Trickery suspected after cyanide spill

- With links to related articles -

Nick Thorpe

Friday March 17, 2000

Budapest - Hungarian politicians reacted angrily yesterday to news that the Australian company partly blamed for a serious cyanide spill in several major eastern European rivers had gone into voluntary receivership.

Esmerelda Exploration, based in Perth, owns 50% of the Aurul gold mine at Baia Mare in northern Romania, which discharged cyanide-tainted water on January 30. A Romanian state company is a co-owner.

Hungarian media reported that Esmerelda, which has denied any direct role in polluting the rivers or killing fish, had filed for "voluntary administration" - a step which may lead to bankruptcy proceedings.

Zoltan Illes, head of the environment committee of the Hungarian parliament, said: "This is just a trick not to pay compensation."

Following the spill, cyanide spread through rivers in Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia. Two hundred tonnes of dead fish were removed from the river Tisza in Hungary alone. Hydro-biologists believe it could take decades for the eco-system to recover fully.

Kim Strickland, the administrator appointed under Australian law, denied that filing for voluntary administration would automatically protect Esmerelda Exploration from legal action.

"Anyone in the world can lodge a claim," he said, adding: "If I choose to reject some of those claims then the claimants have a right to appeal to a court, or they can pursue the directors."

The Hungarian foreign minister, Janos Martonyi, yesterday confirmed that his government intends to sue the Australian company, along with the Romanian state-owned firm which also has shares in the Aurul mine.

Hungary also intends to claim damages from another state-owned mine at Baia Borsa in Romania, responsible for another spill, of heavy met als, into the Tisza a week ago.

It is believed that the spill is continuing to pollute the region. On Wednesday, a slick up to 25 miles long, and containing metals such as lead, zinc and copper entered Hungary.

A spokesman for the mine confirmed on Wednesday that a further 150 cubic metres (5,300 cubic feet) of contaminated water had escaped from the same reservoir from which 20,000 tonnes of contaminated sludge escaped last Friday. But he called the new leak "insignificant".

A spokeswoman for the Upper Tisza regional water authority confirmed the existence of the latest spill, but said that heavy metal levels in the river remained below the emergency threshold.

The pollution of Hungarian rivers by Romanian mines has created tension between the two governments, which have both turned to the European Union for mediation.

On Wednesday Romanian, Hungarian and Ukranian officials signed a protocol on the prevention of trans-border river pollution. Hungary appealed to the EU earlier in the week to help Romania identify dangerous plants and mines, and then to help pay to make them safe, or to press Romania to close them down.

Publication of a report by UN experts into the cyanide spill is expected next week.

Elections are due in Romania this autumn, and Hungary is keen to avoid damaging the chances of the present government, which includes ministers from the large Hungarian minority in Romania.

Original article
Mining in Romania
Rivers Network
EU Environment Agency
Upper Tisza