants in the north, centre and southwest of the country.

At least 200,000 tonnes of toxic waste -- the majority of it from mining processes -- are stored across Romania, according to Tomescu who added that the country would need 22 billion dollars to deal with its pollution problems.

In the northern region of Baia-Mare alone -- the origin of both recent spills -- millions of tonnes of contaminated sludge are stored in run-off resevoirs which threaten to contaminate ground water supplies.

Last week's spill of 20,000 tonnes of mud contaminated with heavy metals, including zinc, copper and lead, happened when heavy rains and melting snow caused a 25 metre (80 foot) breach in a protection dyke at a mine in Baia Borsa.

The majority of waste was deposited at the foot of the dyke and in an adjacent resevoir, and only a small amount made its way into the Vaser river, a tributary of the Tisza, according to the environment ministry.

But Romanian officials, still smarting from the Aurul cyanide disaster, this time took measures to contain the pollution and issued warnings to Hungary and the Ukraine, through whose territory the Tisza flows.

Despite Tomescu's promise of a tough stance against polluters, the state-owned company Remin -- which was involved in both recent incidents, is still operating.

Remin owns the Baia Borsa mine and is the majority Romanian shareholder in the Aurul mine, operated jointly with Australia's Esmeralda Exploration.

Romania's environmental protection agency warned Remin at the end of January that the dyke at Baia Borsa had cracks and weak points which were likely to give rise to leaks.

But the warnings were ignored.

The latest pollution incidents have put considerable strain on relations between Romania and its neighbour Hungary.

Romanian authorities have been angered by what they see as Hungary's exaggeration of the extent of the pollution to attract financial assistance from the international community.

Having referred to the Aurul spill as the worst environmental disaster since the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident, Hungarian officials Friday quoted what they called Romanian sources saying that the new spill also contained an unknown quanitity of cyanide, an allegation which Bucharest denied.

Original article