It's being called "the greatest environmental catastrophe since Chernobyl."
A massive cyanide spill from a gold-mining operation in northern Romania has eradicated all river life for 250 miles of the Tisza River, and is now moving through the Danube, Europe's longest river. It's estimated that 15,000 fishermen may be out of work for years, if not decades. The drinking water for some 2 million people is temporarily contaminated.
United Nations scientists began testing the Danube for pollution levels on Feb. 15, while officials in neighboring Yugoslavia and Hungary demanded compensation for the damages. As the pollutants - cyanide and probably a mix of heavy metals - move downstream toward the Black Sea, the full extent of the damage is not yet clear. But the scale of the disaster is setting off new warning bells about the need for better oversight and cooperation on ecological issues in post-Communist Eastern Europe.
"Much like Chernobyl, this situation is one where the Western world has no regulation," says Tom Popper, an information specialist with the Regional Environmental Center in Hungary. "This one just came to light. But how many more sloppy operations are out there waiting to blow up in Europe's face?"
The World Wide Fund for Nature, a group based in Switzerland, has urged the Romanian and Hungarian governments to provide full and immediate access to experts who can evaluate the environmental impact of the spill.
"It now seems clear that despite the danger to people living on the rivers' banks and wildlife living in the river and depending on it, news of the spill was not immediately made public," the WWF said in a statement.
"This spill has, in practical terms, eradicated all life from a stretch of up to [250 miles] of the Tisza river," adds Gyirgy Gado, WWF Conservation director in Hungary. "The time for the two governments to act is now.... We first need to move quickly to properly assess the level of the damage, secondly implement a recovery plan, and thirdly start looking at what needs to be done to prevent similar accidents in future."
The Jan. 30 spill originated on Romanian soil at a joint Australian-Romanian operated mine in Baia Mare. It reached the Hungarian border several days later via the Tisza, progressing through Yugoslavia and into the Danube. The wave of polluted water is expected to reach the Bulgarian section of the Danube this week.
A major disaster
Already, some 650 tons of dead fish have been hauled from the Tisza, with the figure expected to double by next week. The fish are being buried or destroyed quickly, lest birds and other creatures feed on them. In northern Yugoslavia, media reports said police were guarding open markets, to ensure that Tisza fish were not being brought in for sale.
"The entire ecosystem and all life in the Tisza have been destroyed for the next 10 or 15 years," said Branislav Blazic, the Serbian environment minister, on Feb. 15.
The spill could have occurred anywhere in the developing world, say analysts. It all starts with a lousy economy. Combine a poor country desperate for foreign investment, with lax or non-existent environmental laws, and you have a recipe for trouble.
The world is obliged to stand back and respect a state's sovereignty, even when, as in this case, there is cross-border impact.
"We certainly, as an international body, cannot impose anything," says a UN official in Geneva who requested anonymity. "We can guide, propose, offer expertise, suggest help. But we cannot enforce anything."
Consequently, foreigners resort to carrot-and-stick negotiations. The European Union is alarmed by the so-called "Soviet-style" nuclear reactors, generally similar to the one at the center of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in what is now Ukraine. The reactors are a cheap but potentially dangerous source of energy in Lithuania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
The EU is pressing these countries to "decommission" and replace these reactors, an enormously costly proposition.
"The carrot is EU membership and financial assistance," says Mr. Popper. "The stick is no EU membership."
Developed vs. developing
In previous mining spills, responses have been very different in the developing and developed world.
The Romanian disaster is comparable in size and environmental impact to one that occurred in 1992 at the Summitville mine in Colorado. The spill of cyanide and heavy metals killed all life along 17 miles of the Alamosa river.
The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates cleanup costs will top $170 million.
The Canadian company that operated the mine declared bankruptcy when sued for damages by affected residents and the state.
In mid-1995, a dam burst near the Omai gold-mining operation in Guyana, creating a 45-mile bright red plume on the tainted Essequibo River, a source of fish and drinking water for the area.
The government of the tiny South American state distributed drinking water to affected villages, and the mainly Canadian-owned mining company gave out limited compensation.
Six months later, the mine reopened.
Back at the Tisza River, the UN Environmental Program on Feb. 14 instructed its experts in the region - part of the Balkans Task Force investigating environmental pollution caused by the NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia last spring - to take water samples from the Danube. EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wahlstrm will visit the region for a closer look on Feb. 17.
Romanian and Australian officials deny responsibility for the cyanide spill, and describe reports of the Tisza's death as "grossly exaggerated."
Australia's Esmeralda Exploration Ltd. and the Romanian state-owned company, Aural, were using a controversial technique known as leaching to extract gold in Baia Mare, in northwest Romania, a region mined for more than 60 years.
Workers were mixing cyanide and water, a method first developed in Scotland in 1887. It reportedly allows for roughly 97 percent gold recovery, encouraging some companies to scavenge in nearly spent mines.
However, cyanide is also an extremely deadly poison. While it breaks down relatively quickly when exposed to sunlight, evidence suggests it can persist in ground water and in mine tailings or abandoned leach heaps, especially where alkaline conditions are maintained.
Scientists say long-term health effects on humans are inconclusive, but correlations have been observed between chronic low-level cyanide intake and specific diseases.
At its peak, there was 20 times the permissible level of cyanide in the Tisza. And more than fish, the contamination destroyed the river's entire "food chain," from bacteria on up. Even if the river were restocked with fish, they would die without the ecological hierarchy in place, says Popper.
It will take years for the ecosystem to rebuild completely. But Hungarians welcomed the news that living mayfly larvae and healthy fish were found on the upper Tisza on Feb. 14, raising hopes that life would return to the river.
*Material from the wire services was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society