Cyanide spill prompts calls for policy changes

Prodi suggests creating permanent European civil protection force, revising accident response rules

The European Commission said today that it might create a permanent task force to provide rapid assistance in response to environmental catastrophes. The statement, by Commission president Romano Prodi, was in response to the cyanide spill in Romania that has contaminated hundreds of kilometres of rivers running through Romania, Hungary and now Serbia (ENDS Daily 10 February).

Speaking in the European Parliament, Mr Prodi said the disaster had shown that a European civil protection force was "urgently needed". A spokesperson said the idea had been discussed "for some time," and suggested that such a force could be created from the Commission environment directorate's existing civil protection network.

Meanwhile, the European Environment Agency has described the accident as a "worst case scenario" for the region's rivers. The agency said its own research had found that the 100,000 cubic metres of water that escaped from the Baia Mare mine contained 126 parts per million cyanide - four times higher than first indications.

Serbian news agencies are reporting cyanide concentrations down to World Health Organisation safe levels by the time the pollution reached Belgrade, but concern is now being raised over the much more persistent effects of lead and mercury also released from the Romanian gold mine. The UN Environment Programme has pledged assistance by diverting experts from its Balkans Task Force to help assess the extent of the pollution.

Hungary and Serbia have both said they will claim damages from Romania, though an EU Commission spokesperson said the legal basis for such claims appeared "very limited so far." She also suggested EU rules for preventing similar accidents - contained in the so-called Seveso II directive - might be revised in the wake of the disaster. Mining operations are currently exempted from the law.

EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström will travel to the afflicted region tomorrow for talks with the Romanian and Hungarian environment ministers on how to tackle the spill's effects. Neither country has as yet requested either practical or financial aid from the EU.

Meanwhile, the UN Economic Commission for Europe said today that it hoped the disaster would spur the countries involved into setting up cooperative early-warning and response frameworks, as occurred along the River Rhine following the Sandoz chemical factory fire in 1986.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; UN/ECE, tel: +41 22 917 4444. European Environment Agency, tel: +45 33 36 71 00.

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