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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cyanide Spill

Air Date: Week of

A massive cyanide spill from a Romanian goldmine is contaminating waterways throughout Eastern Europe. As the governments of Hungary and Yugoslavia seek compensation, hundreds of tons of fish have already been killed and tens of thousands of fishermen may be out of work for years. From Szolnok (SZOL-nock), Hungary, Cindy Shiner reports.


KNOY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy, sitting in for Steve Curwood. People in Eastern Europe are struggling this week with what one government official calls the worst ecological disaster to hit the region since the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident 14 years ago. Strained by rain and snow, the floodgates of the Baia Mare gold mine in Romania burst open on January 30th. Millions of gallons of wastewater escaped from a dam near the mine. The water is tainted with cyanide, a deadly chemical used in the mining process. Right now a cyanide plume is flowing down the Tisza and Danube rivers, through Hungary and Yugoslavia, killing thousands of fish and threatening the food supply and drinking water for millions of people. Cindy Shiner reports from the town of Szolnok in Hungary.

(Beeps; background conversation)

SHINER: Fish merchant Imray Borbiro is ringing up one of her few sales of the day. She says business has dropped by 95 percent in the past week. Customers tentatively walk by her shop in a market in the eastern industrial town of Szolnok, suspiciously eyeing the glistening fish in the window.

(Background conversations)

SHINER: One customer only half-jokingly asks if the fish has cyanide in it. Another customer has more confidence that the fish swimming in Borbiro's tank are safe.

(A sales receipt prints out)

SHINER: After all, these fish are still alive.


SHINER: Living fish are a rare sight these days as hundreds of tons of dead fish have already been hauled from the rivers of eastern and southern Hungary. The cyanide that killed them is a common ingredient in mining, used to leach small amounts of gold from rock. The Australian company involved in the accident, Esmeralda Exploration, stored its used cyanide in large pools of water, but recent heavy rain and snow caused the pools to overflow, releasing more than 26 million gallons of cyanide-tainted water. So far the contamination has made its way more than 250 miles downstream, into the Tisza and Danube rivers in Hungary and Yugoslavia. For its part, Esmeralda Exploration says the damage isn't as great as reported and refuses to accept any responsibility. Spokesman Chris Codrington.

CODRINGTON: What we're saying is yes, there has been contamination. But the extent of that contamination as reported out of the region, we believe there's absolutely no evidence to link that to the tailings dam overflow.

SHINER: Gabor Koller with Hungary's Environment Ministry says that's simply not true.

KOLLER: [Speaks in Hungarian]

TRANSLATOR: What it is all about is that the Australian parent company says that we Hungarians just over-exaggerate the situation and the damage that happened to Hungary. But I think that the company should take much better care of how they function so as not to cause any danger to anyone.

SHINER: Environmental experts from the European Union and the United Nations are assessing the damage, which could give weight to Hungary's complaints. So far, no human illnesses or deaths linked to the spill have been reported. But officials are urging more than two million people to avoid drinking water or eating contaminated fish from the region. In the meantime, Hungarian officials are sealing the fish in protective covers and burying them. In response to perceived negligence, Hungary has threatened three lawsuits: one against Esmeralda, another against its Romanian partner, and another targeting the Romanian government.


SHINER: Here on the Tisza River in Szolnok, small boats rest upside-down on the shores and hardly a ripple disturbs the water. The roughly 200 families in the city who made their living from fishing in the river are just as still, their livelihoods washed away. Throughout the region as many as 15,000 fishermen may be out of work for years.

RATZ: [Speaks in Hungarian]

SHINER: Sixty-year-old Mehi Adolf Ratz has been fishing on the Tisza for three decades. As he gazes upstream from a cement overlook, Ratz becomes emotional. He's lost his greatest pleasure: fishing in the river of his home town in his retirement years.

RATZ: [Speaks in Hungarian]

SHINER: Unfortunately, that's the way it is, he says. Then he turns his head, as tears fall from his eyes onto his plaid flannel shirt.

RATZ: [Speaks in Hungarian]

SHINER: I can see that I'm not going to fish in my lifetime any more. It's unclear when people like Ratz will be able to fish safely in the Tisza again. Environmental officials say they don't expect full assessments to be completed until the end of March, because one of the contaminated rivers is still partially frozen. Hungary's Environment Ministry has set up a rehabilitation group for the Szamos and Tisza Rivers region to help bring the environment back to life. But that's little consolation to the already-impoverished communities that derive their livelihoods from these waters. For Living on Earth, I'm Cindy Shiner in Szolnok, Hungary.



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