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UN: Experts Fear Huge Impact Of Cyanide Spill

A team of UN experts says cyanide levels are diminishing throughout afflicted areas of the Danube River nearly three weeks after a spill from a Romanian gold mine. The full impact of the spill is not yet known but the experts say it already has had devastating effects. UN correspondent Robert McMahon spoke with UN officials on the latest developments.

United Nations, 21 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Experts from the UN Environment Program's Balkan Task Force reported late Friday that cyanide levels throughout the Serbian part of the Danube show no immediate threat to human health.

But thousands of fish have died in the spill and the impact to the ecosystem of the affected river areas is feared to be great.

A member of the UN team, Peter Literathy, told our correspondent in a telephone interview late Friday from Belgrade that more tests were planned for the Danube and other areas of the spill. He said it will take some time to gauge the long-term impact.

"We do not have a detailed assessment on the remaining damage on the ecosystem because the cyanide itself is moving down and I would say that it finally disappears. But the effect which remains for the long term, this requires further assessment because no one can say without a real detailed survey how much is the damage. When we know this, then we can make a forecast on how long it will take to revitalize the system."

The spill occurred when a containment dam broke late last month at the Baia Mare gold mine in Romania, sending an estimated 100 tons of cyanide and tons of toxic heavy metals pouring into streams. The spill passed through Hungary and Yugoslavia via the Szamos and Tisza rivers and then returned to Romania and moved on to Bulgaria via the Danube.

Literathy, who is a water pollution expert based in Hungary, said based on the latest tests, it appeared the cyanide levels were rapidly becoming diluted as the main body of the spill moves down the Danube. He recommended that Romanian and Bulgarian officials take steady readings to note the dilution level.

"It is now moving downwards and now I think this plume, which might be 60 to 70 kilometers long, with travel is always continually diluted. So I think after a few days time, already the dilution rate will be so high in the Romanian and Bulgarian sectors that basically it will be at acceptable concentration levels."

The head of Literathy's team spoke more alarmingly about the spill, telling Reuters in an interview that it is a "total catastrophe" for aquatic life and flora and fauna in the rivers it affected. UN Environmental Program task force leader Pekka Haavisto said the spill is comparable to the accident in 1986 which polluted hundreds of kilometers of the Rhine river and to a mining accident which polluted a big delta area in Spain a couple of years ago.

Haavisto said there will need to be stricter rules in the mining sector in countries of this region to avoid such accidents in the future.

In Geneva, meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) Feb. 18 called for a review of environment and health regulatory standards related to precious metal mining in Europe.

A UN spokeswoman in New York, Marie Okabe, said the WHO referred to the environmental and health problems caused in recent years by spills related to precious metal operations in Kyrgyzstan and Spain.

"WHO notes that of particular concern is that while the headlines are all about cyanide, they know that already elevated metal concentrations, including copper and lead, are being detected and this may have an additional impact on human health."

In Brussels on Friday (Feb. 18), the European Union's environment commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, said she would make a list of potentially dangerous mines in member and candidate states to prevent a recurrence of the kind of spill that has hit the river network in Romania, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria. She also said such a list would not pose an extra obstacle for EU membership for eastern European candidate countries. She said it would help force the countries to take environmental problems seriously.