Romania's environmental woes: once isn't good enough!

By Catherine Lovatt

March 15, 2000

Only six weeks after the ecologically destructive cyanide spill in Baić Mare, Romania is once again facing the humiliation of yet another environmental catastrophe. Toxins have flooded into the Vaser river, a tributary of the Tisza, after melting snow and two days of torrential rain seriously damaged the wall of a dam at a state-run mine near Baić Mare.

Last month a cyanide spill from the gold smelting plant, Aurul, poisoned thousands of fish in the river Tisza causing what has been described by Hungarian officials as "the worst environmental disaster to afflict the region since the leak from Ukraine's nuclear power station in 1986" (BBC World Service News, 10 March 2000). The latest disaster is estimated to have sent 20,000 tonnes of zinc and lead waste into the river Vaser. Again, neighbouring Hungary is expected to take the brunt of the ecological damage.

Although the cyanide spill had a severe impact environmental experts have warned that the latest spill could have more serious long term consequences. Potassium cyanide is a crystalline substance. Once it comes into contact with water it dissolves and gradually becomes more and more diluted. However, heavy metal pollution accumulates in river mud which combines with substances in the river forming powerful toxins. Consequently, the effects of the second spill could be more detrimental to the surrounding environment.

Romania has responded openly and with transparency. They are working with the office of the Convention for the Protection of the Danube and have sent in a team of experts to investigate the damage. Prior to the accident Romania warned Hungary and Ukraine of potential flooding. In response, Hungary initiated a water quality alert on the river Tisza. Mine employees also attempted to prevent the vast overflow of polluting material. The extent to which they were successful is yet to be seen. However, Lilian Mara, a Romanian environment official stated that "Most of the waste has... been deposited at the base of the dam and in the adjacent reservoir and only a small amount has found its way into the Vaser river." (Agence France Presse, 10 march 2000).

Despite their open approach Romania has been hit by a barrage of negativity from the European media. Romania has accepted responsibility for the environmentally and economically disastrous situation. This marks a valuable and progressive advance from attitudes that were prevalent ten years ago. Transparency is a principle of democracy and is a positive move towards transition and membership into the European Union.

Initial Hungarian reaction to the second disaster appears to be one of concern but not disbelief. Zoltan Illes, chairman of the Environment Protection Committee for the Hungarian parliament, has described the Romanian mines as "ticking time bombs." (BBC World Service News, 10 March 2000). Romanian attitudes may have altered but the facts remain: this is the second ecological disaster in the Baić Mare region of Romania within two and a half months; dangerous metals and chemicals have spilled from two different mines resulting in untold damage. Who is to say that there won't be a third, or a fourth, or a fifth disaster? Action needs to be taken to prevent any more destruction. Romania is trying hard to 'clean up' its poor environmental record - a legacy of the Communist era. Unfortunately, regional ecological degradation has become a part of that legacy, a legacy that will now remain with Romania for many more years.

The second toxic spill from a Romanian mine has raised further economic, political and environmental strains. However, the Romanian government have acted with a frankness that can be respected. Although potential hazards can be predicted the extent of the damage is yet unknown. Teams of experts from Hungary and Romania are already assessing the affected area but steps need to be taken to prevent further environmentally disastrous accidents occurring in the region. Two accidents have already occurred, how long should we wait for a third?

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