Romanian smelter in cyanide spill to be upgraded

BUCHAREST, Aug 29, 2000 -- (Reuters) A joint Romanian-Australian gold smelter, blamed for a big cyanide spill in European rivers in January, will undergo extensive upgrading before becoming fully operational, a Romanian official said on Monday.

"The Task Force visited the Aurul smelter last week and agreed on projects to increase its safety standards. These projects are compulsory technical solutions," the environment official told Reuters from the northwestern city of Baia Mare.

The Task Force of environment experts was created by the European Union after 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-tainted water overflowed the tailings dam at the Aurul gold smelter in Baia Mare in January, poisoning the Tisza and Danube rivers in one of Europe's worst river pollution accidents.

The rivers flow through Romania, Hungary and Serbia.

Officials at the smelter in Baia Mare were unavailable for comment on Monday.

The Romanian government has a 45 percent stake in Aurul and Australian Esmeralda Exploration Ltd owns 50 percent. The remaining five percent is owned by Romanian business interests.

The Baia Mare official, who asked not to be named, said the upgrading projects included the construction of a new dam with a capacity of 250,000 cubic meters to act as an emergency buffer in case of overflows caused by excessive rains, as in January.

"The aim is to build a safety system able to sustain exceptional meteorological conditions," the official said.

Esmeralda was put into administration in Australia in March.

The spill embarrassed Bucharest and prompted authorities in the rest of Europe, including Greece and the Czech Republic, to halt mining projects involving cyanide handling.

The installation of a permanent cyanide detoxification unit, independent power generators as well as new pipelines for an open circuit system to bring waste water to "normal quality" were also part of the upgrading package, the official said.

"For the time being, we don't have an estimate for the total cost of the project," the official said.

She said Aurul was now carrying out technological tests by operating at 60 percent of its capacity, with experts closely monitoring the tailings re-treatment operation.

"Reports indicate that the parameters of the smelter are satisfactory. And safety conditions are also good," she said.

The smelter started the first tests in July at some 20 percent capacity after changing part of its equipment.

Budapest voiced concern over the restart of the smelter, saying Bucharest had failed to notify it of the move.

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