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George Monbiot reports on the threat to life in Baia Mare
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banner Friday, 19 May, 2000, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
Romania's poison dump
Children play on polluted land next to Aurul's factory in Romania

Investigating the effects of the Danube cyanide spill

The world's media passed through Bozinta Mare in early February. The residents of this small village in the foothills of the Carpathians had never experienced anything like it. But then they had never experienced anything like the reason for their sudden close attention.

A kilometre from the edge of this community of dairy farmers lies a vast dam owned by a gold-mining company called Aurul. When Aurul's dam burst in the middle of the night at the end of January, a flood of cyanide-tainted water washed across their farmlands and down to the local river.

The story might have ended there, but the villagers' river is a minor tributary of the Danube. When the fishermen in Hungary started to notice that their livelihood was dying, questions were asked of their neighbours in Romania, whom they had long suspected of polluting the Danube.

Gavril Matra, whose land has been poisoned by chemicals
When the trickle of dead fish became hundreds of tonnes, the hunt began in earnest for the culprit. The mining activities of north-west Romania were the obvious source, and the circle began to tighten around the cyanide pools near Baia Mare, the mineral-rich region's main town. When Aurul admitted that its dam had burst, the trail ended.

Aurul is a joint venture company, part Australian, part Romanian. The company had sold itself on its ability to clean-up the
George Monbiot investigates continuing chemical spills
environmentally disastrous "tailings" piles in Baia Mare that were the waste product of previous gold-mining ventures. These vast piles of fine toxic matter were a disaster for those who lived near them.

When the wind kicked up, toxic sandstorms would blow into the flats of those who overlooked them. Aurul promised to deal with them by treating them with cyanide to extract any remaining gold, and shipping the waste product out to a dam in the countryside, not far from a village called Bozinta Mare.

When disaster struck, Aurul was evasive in its responsibility, questioning whether the cyanide could have had this effect. But the cyanide spill, though devastating, was not the main issue.
The Aurul factory near Baia Mare
The wider picture concerned how such a situation could have arisen : a story of poorly regulated capitalism in a post-communist Romania.

Correspondent went to the scene of the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl and spoke to the villagers whose land will never have the same yields again, and was amazed to discover that not only has Aurul not yet paid compensation to villagers, but also that it is planning to start up its operations again.

Producers: John Thynne and Robin Barnwell

Reporter: George Monbiot

This story was part of Correspondent Europe, Our Poison, shown on May 20th on BBC2 at 18:50

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See also:

13 Feb 00 | Europe
Cyanide heads for Danube
13 Feb 00 | Europe
Cyanide spill reaches Danube
17 Feb 00 | Europe
EU to examine cyanide spill
13 Feb 00 | Europe
Danube braced for cyanide threat
22 May 00 | Correspondent
Black Sea or dead sea?

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