Deadly cyanide spill reaches Danube


Monday, February 14, 2000

Budapest -- Serbia yesterday announced it will demand compensation at an international court from those responsible for a cyanide spill that has contaminated a major river in one of Europe's worst environmental disasters.

Serbian Environment Minister Branislav Blazic said it would take at least five years for life in the Tisza River to recover.

"The Tisza has been killed. Not even bacteria have survived," Mr. Blazic said as he toured the area along the river in northern Serbia. "This is a total catastrophe."

The cyanide spill originated in northwestern Romania, near the border town of Oradea, where a dam at the Baia Mare gold mine overflowed Jan. 30, causing cyanide to pour into streams. At the mine, a cyanide solution is used to separate gold ore from surrounding rock. Cyanide use is forbidden in the European Union, but Romania is not a member.

From the mine site, the polluted water flowed westward in a tributary to the Tisza in neighbouring Hungary, killing large numbers of fish there, and then into Yugoslavia.

Hungarian and Serbian officials say the spill is an environmental catastrophe, causing immense damage to the region's fragile ecosystem that could take years to repair.

Humans are also at risk because of the spill, said Predrag Prolic, a professor of chemistry and toxicology at Belgrade University. He said wells could become polluted, or poisoned water could filter into soil and contaminate grain and livestock.

The fertile plains of Serbia's north are the country's breadbasket. Water from the Tisza is traditionally used for irrigation.

Eighty per cent of the fish in the Tisza have died since the cyanide reached Serbia, said Attila Juhas, mayor of the northern Serbian town of Senta. "Enormous quantities of dead fish are floating on the surface and the spill continues to spread."

The cyanide reached the Danube yesterday at the small village of Slankamen, about 50 kilometres from Belgrade. Hundreds of dead fish floated in the river, but Serbia's Deputy Agriculture Minister Zivka Ilic told state television there was no danger to people in towns along the Danube as the cyanide would be diluted by the river water.

"The maximum concentrations we measured are 0.06 milligrams per litre of water and the allowable maximum is 0.1 milligrams," she said. "The danger has passed."

Sections of the Danube, east Europe's main waterway, are already heavily polluted after the NATO bombing campaign last year that targeted oil and gas refineries.

Mr. Prolic said the peak concentration of cyanide in the Tisza was 20 times the permissible level.

The poison could travel through the Danube through Serbia and could reach Bulgaria, where the Danube empties into the Black Sea.

In Serbia, dozens of volunteers and fisherman, wearing protective rubber gloves, removed hundreds of dead fish from the Tisza to bury them.

"Everything's dead. Cyanide destroyed the entire food chain," said local fisherman Slobodan Krkljes, 43.

Emergency teams have been removing tonnes of dead fish by hand from the river.

More than 100,000 cubic metres of contaminated water was released in the Jan. 30 spill. Romanian officials were initially quoted as telling Hungarian experts that the cyanide concentration at the accident site was 7,800 milligrams per litre compared with the admissible level of 0.1 milligram per litre.

"The cyanide pollution of the Tisza river has led to the greatest extermination of fish life in Central Europe to date," said Karoly Pinter, head of the wildlife department of Hungary's Ministry of Agriculture and Regional Development.

Ecologists have pointed out that some of the fish species are on the endangered list and most likely have been totally wiped out.

Meanwhile, the Romanian Environment Ministry confirmed reports that the Romanian-Australian company running the mine was closed soon after the spill.

The mine company's manager, Australian engineer Philip Evers, told the Hungarian daily newspaper Nepszava that the mine's reservoir, which held highly poisonous chemical waste from the mine, overflowed after what he called unprecedented rain and snowfalls in recent weeks.

The cyanide initially spilled into the river Szamos in eastern Hungary, a tributary of the Tisza. All life in the Szamos has now been killed, officials said. Drinking supplies for much of eastern Hungary have been contaminated.

Hungary has also asked the European Union for assistance in cleaning up the toxic spillage, which it calls a "European-dimension catastrophe."

Original article