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Romania: Dispute Grows As Cyanide Spill Reaches Danube

Cyanide that escaped from a mining operation in northwestern Romania has been moving down rivers in Romania, Hungary, and Serbia for the last two weeks. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines the competing international claims being raised now that the poison has reached a major European waterway: the Danube.

Prague, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- An international dispute over a cyanide spill at a Romanian goldmine is heating up amid conflicting claims about the extent of environmental damage and who is ultimately responsible.

The spill occurred late last month in the northwestern Romanian city of Baia Mare. It has since poisoned rivers in Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, killing thousands of fish in its wake as it moved first along the Tisza river and then along the Danube. The cyanide is expected to reach Bulgaria in diluted quantities by Thursday. Officials in Kyiv say they expect it to reach Danube channels in Moldova and Ukraine in two weeks.

Serbia's Environment Minister Branislav Blazic yesterday (Tuesday) called the cyanide spill the worst environmental disaster to hit eastern Europe since the 1986 accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. On Monday, Belgrade shut down water-processing plants on the Danube and banned residents along the river from using the water or catching its fish. Blazic says the entire ecosystem in the Tisza has been destroyed and will take 10 to 15 years to recover. He says Yugoslavia will sue the Romanian and Australian owners of the goldmine where the spill occurred.

But the Romanian government, which owns 45 percent of the mining project, has rejected the legal threats by Belgrade. Anton Vlad, Bucharest's deputy minister of the environment, says once the cyanide passed from the Tisza river into the Danube, the contamination was greatly reduced:

"Yugoslavia's reaction was rather propagandistic. Romania is a responsible state that has in no way ever declined its obligations as set forth by international treaties to which it is a party. Threats such as suing Romania at The Hague (international court) are just propaganda. As for Hungary, it thanked us officially for the prompt and correct way we reacted to the crisis."

Hungarian government spokesman Horvath Gabor told RFE/RL it is too early to determine who is at fault for the spill. But he confirmed that Budapest also plans to claim financial compensation.

"There is a process in which the responsibility is to be identified. We do not yet know who is responsible, but the Hungarian government's firm intention is to claim for damages for this environmental catastrophe, whoever will be found responsible for causing it."

A spokesman for the private Australian company that owns 50 percent of the mining project told RFE/RL today that there is no conclusive evidence the firm is responsible. Chris Codrington, of the Perth-based Esmeralda Explorations company says the thousands of dead fish may have been killed by something else -- but he did not suggest any other possible causes, saying that any such statements would be speculation.

Codrington says his firm is awaiting reports from Romanian and Hungarian authorities. Environmental analysts employed by Esmeralda Explorations arrived in Romania yesterday and also will file their own reports. Codrington says:

"We are skeptical as to the suggestion that the pollution has been caused by the ... dam spill. Cyanide dilutes very quickly. To suggest that it's traveled the distance through Hungary and now people are claiming that it's affecting the Danube in Serbia, on face value, our environmental information is that [this] verges on the ludicrous. We would rather wait until we get the environmental experts' assessment of it."

Codrington admits that cyanide-tainted water from his company's gold-extracting operations escaped from a reservoir and flowed into a Romanian stream that eventually runs into the Tisza River. But his description of the spill differs in one key respect from the story told by his Romanian state partners -- whether or not part of the dam designed by the Australian firm ruptured. Codrington says the dam stayed intact:

"There was a spill. There was no structural damage whatsoever. I stress that there was no structural damage. The weather conditions in this part of the world have been extreme. The worst for 25 years, we're told. Three meters of snow had accumulated on the ceiling of the dam. And then there was a sudden rise in temperature, and of course, the snow melted, causing a rise in water levels -- hence the spill."

This contrasts with a statement by the Romanian environmental ministry, saying melting snow ruptured the dam and caused a breech in the structure that was 25 meters wide. Ministry spokeswoman Carla Chivu said the rupture was repaired by Romanian state employees.

If the case is taken to court, the issue of a possible design flaw in the dam could determine whether the Australian company is ultimately responsible for damages.