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East: Cyanide Spill Points To Mining Safety Failures

  • Tony Wesolowsky

A cyanide spill at a Romanian gold mine last month that has been described as an environmental disaster has put the spotlight on the mining industry. RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky looks at the disturbing questions the spill raises about safety and the likelihood of more such accidents.

Prague, 24 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The toxic spill of cyanide that has killed thousands of fish in the Danube River came from a gold mine in Romania.

After heavy rains and snows, a dam at the Baia Mare gold mine overflowed late last month (Jan. 30), unleashing toxic sludge laced with cyanide and heavy metals into Romania's Lapus and Somes rivers. The sludge -- according to environmentalists' estimates, 100,000 cubic meters of it -- flowed into Hungary's Tisza River before finally reaching the Danube in Yugoslavia.

Virtually all aquatic life in Hungary's upper Tisza river died as a result, including literally hundreds of tons of fish. Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia are demanding compensation.

The mine's part owner, the Australian company Esmeralda, has said the overflow was caused by heavy rain and snow, rather than a structural failure. And the firm denies that the leak is an environmental disaster.

But ecological experts accuse Esmeralda and their Romanian partners of failing to take the necessary safety measures to avert the accident. They say the Romanian spill is only the latest in a series involving toxic mining waste. Mining specialists says such accidents could be averted if the industry paid more attention to safety. UN environmental expert Pekka Haavisto recently visited the site of the accident with European Union Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom. Haavisto, who heads the UN Environment Program's Balkans Task Force, says he was shocked to find there were not sufficient safeguards in place to hold back the spillage after the dam had broken.

The sludge that spilled into the rivers was highly toxic. In much industrial gold mining, after larger chunks of gold are mined, cyanide is used to extract the smallest bits of the precious metal. The cyanide is mixed in with mining-waste ore, which causes gold to precipitate out. The leftover, cyanide-laced waste -- called tailings -- go into a tailing lagoon, or dam. This toxic sludge is immersed in water to prevent it from turning to dust and releasing toxic metals like cadmium and mercury into the air.

Jane Madgwick, a water expert with the World-Wide Fund for Nature, says the need for water in mining operations means the tailings lagoons are normally situated near key water sources like wetlands and rivers. That, she says, is an arrangement that invites disaster. But it's a risk, she adds, that the mining industry appears willing to take:

"I think it really is accepted by the mining industry that accidents do happen, and occasionally there are over-spills, such as in Romania, simply due to heavy snowfall. I mean, these are risks that can be anticipated. But the mining industry seems quite laid back about these risks -- unlike [other] industries, like the municipal waste disposal industry, storage industries, [which] have a whole series of risk-assessment procedures and make sure that the best available technology is implemented. "

Stephen D'Esposito, the president of the U.S.-based Mineral Policy Center -- an independent ecological group -- says the structure of the tailings dams do little to instill confidence: "People would be shocked, if they realized that ... when we construct dams to hold back water, we make them out of concrete and they look [like] 'sure' facilities. When they construct a tailings dam that contains waste and, in some cases, water that is laced with chemicals -- like cyanide and contain heavy metals -- and may produce acid, we basically make these dams out of earthen materials and what they amount to is, they're large engineering experiments, that's what they are."

Such "experiments" have brought disastrous results, and not only to Romania. Two years ago, a dam-burst at a mine in Spain released five million tons of toxic sludge, causing an ecological disaster affecting the Guadimar River and the Do-ana wetland in the south of the country. In 1986, a spill into the Sandoz River polluted 500 kilometers of the Rhine. In 1992, the Alamosa River in the U.S. state of Colorado was badly contaminated when a mine dam holding cyanide-laced water spilled into the river. The pollution killed all life within 27 kilometers of the Alamosa River system.

D'Esposito says the spill in Romania's Baia Mare closely resembles the one in Colorado:

"As we speak here in 2000, the cleanup [in Colorado] is still ongoing and the [government's] Environmental Protection Agency here in the United States estimates the cleanup costs will be at least $170 million. Certainly, the spill in Romania is of that magnitude, and clean-up and reclamation costs are likely to be high."

Many environmentalists and mining experts say a lot of these accidents could have been prevented. Paul Younger, a mining expert at Britain's Newcastle University, says the precautions prevent cyanide from leaking out of mine sites all over the world are simple and, in his words, "amount to basic plumbing." He says better safety planning at the outset could have spared Central Europe from the mining accident in Romania:

"To me, it's not good enough to just call it an accident when it occurs in Central Europe. You know, it's not an accident, it has to be bad design at the outset."

EU officials met yesterday in Brussels with representatives of the mining industry to discuss improving safety operations. After the Romanian disaster, the mining industry may be more ready to listen.