Cyanide spill spreads to YU

February 12, 2000

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia (AP) -- A cyanide spill that has already contaminated two other countries has moved into Yugoslavia, where local officials are reporting widespread destruction of life in one of the region's major rivers.

The spill originated in Romania, where a dam at the Baia Mare gold mine overflowed January 30 sending deadly cyanide poisoning into streams. From there, the pollutants flowed west into the Tisa river, first in Hungary and now Yugoslavia.

"The Tisa is a dead river," Istvan Backulin, the mayor of a town in the area, told The Associated Press by telephone Saturday. "All life in it, from algae to trout, has been destroyed. The spill is leaving nothing alive."

The private Beta news agency quoted local ecologists as saying that it could take years before the marine life appears in the river again.

"Enormous quantities of dead fish are floating on the surface and the spill continues to spread," the mayor of northern town of Senta, Atila Juhas, said.

Juhas and officials from several other towns in northern Yugoslavia met Saturday in Senta to try deal with what some authorities are calling Europe's worst environmental disaster since Chernobyl.

Local mayors have mobilized volunteers to collect the dead fish in efforts to reduce levels of the pollution which continued to spread southward.

Yugoslavia's Tanjug news agency reported that by Saturday noon, the concentration of cyanide in the water, at the point where Tisa enters Yugoslavia from Hungary, was 0.07 milligrams per liter, down from 0.13 milligrams several hours earlier.

But the worst-polluted part of the flow was moving south and more serious damage was expected later when the Tisa joins the Danube river, probably early Sunday. The spill is moving about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) per hour.

Restaurants in that part of the country have already removed fish from their menus and the alarm has already spread south, including capital Belgrade which lies on the Danube river some 130 kilometers (80 miles) to the south.

Juhas said that drinking water was not in danger since supplies come wells far enough from the river. Wildlife, however, in the area near the river is in serious danger, he said.

In Hungary, the environmental minister, Pal Pepo, said only quick action from well-organized catastrophe-prevention work had prevented damage to human health.

Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orban, has called for the appointment of a government commissioner to coordinate damage assessment, international legal steps, and cleanup projects.

On Thursday, the European Union's transport and energy commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, met in Budapest with Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi and other officials to assess the crisis, which she termed a "European-dimension catastrophe."

In Yugoslavia, the cyanide spill adds to the strain from already high pollution levels caused by NATO bombing last year that targeted oil refineries and factories, and lack of proper ecological care.

While the official news agency, Tanjug reported that the authorities were taking "adequate measures" along the affected waterway, Juhas said that nobody from the government from capital Belgrade showed up for the meeting in Senta or provided assistance.

Original article