Gold mine company denies responsibility for huge cyanide spill

Serbia announces legal action as pollution spreads

February 14, 2000

PERTH (CNN) -- An Australian gold-mining company blamed for a cyanide leak that has killed thousands of fish in three countries denied responsibility Monday -- and questioned if cyanide was really to blame for the devastation.

Esmeralda Exploration -- which owns the gold mine in Romania where the leak allegedly originated -- said it was flying a team of environmental experts to Romania to prove its innocence.

Hundreds of dead fish were found floating in the Danube, Europe's largest waterway, on Sunday as the poison spread from the Tisza River, which flows into the Danube about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Belgrade.

Yugoslav officials said the cyanide was being diluted by the river as it flowed south towards the Yugoslav capital.

Team en route to Romania

However, an Esmeralda spokesman said he did not think cyanide was to blame.

"The footage of fish on CNN and Hungarian television shows them still flapping," Chris Codrington told Reuters.

"If it was cyanide poisoning they would be dead. And, if there are dead fish in Hungary why have there not been any reports of dead fish in Romania, which is much closer to the tailings dam?"

The river flows from northern Romania through Hungary to the Danube. Hungarian towns along the Tisza have banned the use of water, fishing and sales of fish.

Codrington said a team of environmental scientists left Melbourne on Monday and would be at the Baia Mare goldmine in northwest Romania on Tuesday.

The spill is reported to have dropped to non-lethal levels after flowing into the Danube. But Serbia has announced that it will demand compensation at an international court from those responsible for the pollution.

Spill devastates river life

The spill had devastated life in the Tisza River both in Hungary and in Serbia, where that country's environment minister, Branislav Blazic, said: "This is a total catastrophe.

"The Tisza has been killed. Not even bacteria have survived. We will demand an estimation of the damage, and we will demand that the culprits for this tragedy be punished."

Blazic accused Romania of covering up the real dimensions of the catastrophe, which some environmentalists say could be the biggest ecological catastrophe in Europe since the Chernobyl nuclear reactor catastrophe in 1986.

The accident at Chernobyl Unit 4 in the Ukraine on April 16, 1986, happened during a test designed to assess the nuclear reactor's safety margin. Instead, the reactor was destroyed and highly radioactive material released into the atmosphere. It was measurable over practically the entire northern hemisphere.

A total of 237 occupationally exposed people were admitted to hospital, 134 of them were diagnosed as suffering acute radiation syndrome and 28 of these died within three months of the disaster.

Dam overflows at gold mine

Blazic claimed the initial concentration of the cyanide in Romania must have been enormous if the effects were still so deadly in Yugoslavia, about 500-600 kilometers (300-400 miles) downstream.

The spill originated in northwest Romania near the border town of Oradea, when a dam at the Baia Mare gold mine overflowed into streams, then into the Tisza and now the Danube rivers.

In Bucharest, Romania, Anton Vlad, an Environment Ministry official, suggested the effects of the spill had been overstated.

"I have the impression that it is exaggerated," he told national radio. Once the cyanide reached the Danube, Vlad said, the pollution "will disappear because the water levels are tens of times higher than the Tisza."

Predrag Prolic, head of the Chemistry and Toxicology faculty at Belgrade University, said the spill "destroyed life in the Tisza for years to come."

Volunteers remove fish for burial

In Serbia, dozens of volunteers, fishermen and locals, wearing protective rubber gloves, removed hundreds of dead fish from the Tisza so that they could be buried.

"Everything's dead, cyanide destroyed the entire food chain," said fisherman Slobodan Krkjes, 43, in a broken voice. "Fishing was my job. I don't know what I'm going to do now."

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

"This is not just an environmental crisis. This is the poisoning of a river. Eighty percent of everything in the river will die. The wave of poison will pass within 36 hours, but no one here knows how to cope with the catastrophe," said Juhas.

Original article