NY Times
UN to assess cyanide spill

February 18, 2000

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) -- Contamination levels of cyanide and heavy metals in the Danube measured three times acceptable European Union standards today, more than two weeks after a spill at a gold mine sent the poison streaming through several European rivers.

The United Nations plans to send a team of experts to assess the damage to the Tisza and Danube rivers in Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, and the EU has called for an international commission to help with the cleanup.

The EU is considering tighter regulations on the mining industry following the spill, which environmentalists have called Europe's worst river disaster in a decade.

"Maybe we need much stricter rules to control the waste from mining activities," EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem told a news conference today in Brussels, Belgium, after flying back from Romania and Hungary.

Australian Environment Minister Robert Hill said today that his country would help clean up the rivers, as the Australian mining company Esmeralda Exploration is a major partner in the Baia Mare gold mine, where the spill originated. The cyanide had been used to process ore there.

On Jan. 30, a containment dam broke at the mine, sending an estimated 100 tons of cyanide and tons of toxic heavy metals pouring into streams, passing through Hungary and Yugoslavia on the Szamos and Tisza rivers before returning to Romania on the Danube.

Tests taken this morning at a dam near the city of Drobeta Turnu-Severin, 170 miles west of Bucharest, showed cyanide levels three times the acceptable EU standard and 14 times the Romanian norms, said Gheorghe Constantin, of the Romanian Ministry of Environment.

The 116,000 people of Drobeta Turnu-Severin were relying on wells for their drinking water, and dialysis patients and expectant mothers have been temporarily moved out of the city.

Romanian environmentalists found high concentrations of copper, chrome, zinc and iron in the Danube farther upriver Thursday.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization expressed concern about toxic metals in the water, and called for a review of environment and health regulatory standards related to precious metal mining in Europe.

A team of 10 to 12 U.N. environmental experts and engineers are to be dispatched starting next week to make a complete assessment of the situation, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Serbia's Ministry for Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery lifted its ban on using the water from the Tisza and Danube in Yugoslavia, saying concentrations of cyanide and heavy metals had dropped to safe levels. The pollution passed through Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic, earlier this week.

Wallstroem, the EU health commissioner, said in Budapest on Thursday that she wanted a task force set up "within a few weeks" to assess and control damage and prevent future similar accidents. The EU would consider helping fund the task force, she added.

Original article