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The Baia Mare Gold Mine Cyanide Spill: Causes, Impacts and Liability

Originally published
On January 30th 2000, the dam containing toxic waste material from the Baia Mare Aurul gold mine in North Western Romania burst and released 100,000 cubic meters of waste water, heavily contaminated with cyanide, into the Lapus and Somes tributaries of the river Tisza, one of the biggest in Hungary.

Cyanide is highly toxic, and is lethal to humans and other species even in very small doses. The cyanide contaminated water has now been carried to the river Danube which flows through Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania.

The Hungarian Ministry for the Environment, stated on February 14th that: "Besides the ecological damage, the cyanide pollution in the river Tisza meant also significant threat to the human health, because in the upper part of the Tisza the cyanide concentration was 100 times more than the limit value for drinking water."

Reports from the area indicate that there has been extensive damage to the river ecosystem and its fauna. The Hungarian Environment Ministry has stated that, between Tiszafuered and Szolnok, 80 and 100 per cent of fish stock will be killed. Other wildlife has also been affected, including Mute Swans, Black Cormorants, foxes and other carnivores. (Sources: MIT, Nepszabadsag, Magyar Hirlap, Vilaggazdasag)

The dam was built as recently as 1998. The gold mine itself is jointly owned by Romanian interests and Esmeralda, an Australian company based in Perth.

What caused the incident?

Reasons for the incident are still under investigation. It is clear that questions about the dam's safety have been raised in the recent past, despite claims by the Romanian Government that: "unusual meteorological conditions caused the dam to burst. High temperatures, never recorded before during the last century, caused a quick thaw which provoked a big discharge of water into the dam". (Foreign Affairs Minister for the Environment, El Pais, 10/2/00)

1999: The Romanian environment authorities alerted the management of the Baia Mare mine to the potential risks associated with the dam after former employees of the company revealed that, during the construction of the tailing basin, serious mistakes were made. The basin was lined with a film, but the walls were made of soil containing high amounts of sand instead of rocky materials making it unstable.

Autumn 1999: Five cows in the nearby village of Zazar died after water contaminated with cyanide was released from the Baia Mare mine's pipe system. Baia Mare claimed it was a result of "material mistakes" and paid for the cows.

Deputy Ilie Mihut from neighbouring Nagybozinta reported that the dam's wall was leaking during December 1999. Baia Mare paid people for covering up the traces of the leakage. (Sources: Magyar Hirlap vom 10.02.00, Nepszabadsag, Tibori Szabo Zoltan, 09.02.00)

Extent of the damage.

The European Environmental Agency describes the accident as the "worst case scenario for the region's rivers". The Agency's own research has found levels of cyanide four times higher than first indications suggested. (ENDS, 15/2/00)

To date, little is known about the long term environmental impacts of the incident. However, toxic and bio-accumulative substances, such as heavy metals, are common in wastes from mining activities.

On the 19th February, The Hungarian Environment Ministry reported that Lake Tisza in the Hortobágy National Park, that has recently become a World Heritage site, has been affected as well as areas that are protected under the Ramsar Convention and reserves that form part of the MAB programme of UNESCO.

Who claims responsibility?

Historically, the mining industry has repeatedly tried to avoid liability for these types of incidents. Brett Montgomery, chairman of Esmeralda Exploration, that owns 50 % of the mine, is trying to reduce the importance of the incident saying that reports have been 'grossly exaggerated', that it is not an environmental catastrophe and environmental impacts are due to "a number of unrelated events." PERTH, Australia (AP) - 02/10

Cyanide in gold production

Since the 1960s when 'cyanide heap leaching' was introduced to the mining process, the toxic impact of gold mining has rocketed. The process involves pouring a cyanide solution over crushed ore. The cyanide solution percolates, dissolves the gold and carries it to solution ponds. This technique requires the use of large quantities of highly toxiccyanide. The cyanide solution is either reused, stored in a dam ordirectly discharged into rivers or the sea. Toxic heavy metals and metalloids, such as arsenic, occur frequently in ores and can be released with crushing and leaching.

Previous mining spills

There are regular incidents involving cyanide in mining. 'Tailings' dams, where the contaminated waste water from the mining process is stored, are a frequent cause of serious environmental disasters.


Mining companies violate even minimal environmental standards all over the world and destroy large areas of nature. Habitats are destroyed and groundwater supplies and river systems are polluted, particularly in developing countries, where mining companies often ignore environmental standards. Local inhabitants of the mines are also often affected by the industry and have been evicted from their land or affected by the pollution that results from the mining process.


