Major cyanide spill hits Romania, Hungary

Region's "worst pollution incident" kills wildlife, forces closure of drinking water supplies

A large spill of cyanide-bearing water from a Romanian mine has contaminated hundreds of kilometres of rivers downstream in Hungary and killed thousands of fish in what has been described as the region's worst environmental pollution incident. Hungarian environment minister Pal Pepo today met his Romanian counterpart to discuss the situation.

The spill occurred on 30 January at the Baia Mare tailings retreatment mine, where residues from previous mining activities are being treated with cyanide to extract an estimated total resource of 480,000 ounces of gold and 2.2m ounces of silver. The mine is managed by Australian firm Esmeralda Exploration, which half owns the operation along with Romanian state-owned company Remin.

An estimated 100,000 cubic metres of waters containing about 30 parts per million (ppm) cyanide spilt into the Lapus River when a tailings dam was overwhelmed by flooding. The Lapus flows into the Somos, which becomes the Szamos on crossing into Hungary. This then joins the Tisza, which runs across the whole of the eastern half of Hungary before crossing into Serbia and joining the Danube east of Novi Sad.

According to Hungarian news agency reports, the cyanide pollution of the Tisza has caused the greatest extermination of fish in central Europe ever. Interviewed by ENDS Daily, Pal Varga of Hungary's national authority for environment and nature conservation confirmed the scale of the accident, describing it as certainly the largest for 30 years.

Towns along the Tisza have been forced to close their water intakes as the plug of pollution approached. By today, this had reached Szolnok in central Hungary, whose 80,000 inhabitants are currently without water. The pollution is expected to reach the Serbian border by tomorrow, although one news agency report today suggested that it had already done so.

Nevertheless, the worst point of the incident now appears to have been passed. According to Dr Varga, cyanide concentrations fell to 0.4ppm by the time the pollution reached Szolnok and are expected to fall further as other tributaries join the Tisza. The World Health Organisation limit for cyanide in drinking water is 0.1ppm.

Follow Up:
Hungarian environment ministry, tel: +36 1 457 3300; Esmeralda Exploration, whose web site includes a map and information on the Baia Mare mine project.

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