Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 7
21 February 2000

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I Ţ A:
Gold and Cyanide

Catherine Lovatt

Potassium cyanide is a crystal. Once that crystal comes into contact with water, it dissolves becoming a danger to all living organisms. Cyanide kills. In Romania, on 31 January 2000, cyanide from the gold smelting plant, Aurul SA, leaked into the Hungarian river Tisza. The effects were immediate.

Hundreds of dead fish have been found floating in the Tisza, a tributary of the Danube. More fish have been discovered in the Danube, drifting towards Belgrade, probably from the Tisza. However, pollution from the spillage is affecting the Danube further north. Cyanide starves all living organisms of oxygen, killing them almost instantaneously. The biological life of the Tisza has been destroyed and many animals feeding from the river have been killed. Wildlife is suffering but the long term effects may be cause for still greater concern. The Regional Environmental Centre near Budapest has reported that the spill has also released heavy metals such as lead. These metals collect along the riverbeds and banks causing long term environmental damage. Tom Popper from the Centre said that: "this is something that is going to have to be watched for a long time." (Reuters, 15 February 2000)

Aurul is situated in Baia Mare in Northern Romania. The spillage occurred after poor weather conditions complicated repairs to the protective wall of a dam. The majority owner of the company, with 50% of the shares, is an Australian organisation, Esmeralda Exploration Ltd. The Romanian government holds 45% of shares and the remaining 5% are privately owned. The disaster has brought mixed reactions from both main shareholders but with very different official lines.

Hungary has blamed Romania for the ecological disaster and Romania has taken responsibility. Petre Roman, the Romanian Foreign Minister stated that: "the Romanian government has shown full readiness to examine the consequences of this serious ecological accident" (Reuters, 15 February 2000). Romania is attempting to improve its image as a post-Communist polluter - a move that is considered necessary for their integration into the European Union. There are fears that the disaster could delay accession talks. However, the Romanian acceptance of their part in the disaster could put Romania in a more positive light. Anton Vlad, State Secretary for the Romanian Ministry of Water, Forestry and the Environment has admitted that: "this is one of the worst accidents and it definitely affects the country's reputation, but we alerted Hungary immediately and they have acknowledged that, and our environmental legislation now complies 90% with that of the EU" (Reuters, 10 February 2000). The EU have taken on board the Romanian attitude and are considering whether to allocate some funds to help clean up the environment. Nonetheless, the offer of assistance may be out of greater concern for the situation of a country vying to enter the EU.

Romania and Hungary have agreed to co-operate to resolve the problem and to arrive at a level of compensation that reflects the damage to the ecological system. Unfortunately, the Australian company have refused to take responsibility. An official statement issued by the Perth based company showed extreme scepticism, questioning if cyanide was to blame and offering the cold weather conditions as a reason for the vast amount of dead wildlife. Brett Montgomery, chairman of Esmeralda stated that: "It is most unlikely that given the volume of water and the distance travelled that the cyanide levels would be such to cause poisoning. In fact, it is quite possible that a number of unrelated events could be responsible." (Reuters, 10 February 2000). Esmeralda Exploration will be sending their own team of environmental experts to prove their innocence. This has angered a Hungarian delegation investigating the incident: "We can count the dead fish and it's sure that the fish did not die of pneumonia." The Australian company have also failed to acknowledge reports from the Romanian Environment Ministry that cyanide levels in the Tisza were 700 times the normal level.

The severity of the disaster has raised the issue of liability. Although the Romanians are co-operating with the Hungarians, Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister, has announced that Hungary is considering three trials to claim compensation and to assess liability. Firstly, from the Australian owner of the firm, then the Romanian-Australian firm. Finally, there is the possibility of suing the Romanian state. This latter possibility has sparked disappointment from the Romanian government. Petre Roman commented that Hungary's intention represents a "regrettable political act." (Monitorul, 17 February 2000). The politicisation of the ecological disaster could damage Hungarian-Romanian relations that have been a focus of attention for both governments in their attempts to join the EU. This is a situation that Romania will wish to avoid.

The cyanide spillage from the Romanian based Aurul SA can be considered the worst ecological disaster in the region since Cernobyl in 1986. The environment has been seriously damaged: the immediate effects are apparent, but, the long term effects are yet to be discovered. The Romanian government has acted in a responsible and open manner, contradicting the attitude of their Australian partner. Cross-border pollution on such a scale damages not only wildlife but local economies and society, straining political relations. At present, Romanian-Hungarian relations are positive despite the extreme environmental degradation. However, legal complexities coupled with financial costs and unrealised ecological damage could infringe upon future political relations.

Catherine Lovatt, 17 February 2000

Archive of Catherine Lovatt's articles on Romania and Moldova


Esmeralda Exploration has published several statements on the spillage.



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