Leak Poisons Balkans Relations

Balkan politicians are eager to apportion blame as a massive cyanide spillage wends its way from Romania to the Black Sea.

Leak Poisons Balkans Relations

Balkan politicians are eager to apportion blame as a massive cyanide spillage wends its way from Romania to the Black Sea.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

A cyanide leak, described as Europe's worst ecological disaster since Chernobyl, is spreading social and political turmoil through four Balkan states.


The lethal poison spilled out of a Romanian gold mine, Aurul SA, last month, when heavy snowfalls caused a sewage reservoir to overflow. More than 375,000 litres of contaminated effluent surged into the River Somes, before flowing west into the River Tisza, in neighbouring Hungary. The 250km-long wave is expected to reach the Black Sea, after passing through Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.


"The full extent of the damage may not be known until new vegetation appears in the early spring," said Anton Vlad, a spokesman from the Romanian Environment Ministry.


Over the past month, however, the spillage has affected drinking water supplies for over 2.5 million people and killed 80 per cent of fish in the River Tisza.


The reaction from the local population has ranged from the practical to the mystical. While volunteers have been removing dead fish from the river in a bid to save indigenous bird-life, other communities have been staging candle-lit vigils and mourning processions.


Most Hungarians believe the disaster was caused by Romanian negligence, a mood which found violent expression last month when Hungarian demonstrators smashed windows at the Romanian consulate in Budapest.


Meanwhile, a war of words has erupted between the Balkan governments, with local politicians eager to apportion blame. On February 15, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that Hungary would be demanding compensation from Romania - a move, which Romanian Foreign Minister Petre Roman dismissed as "a purely political act".


Hungarian specialists have estimated the level of pollution in the water at 300 times above the acceptable level. The Romanian government says this figure is vastly exaggerated and has accused Budapest of attempting to inflate future compensation claims.


Yugoslavia is also threatening to sue Romania at the International Court of Justice in The Hague - although most analysts say this move comes largely in retaliation against Romania's support for NATO air strikes on Belgrade last summer.


Romanian officials have been swift to point accusatory fingers at the Australian-owned gold-mining company, Esmeralda Exploration, which has a 50 per cent share in the Baia Mare plant. Government press spokesman Romica Tomescu said the authorities had already filed a lawsuit against the firm.


Zoltan Illes, chairman of Hungary's environment committee, accused Esmeralda Exploration of "using technologies which may well be banned in Western Europe".


The company has denied all charges, claiming that both Romanian and Hungarian authorities have overstated the extent of the damage. Owners claim that the overflow was caused by adverse weather conditions rather than negligence whilst the majority of the fish were killed by bleach used to combat the cyanide spillage.


Local experts are now searching for a means to disintegrate the cyanide, before it reaches the Black Sea delta, an area rich in wildlife. However, Balkan governments are unable to apply for European Union grants to help tackle the pollution as bilateral water agreements between the neighbouring countries do not comply with EU standards.


Twenty-five international experts from the United Nations have been sent to the area to assess the extent of the environmental damage. They will present a fact-finding report to the UN in March, which will be made available to all affected countries and to the European Commission.


Marian Chiriac is news editor of the MediaFax News Agency in Bucharest and editor of Foreign Policy, a quarterly published by the Romanian Academic Society.


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