Int. Herald Tribune
Serbia to ask payment for cyanide pollution

Paris, Monday, February 14, 2000

BECEJ, Yugoslavia - Serbia said Sunday it would demand compensation in an international court from those responsible for a cyanide spill that has contaminated a major river, destroying most aquatic life. Romania, where the pollution originated, played down the damage.

"The Tisa has been killed," said Branislav Blazic, Serbia's environment minister. "Not even bacteria have survived. This is a total catastrophe."

"It is astonishing that somebody let something like this happen," Mr. Blazic said as he toured the area along the Tisa River in northern Serbia. Mr. Blazic said the poisoning of the Tisa had been so strong that it would take at least five years for life to recover.

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 and caused cyanide to pour into streams. From there, the polluted water flowed west into the Tisa in neighboring Hungary and then on into Yugoslavia.

A cyanide solution is used to separate gold ore from surrounding rock.

In Bucharest, Anton Vlad, a state secretary in the Environment Ministry, suggested the effects of the spill had been overstated.

"I have the impression that it is exaggerated," Mr. Vlad said on national radio. Once the cyanide reaches the Danube, the pollution "will disappear because the water levels in the Danube are tens of times higher than the Tisa," he said. Mr. Vlad said that 50 percent of the "microfauna" destroyed at the site of the spill had already regenerated.

In Becej, a town on the Tisa about 90 kilometers (55 miles) north of Belgrade, police were deployed at the town's market to prevent the locals from selling contaminated fish.

Mr. Blazic accused Romania of covering up the real dimensions of the poisoning, which some environmentalists say could be the biggest ecological catastrophe in Europe since Chernobyl, the world's worst nuclear reactor catastrophe, in Ukraine in 1986.

Mr. Blazic said the initial concentration of the cyanide in Romania must have been enormous if the effects on the marine life were still so deadly in Yugoslavia, about 500 to 600 kilometers downstream.

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, the Tanjug news agency reported.

Officials from several northern Yugoslav towns held an emergency meeting in Senta on Saturday and urged locals to collect the fish in efforts to reduce pollution levels.

Restaurants in the region have already removed fish from their menus, and the alarm has spread south as far as Belgrade, which lies on the Danube.

Original article