Swiss call for strengthened European water law

Romanian cyanide spill prompts demand for liability provisions in UN/ECE conventions

Switzerland will push for civil liability rules to be included in pan-European water laws when ministers gather in the Hague for the second World Water Forum next month, the country's environment agency has announced. The agency said that the Baia Mare cyanide spill in Romania on 30 January had demonstrated serious gaps in international environmental law, which governments should fill.

The two international laws targeted by Switzerland are the convention on transboundary effects of industrial accidents and the convention on the protection and use of transfrontier watercourses and international lakes, both finalised in 1992 through the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE). Following the cyanide spill, the European Commission has already complained that some Balkan countries, including Romania, have still not ratified the former convention (ENDS Daily 11 February).

According to the Swiss agency, first indications following the cyanide spill are that it will not be possible to assign responsibility for downstream pollution of the Danube. The Australian firm operating Baia Mare will only be liable for damages in Romania, and downstream countries will have no rights to compensation. "It is unacceptable," said agency director Philippe Roche, "that a company whose headquarters are in an industrialised country should be able to escape responsibility for having polluted a whole river".

Switzerland was at the source of a similar transboundary river pollution incident in 1986 when water used to put out a fire at a Sandoz chemical plant at Schweizerhalle contaminated the Rhine. According to the agency, Switzerland "learned lessons from the catastrophe," which have helped to make industrial operations safer and have given greater confidence to downstream countries.

In a related development, pressure group Friends of the Earth (FoE) International today called on governments and industry to ban "new large-scale toxic gold mines" worldwide, stop using public money to fund such operations and make companies "fully liable for their actions, particularly for clean-up after accidents". "It is infuriating that the Australian company flatly denies responsibility for the obvious damage it has caused," said Jozsef Feiler of FoE Hungary.

Follow Up:
Swiss environment agency, tel: +41 31 322 9311; FoE International, tel: +31 20 622 1369 and daily updates on the Baia Mare disaster posted by FoE Hungary, tel: +36 1 216 7297. See also the World Water Forum.

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