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Romania: Hungary Complains About Second Toxic Spill

Romania's environmental record is again under attack after a second ecological disaster within six weeks at mines in the northern part of the country. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz examines the controversy.

Prague, 14 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- International pressure is mounting on Romania to address environmental concerns after two mining disasters within six weeks that have destroyed the ecology of rivers in neighboring states.

Most fish and micro-organisms in the lower reaches of the Tisza River in Hungary were killed in late January by a spill of cyanide-tainted water from a mine reservoir in northern Romania. The poison eventually worked its way into the Danube River, with dangerous levels measured in Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Moldova. On Friday (March 10), the collapse of a dam at another Romanian mine sent 20,000 tons of water laced with heavy metals into an upper stretch of the Tisza River along Romania's borders with Ukraine and Hungary. This was an area that had not been polluted by the earlier spill.

Both accidents occurred while the Bucharest government was putting the finishing touches on its strategy for accession to the European Union. An outline of the strategy must be submitted to Brussels by Wednesday (March 15) in order for Romania to join substantive EU membership talks. The government's blueprint had focused mostly on economic criteria, but there are now increased calls for Bucharest to address environmental issues as well.

Of Romania's neighbors, Hungary has been hit hardest by the spills, and is demanding immediate action from both the EU and the United Nations. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban says he hopes the pressure will force Romania to sign an agreement on environmental protection with his government.

Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Istvan Horvath says having two accidents within such a short time raises questions about Romania's safeguards. At Hungary's request, the EU has sent a team of experts into northern Romania in an effort to prevent further catastrophes.

Yesterday (Sunday), Romanian Environment Minister Romica Tomescu identified an additional 41 Romanian mining sites that pose dangers to the region's environment. The admission came only after continued complaints from Hungary that Romanian officials have tried to hide the extent of danger posed by unsafe mining operations.

Shandor Pal, an RFE/RL correspondent in Hungary, has been tracking the latest spill as lead and zinc contaminants move along the Tisza River. He reports:

"The residues containing heavy metals have entered Hungarian territory and the pollution is spreading along the Tisza River -- stretching to a length of 72 to 80 kilometers. The advance of this spill is being tracked by aerial photography."

Friday's spill occurred after melting snow and torrential rains combined to create the worst flooding in northern Romania in 30 years. At the Baia Borsa mine, about 425 kms northwest of Bucharest, a dam burst and sent tainted water from a mine reservoir into the Vaser River. The Vaser enters the Tisza near the Ukrainian-Romanian border.

January's spill, too, occurred when rain and melting snow caused a reservoir dam to burst at Baia Mare, to the west of Baia Borsa. In the area around Baia Mare, the presence of 11 mines and three factories has created long-term health hazards. The average life expectancy for residents near Baia Mare is 63 -- six years less than the national average. And workers in Baia Mare are 30 times more likely to suffer a job-related disease than workers in Bucharest, where about 10 percent of Romania's industry is concentrated.

Romania and its neighbors are seeking funds from the EU and other multilateral institutions to help clean up environmental hazards left from decades of mining under communist central planning -- when output meant more than quality and the environment counted for little.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or EBRD, says some of these cleanup efforts can be financed with funds from the privatization of mines and smelters. As an example, the EBRD cites a deal reached by the Belgian firm Union Miniere when it purchased Bulgaria's MDK-Pirdop copper refinery in late 1997.

One of Union Miniere's chief concerns at the time was a reservoir containing 500,000 tons of arsenic and metal-tainted sludge. Years of accumulated pollution in the pool was held back by a single, not very strong dam.

Afraid that the collapse of the dam would devastate the region's agriculture and environment, the Belgian company insisted that $25 million from its eventual $400-million investment be put into a special account. The Bulgarian government can use the funds only to clean up environmental problems caused by MDK's 40 years as a major polluter.

Philippe Rombaud, executive director for Union Miniere in Bulgaria, said his firm never would have purchased MDK-Pirdop without Sofia's commitment to the special account. Once the sale was finalized, one of Union Miniere's first steps was to demolish unused buildings at the smelter and use the rubble to reinforce the dam.