Cyanide spill compared to Chernobyl's N-disaster

Published: Monday, Feb. 14 2000 10:25 a.m. MST

BUDAPEST, Hungary — A cyanide spill that polluted two European rivers will "poison the whole food chain" for years to come, a Hungarian environmental official said Monday.

Zoltan Illes, the head of Hungary's environmental committee in parliament, repeated assertions that the spill that contaminated the Danube and Tisa rivers represents "the biggest environmental catastrophe since Chernobyl," the world's worst nuclear accident.

"The fact that heavy metals also got into the rivers means an even worse problem" than the cyanide, he said in a television interview. "It will poison the whole food chain."

Illes spoke a day after the cyanide spill reached Yugoslavia's stretch of the Danube, leaving dead fish in its wake. Even as the poison diminished to non-lethal levels, Serbian officials said they would sue those responsible in an international court.

The European Union Commission said Monday it was ready to help Hungary and Romania deal with the cyanide spill.

The spill originated in northwestern Romania, where a dam at the Baia Mare gold mine overflowed Jan. 30, causing cyanide to pour into streams.

A cyanide solution is used to separate gold ore from surrounding rock.

The polluted water flowed west into Hungary and then to Yugoslavia, a federation made up of the republics of Serbia and Montenegro.

Witnesses said parts of the Danube were "all white with the bellies of dead fish," the Beta news agency reported.

The poison destroyed virtually all aquatic life in the Tisa River before entering the Danube, Serbian officials said. The Tisa is one of the country's major rivers.

The Tisa River "has been killed. Not even bacteria have survived," Serbian Environment Minister Bratislav Blazic told The Associated Press as he toured the affected area. Local volunteers were collecting dead fish for burial in efforts to isolate some of the lethal substance.

"We will demand an estimation of the damage and ... that the culprits for this tragedy be punished," Blazic said.

Hungary's environment minister, Pal Pepo, visited the Baia Mare mine. He was joined by Anton Vlad, Romania's deputy environment minister.

Pepo again asked for compensation for damage to Hungarian waters and wildlife. Romania is waiting for experts from both countries to assess the damage, Vlad said, according to the national news agency Rompres.

In Perth, Australia, the gold mining company being blamed for the pollution, Esmeralda Exploration Ltd., said today that reports that the overflow was affecting waters in Yugoslavia "defied scientific logic."

A spokesman for Esmeralda said the company, which owns half of the Baia Mare mine, stood by its comments that "the facts coming out of Hungary are grossly exaggerated." He said Esmeralda had "its own team of environmental consultants" in Europe assessing the situation.

After the waste entered the Danube on Sunday afternoon, the concentration of cyanide dropped below lethal levels, Serbian officials said. Experts said there was no threat to Belgrade, and the Serbian Agricultural Ministry claimed all traces of toxins would disappear by Tuesday.

But earlier measurements showed cyanide levels 20 times higher than an acceptable maximum. Predrag Prolic, head of the Chemistry and Toxicology faculty at Belgrade University, said it had "destroyed life in the Tisa for years to come."

And although the cyanide levels were decreasing, the effects were still visible today. Scattered groups of up to a dozen dead fish floated down the Danube, reaching the Serbian capital by midday.

Beta said that at Vinca, further downstream, water pumps were shot off as a precaution and trucks were planning to deliver drinking water to the suburb.

Prolic said that beside aquatic life, birds feeding off fish and wildlife are also at risk and the poisoned water can filter into the soil, grass, grain and livestock.

The fertile plains of Serbia's north are the country's breadbasket. Water from the Tisa is traditionally used for irrigation.

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