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Wednesday, 31 January, 2001, 22:18 GMT
One year on: Romania's cyanide spill

A year on from the cyanide leak that caused widespread damage in three countries, Hungary has announced it is to launch a case against the Aurul company which caused the spill.

Nick Thorpe reports from the Romanian town of Baia Mare, where the inhabitants are still suffering the consequences of the disaster.

At dawn, the Carpathian mountains above Baia Mare look the same as they must have done for thousands of years - snowy peaks fringed with forests, tinged with pink light.

But below in the valley an industrial landscape of dead rivers, polluted lands, and sick people unfolds.

Remin, a state-owned mining company, supplies rocks containing metal ores to three partly foreign-owned firms in Baia Mare - gold to Aurul, copper to Allied Phoenix, and lead to Rom-Plumb.

Golden harvest

In the gold-extraction process, rock is smashed to dust, mixed with water, then cyanide is added to "leach" the gold out.

Protests by the River Tisza
The Aurul spill drew mass protests
There is a seam of gold along the foot of the mountains, right next to Baia Mare - it is seven kilometres long, and up to 450 metres thick. But for every tonne of rock quarried from that seam, only 0.6g of gold can be extracted.

From the processing plant in Baia Mare, the cyanide solution is carried by pipe to two above-ground storage lakes, between the villages of Sasar and Bozanta, 12 kilometres south-west of Baia Mare.

It was the largest of these which burst a dyke exactly a year ago, on the night of 30 January 2000, and poured 130,000 cubic metres of cyanide-tainted water into the Lupes, Somes, and eventually the Tisza and Danube rivers.

And as if on cue, just over a week ago, there was a further cyanide spill in north-west Romania. This time the blame is being placed on workers deliberately emptying contaminated material into the river Siret at a bankrupt detergent factory.

It seems there is no let-up in Romania's environmental problems.

Court case

Belgrade fisherman with dead fish from the Danube.
Thousands of fish died in three countries
In Budapest, the government commissioner appointed to deal with last year's disaster, Janos Gonczy, has announced that Hungary will launch a case in the city court against Aurul next month, claiming $100m in damages.

But while the River Tisza in Hungary suffered most visibly from the disaster last year, the Romanians of Baia Mare are still suffering from the daily pollution.

In the village of Sasar, Ana Ghisa scrapes corn off the cob in her yard, to feed her hens and geese. She used to take eggs, milk and vegetables to the market in Baia Mare, but doesn't bother any more, because people refuse to buy when they find out she is from Sasar. "That's polluted," they say, "by Aurul".

Barely 100 metres from her front gate flows the River Sasar - where no fish have been seen since cyanide was first used in gold mining here 60 years ago.


Ana's husband died 11 years ago at the age of 59, after working for many years in a cyanide preparation plant. "The doctor who examined him said it was a work-related illness," she says.

"It's a disaster. Certain mornings you just can't go out of the house, because you feel so sick - your nose and mouth hurt. Mainly the children are affected. The children feel terrible, they're pale, and they often get ill," she says.

The Aurul plant in Romania
The Australian owners seem to have deserted the Aurul plant
As the storage lakes dry out in summer, the cyanide blows across the landscape in the form of dust. Heavy metals from the 350-metre tall smokestack belonging to the copper smelter at Allied Deals Phoenix also blow down on the village.

In the doctor's surgery in Sasar, the waiting room is packed with adults and children. The most common complaint is vomiting. Dr Anca Strempel lists respiratory problems and illnesses of the digestive system as the most frequent cause.

She doesn't blame cyanide directly, but says that all the pollution weakens the immune system, especially in children, and leaves them vulnerable to other illnesses.

Modern factory

The director of Aurul, Iuliu Chiorean, agrees to see us in his office, beside the bright yellow towers of the gold processing factory.

The irony of last year's disaster is that Aurul is the newest factory in the city - the result of an Australian firm's investment. The kangaroo symbol of the Esmerelda company is visible everywhere in the town, but all the Australians seem to have gone in the wake of the disaster.

Esmerelda is now facing bankruptcy proceedings in Australia, and Mr Chiorean stresses the Romanian side of his company's operations.

Dead fish from the Titza
Fisherman dispose of dead fish after the spill
"Aurul doesn't pollute the town every day, it pollutes it only if accidents happen," he says, and goes on to describe the measures introduced in the last 12 months to prevent a repeat of the leak from the storage tank which caused the disaster.

He says another source of local complaint - the old iron pipes which cross the landscape, taking the cyanide solution to the storage lakes - are also closely monitored now.

Not everyone is convinced that Aurul has turned over a new leaf. Filip Moise, president of the Ecological Society of Maramures County, alleges that the company uses concentrations of cyanide that are too high, to win more gold from the sludge.

A horse and cart rides out beneath the pipeline, and a man calls out: "It's not only the cows that are dying because of the pollution. The horses are next."

The local people's last remaining hope is that the recent international attention to their plight will lead to the arrival of help to clean up their blighted landscape.

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See also:

14 Feb 00 | Media reports
Media concern at cyanide spill
13 Feb 00 | Europe
Cyanide spill reaches Danube
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