Nando Times
YU scientists warn of contaminated food in wake of cyanide spill


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (February 16, 2000) - Yugoslav ecologists Wednesday warned of long-term food poisoning in the wake of a cyanide spill and dangerous metal concentrations that already have killed tons of fish in the contaminated Danube and Tisza rivers.

"Dead fish are covering the rivers, and 400,000 birds that find winter shelter in the Yugoslav part of the Danube River are threatened," said ecologist Radoje Lausevic.

He said there was a great danger that the river pollution - which was dozens of times above the normal levels - could contaminate the food chain through groundwater and the water used for irrigation.

In Budapest, Janos Borbely of the Hungarian Environment Protection Ministry said more than 100 tons of cyanide "got into the river and approximately the same amount of metals," referring to the Romanian Lapus River, which was the first contaminated.

Authorities in Serbia have warned farmers not to eat or sell food that grows near the Tisza and Danube rivers or is otherwise affected by adjoining or underwater currents. They also have warned of dangerous metal concentrations in the rivers.

The cyanide poured into streams from a containment dam at a gold mine near the Romanian town of Baia Mare on Jan. 30, returning to Romania on the Danube after passing through Hungary and Yugoslavia via the Szamos and Tisza rivers.

The World Health Organization expressed concern that heavy metals such as lead and cadmium also might have escaped into the water, posing a potentially far greater health threat.

As of Wednesday morning, the cyanide concentration in the Danube in Romania was four times higher than European Union-accepted levels, and almost 20 times higher than the levels permissible in Romania.

"The dilution (of the contamination) did not happen to the extent expected," said Septimius Mara, from the monitoring unit of the Romanian Ministry of Environment.

Australia-based Esmeralda Ltd., co-owner of the Baia Mare gold mine, has denied responsibility for the cyanide spill, saying the extent of poisoning had been exaggerated. Romania also has said the damage was overstated and that it has suffered the most.

Hungary asked the United Nations for an independent team of experts to assess the spill. Major European donors have been asked to make more experts available to draw up an immediate response.

By this morning, communities along the Serbian section of the Tisza and Danube rivers said they had retrieved and buried at least 12 tons of poisoned fish.

Local villages were covered with signs warning people not to eat fish from the rivers. Farms along the riverbank were cautioned not to use well water, since the cyanide is likely to have seeped into groundwater. Hunters and rangers reported seeing the first dead land animals, which presumably drank water from the rivers.

Hungary and Yugoslavia have demanded compensation from Romania, and both have threatened to sue if their demands are not met.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban confirmed in a radio interview Wednesday that Hungary is planning three lawsuits.

He said civil action will be filed against the Romanian-Australian gold mining joint venture and its Australian parent company. Hungary also will demand compensation from Romania through international courts, Orban told Hungarian public radio.

"The legal responsibility of the Romanian company is clear," Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said Wednesday.

"No one will ever be able to come up with an exact figure in terms of the cost because no one can say what the flora and fauna of the Tisza River are worth," he said. "However, we can put a price on the fish, on agriculture, tourism."

The Yugoslav Foreign Ministry issued a protest note to the Romanian Embassy in Belgrade on Tuesday, citing "serious damage caused by the destruction of fish in the Tisza and the hazard to the riverside."

Original article