Cyanide spill floods into DanubeNick Thorpe
Monday February 14, 2000
A flood of toxic cyanide 40km long washed down the River Tisza in northern Yugoslavia yesterday accompanied by a tide of dead fish, spreading the poison further downstream into the Danube and adding to the toll of environmental destruction across central Europe.
The spill, which originated in northern Romania, where a dam at the Baia Mare gold mine overflowed last month and caused cyanide to flow into streams, has not been diluted to a safe level despite winter rains.
"If I am pessimistic, I would say that life in the River Tisza will never recover from this," said Elemer Szalma, a hydro-biologist from Szeged in southern Hungary. "If I am optimistic, I would say it will take 10 to 12 years to recover."
On Friday fishermen stretched nets between barges in Szeged, and removed five tonnes of dead fish. So far 300 tonnes have been removed from the Tisza, and from the river that carried the pollution into Hungary, the Szamos.
The concentration of cyanide in the Tisza in Szeged on Friday was 2.4mg per litre, compared with 30mg per litre in the Szamos earlier in the week. Biologists say that any level above 0.02 mg per litre is harmful to life. The spill was moving at about 2.5mph.
In Szeged hundreds of people gathered on bridges to throw flowers into the Tisza, which is much loved in Hungary, where it is regarded as cleaner and more beautiful than the Danube. Its fish are highly prized, and the fish soup from Szeged, spiced with paprika, has until now been a national delicacy.
Nevertheless, some places have escaped the poison tide. Imre Molnar, a waiter at the Gorbe Csarda fish restaurant at Poroszlo, beside the Tisza lake, said it was business as usual. A dam had saved the lake and health and safety inspectors have given its fish a clean bill of health.
Elsewhere, however, there was bad news. "This is not a local problem, this is an international ecological disaster," Attila Juhasz, mayor of Senta in the Yugoslav province of Vojvodina, told the independent Belgrade radio, B2-92 yesterday. He estimated that 80% of the fish in the Tisza where it flows through Senta were dead. By midday yesterday 600kg of dead fish had been removed.
Mr Szalma said: "Even if we reintroduce fish into the river, they will die of starvation because the food chain has been completely broken".
Yugoslav officials added their voices to Hungarian and Romanian demands for compensation from the Australian company, Esmerelda Exploration Ltd, which is based in Perth and owns a controlling share in the gold mine.
But company representatives in Perth have played down the disaster.
"There is no doubt that a significant amount of water overflowed the dam," said Brett Montgomery, chairman of Esmerelda Exploration, "but this is not an ecological catastrophe."