Romanian waste spill

February 18, 2000

A cyanide-tainted waste spill from an Australian-owned gold mine in Romania threatens an Eastern European political crisis as well as an environmental catastrophe.

Thousands of fish have been killed in the Hungarian river Tisza and water supplies for more than 2.5 million people have been threatened by the discharge of 378,500 litres of contaminated water from a reservoir at the Aurul gold mine at Baia Mare.

An estimated 80 per cent of fish in sections of the Tisza have been killed, a figure the Perth-based co-owner of the mine has disputed.

There is no agreement on compensation for cross-border pollution between Hungary and Romania. But Abby Innes, lecturer in the political sociology of Eastern Europe at the London School of Economics, said the disaster could give both countries a chance to demonstrate high-level diplomacy.

Avoiding ill-feeling - held at bay since the mid-1990s by a mutual cooperation agreement - is likely to be a major factor in the two countries' behaviour, she said.

"I suspect there will be a difference between the way the local media deal with the pollution and the way the elite handle it. Hungary, which wants to join the European Union in two years, will want to demonstrate responsibility. The elite will want to avoid tensions flaring up," Dr Innes said.

But EU specialist Heather Gabbe, a research fellow at Birmingham University's Institute for German Studies, said the threat of an ethnic-political backlash remained.

"Most of the contacts between Romanian and Hungarian officials will be at the level of regional authorities and these people will not have the wider view of those at the top."

Imre Kiricsi of the environmental chemistry department at Szeged University, through which the Tisza runs, said: "Szeged city council has formed a committee in which university professors are involved. They are well equipped to determine water quality." Local radio announced that the river was clean. "Unfortunately I think it is also clean of fishes," Professor Kiricsi said.

Map of waste spill effects not available on this database.

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