After Cyanide Spill, River Dwellers Look to Future

February 20, 2000

A spill of an estimated 100 tonnes of cyanide-laced slurry, allegedly leaked from an Australian-Romanian owned gold smelter upstream in Romania, created what scientists called a "wave of death" all along the Tisza, downstream to the Danube in Serbia.

The cartoon in a Hungarian newspaper showed a fish hooked in the Tisza River pleading to a fisherman: "I'll grant you three wishes if you don't throw me back."

The river in question was described by United Nations officials this week as the site of one of the worst pollution accidents in Europe, comparable to the Sandoz chemical plant spill in the Rhine in 1986.

A spill of an estimated 100 tonnes of cyanide-laced slurry, allegedly leaked from an Australian-Romanian owned gold smelter upstream in Romania, created what scientists called a "wave of death" all along the Tisza, downstream to the Danube in Serbia.

Fish, wildlife, micro-organisms and plants were killed the length of one of Central Europe's most important river systems. Hungary alone pulled 85 tonnes of dead fish from the Tisza.

"Everyone who loves nature and loves the river feels like this is a personal injury," said Jozsef Szen, mayor of Kiskore, a river town of 330 people in central Hungary, about halfway along the Tisza's meandering course from Romania to Serbia.

United Nations, European Union and other international officials and conservationists have begun investigating the legal and financial implications of the spill in late January from the Aurul S.A. gold smelter in Baia Mare, Romania.

The smelter is half-owned by Australia's Esmeralda Exploration Ltd. The company at first said reports of destruction were exaggerated but later expressed regret for what had happened, while saying the cause had yet to be determined.

Up and down the river, however, there was little doubt about where the cyanide had come from and who was to blame.

On Friday, February 18, Hungary took the first steps to freeze the assets of Aurul. Earlier in the week Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi, in the strongest statement by any Hungarian official, called Esmeralda's stance "immoral and indecent."

In towns and villages along the Tisza, the more immediate issue for residents was how to pick up the pieces of their lives intimately connected to the damaged river system.

Imre Sos, 55, who used to supplement his meager Hungarian pension by eating fish from the Tisza, said he had to stop after one of the dogs in Kiskore was killed by poisoned fish.

"If you eat the fish, you'll die," Sos said, making a motion of slitting his throat.

Local restaurateur Jozsef Sari said the scale of the disaster may have been blown out of proportion by the press.

"A riverman told me the other day he'd found a living snail beside the river, and assured me it is a good sign," Sari said.

But he admitted it's hard to move the fish dishes on his menu, auguring poorly for the critical tourist season.

"Right now, nobody eats fish, even though none of this comes from the Tisza," he said.

Angry Romanian villagers protested to European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom on Wednesday as she toured the the tailings dam of the Aurul mine, that repeated failures of the dam walls had resulted in poisoning the rivers with cyanide.

"This poison is spilling over and killing us. This area is no longer inhabitable," Gavril Matra, 76, from the village of Bozinta Mare, told Wallstrom, as she stood in yellowish mud on the wall of the tailings dam of the Aurul SA gold smelter.

A visibly moved Wallstrom listened to Matra, clad in traditional Romanian folk garb and black sheepskin hat, as he pointed to the frozen waters of the dam. "Our cattle are killed, we can't grow anything on the fields around," he said.

"Lady, if you were a bird, flying over this lake, you would drop dead, killed by its poisonous waters," Matra added.

Villagers around Baia Mare, 600 km (320 miles) north of Bucharest, said nobody warned them of hazards posed by the January 30 accident, when a wall at the tailings dam failed. They said that local officials took a full week to sample village wells for cyanide content, and that only after Hungary officialy complained about damage to the Tisza.

Romanian environment officials insist they immediately warned the population against drinking water from a local river.

The manager of Aurul told Walstrom his company was sorry.

"The company regrets this accident has happened," Philip Evers said. "We've reconstructed the embankment according to recommendations from Romanian experts," he told her at the dam.

The plant has been closed pending an investigation by Romanian and Hungarian experts, expected in two weeks.

Wallstrom said the spill showed Europe was not doing enough to prevent such disasters, not just in the former communist east but in the west as well. She planned to set up an international panel of experts to investigate and to plug gaps in legislation.

Source:

Reuters Ltd.

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