Disastrous Romanian Cyanide Spills Could Have Been Worse

BRUSSELS, Belgium, December 15, 2000 (ENS) - January's Baia Mare mine cyanide spill in northwestern Romania should serve as a wakeup call for regulators and mining companies throughout Europe, the head of a European Union task force set up to investigate the accident said today.

The Report of the International Task Force for Assessing the Baia Mare Accident was issued today in Brussels. Task force chairman Tom Garvey said the leak could have caused a much bigger disaster than it did.

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Fish killed by toxic cyanide that spread through the rivers of Eastern Europe down the Danube to the Black Sea. (Photo courtesy Zöld Pók Hálózat)
The Baia Mare Task Force was established in March by European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström, in agreement with the environment ministers of Hungary and Romania, to investigate the causes of the accidents at Baia Mare and Baia Borsa, and to make recommendations for improvements in regulations which would minimise the risk of such accidents occuring in the future.

"These were disastrous accidents that, under different circumstances, could have had far more serious consequences. In the event nobody died or became seriously ill despite the fact that 120 tonnes of cyanide and 20,000 tonnes of sludge containing heavy metals were released into the river system," Garvey said.

The largest amount of cyanide was spilled from the Aural S.A. gold recovery operation at Baia Mare. The company, half owned by Esmeralda Explorations Ltd. of Perth, Australia and half by the Romanian government, uses cyanide to recover gold from tailings of previous mining operations conducted by the state owned company Remin. The second spill took place at a similar facility in Baia Borsa, Romania.

The report concludes that the accidents were caused by the use of tailings ponds which had no provisions for the emergency discharge of excess water, and by the acceptance of this by the Romanian permitting authorities.

The trigger for the accidents was weather conditions, that while severe, were not unprecedented and which should have been foreseen.

Garvey said that in the case of the cyanide spill near Baia Mare an ice cap covering the rivers for 200 kilometers downstream of the accident site well into Hungary limited the deadly effects of the cyanide.

In the case of the heavy metals spilled from the Novat pond near Baia Borsa, the worst floods in over 100 years dispersed the heavy metals to the extent that present concentrations do not pose a threat to public health. Without these related events, the consequences of the accidents would have been very much worse, the task force warned.

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European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström (Photo courtesy European Commission)
Commissioner Wallstrom today welcomed the release of the final report. "When I created the Task Force I gave them three main tasks. Find out what happened, why and what should be done to reduce the risks for the future. With this report they've fulfilled my demand and we have a clear and concise document which will be accessible to all." She congratulated chairman Garvey for having produced an objective analysis with concrete recommendations that gained the consensus of the whole group.

The latest research conducted on behalf of the Baia Mare Task Force indicates that aquatic life in the Tisa River basin has almost returned to normal. The fish are back, the water is quality is cleared for both fishing and bathing, and many other ecological indicators are favorable.

It is clear, the report says, that significant damage occurred and that continued assessment of the ecological changes is necessary.

"This time we were lucky," declared Garvey "but unless rapid action is taken to tighten the regulatory regime under which such activities are permitted, we may not be so lucky the next time."

The task force report recommends a series of changes in the conditions under which such mining and ore processing are permitted and licensed in the future.

The task force draws attention to the continuing public health and environmental threats resulting from the persistent leakage from already abandoned mining and processing sites. It urges the European Commission to take the lead in developing an inventory of such sites in all parts of Europe.

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Aural gold recovery facility at Baia Mare, Romania (Photo courtesy Esmeralda Explorations Ltd.)
The inventory would assess and prioritize the threat posed by each site, as a first step in reaching international agreement on the remediation and associated financing measures to make these sites safe.

The task force calls for strengthening of pollution monitoring and early warning system in the Danube River basin as a whole. The role, funding, and procedures of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR) be reviewed and enhanced, the task force said.

While paying tribute to the rapid actions taken by the Romanian, Hungarian, and Yugoslav authorities in alerting riverside citizens to the immediate public health dangers of the accidents, the task force calls for an improvement in the general approach of the countries concerned, and the ICPDR, to keep citizens and NGOs informed about the status of such crises.

Relevant European Union legislation should be strengthened and gathered together in an "industry guidance document" for greater transparency and accessibility, the report says.

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Toxic cyanide laced mine waste right after the spill near Baia Mare, January 30, 2000 (Photo courtesy Zöld Pók Hálózat)
WWF, the conservation organisation, called today for immediate implementation of the recommendations.

This has been a laudable initiative and we are very pleased with the comprehensive report that the task force compiled. We expect strong EU and accession country initiatives to tackle these toxic pollution threats. These disasters are completely preventable," said Philip Weller, director of WWF's Danube-Carpathian Programme, who was the NGO participant in the task force.

But the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a Brussels based coalition of 130 member organizations in 24 countries called the findings of the report "disastrous."

Existing European Union legislation would not have prevented an accident like the one of Baia Mare, international conventions lack enforcement, the EEB said. "The quality of EU toxic waste storage sites differs considerably, is often not satisfactory and certainly does not prevent the risk of spills."

Commissioner Wallstrom stressed that the primary responsibility for avoiding environmental disasters lies with the industries operating the installations. The European Commission is pushing ahead with its plans to introduce a strict liability regime for environmental damage based on the polluter pays principle. It intends to adopt a legislative proposal next year.

In addition to chairman Garvey, the Baia Mare Task Force includes representatives from the Romanian Ministry of Waters, Forests and Environmental Protection, the Office of the Government Commissioner of the Tisza-Szamos River in Hungary, the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, WWF-International, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the European Commission.