Greenpeace believes that:

The Baia Mare Aurul gold mine in Romania should be closed down until it there is no risk of further incidents.

Mining companies (in this case Esmeralda and State of Romania) should be held responsible for all damages and pay all the costs relating to the incident.

International rules should be established for mining, including:

i) full liability for mining companies for all the potential damages both to people and the environment.

ii) a ban on mining in areas of special environmental interest or close to populated areas.

iii) standards for mining operations that cover transport, storage and treatment of waste and products.

Due to the large-scale destruction of the environment as a result of mining, the need for mining should be reassessed and the goal should be to reduce the need for raw materials as much as possible. This can be done through better standards that include: more efficient use of raw materials (environmental designing), changing consumption patterns (knowledge and service intensive products instead of material intensive products) and through recycling of metals. Gold, for example, is used mainly for jewellery and national banks already have large reserves of gold and many are already planning to sell large amounts of it.

Location Map

Tisza River at Risk

Water is the source of life. Despite this, rivers are being misused; as sewage conduits by industries and municipalities all over the world. Microorganisms are capable of coping with low levels of pollution in intact watercourses. If, however, tonnes of toxic industrial chemicals are dumped into a river at one time, the results are disastrous. Regeneration can take many years. Numerous river systems around the world have been unable to recover fully following recurrent disasters and continuous contamination with highly concentrated toxic substances. In Romania, 3900 kilometres of rivers are declared dead. The same fate is now threatening the second largest river of Hungary, the 700 km long Tisza.

Following the cyanide disaster in late January 2000, a regeneration programme is being developed for the Tisza and its ecosystems. The Hungarian government along with EU and UNEP task forces are investigating and numerous further offers of assistance have been made. Nonetheless, all efforts will be fruitless if the responsible governments, authorities, industries and municipalities in the catchment area of the Tisza do not ensure that further accidents are prevented and the continuous pollution of the river system is stopped. Before a regeneration programme can be drawn up, the hazardous hotspots need to be identified. Subsequently, a major effort involving pan-European cooperation would need to be made to remove the risks. A steady stream of reports of accidents and river pollution incidents over recent years in the catchments of the Tisza's tributaries underscores the seriousness of the situation.

The Aurul disaster in late January 2000 was by no means the only recent accident in a Romanian mine. Only one week later, the Remin SA company in Baia Mare released cyanide-contaminated water to the Lapus river, which flows into the Somes (Szamos), a tributary of the Tisza. The Romplumb SA metal processing works in Baia Mare are also a source of frequent heavy metal and toxic releases to the Lapus. Six weeks after the cyanide disaster, a dam burst in the lead and zinc mine in Baia Borsa, releasing 20,000 tonnes of toxic sludge into another tributary of the Tisza, the Viseu (Visó). In one of the four Remin mines in Borsa, a dam had already once burst with severe consequences in 1997.

In late December 1999, several thousand cubic metres of cyanide-contaminated effluent were released from the Baia de Aries mine into the Aries river, which subsequently flowed into the Mures (Maros) tributary of the Tisza. The Industria Sârmei metal processing combine in Câmpia Turzii discharges all of its effluents into the Aries. A further cyanide disaster may well be caused by the tailing ponds of the gold mines in Brad, Abrud and Zlatna. The latest accident to happen in Brad was in May 1998, when the Tisza tributary Crisul Alb (Fehér Körös) was contaminated severely with cyanides and heavy metals. The uranium mines near Brad are a further threat to this river. In Zlatna, the Ampelum noble-metal processing combine released sulphur oxides in February 1998, devastating 47 thousand hectares of farmland and 193 km of river landscape. Metal smelters around Hunedoara pollute the Mures (Maros) on a regular basis. In Tirnaveni, an accident in the Bicapa combine in December 1999 caused chromium levels to rise to 20 times the permissible values; the poison reached the Mures. In Slovakia, too, magnesite and other ore mines operate on the Tisza tributary Hórnad (Hernád) near Kosice; here, again, there are reports of heavy metal levels in excess of permissible values in the river's water. A cyanide pollution incident was reported in February 2000 from the Slovakian part of the Bodrog plain (Bodrog Köz). Little is currently known about the operations of the Ukrainian gold mine in Muzhievsk. Should a disaster happen here, this would have major impacts upon the Tisza river.

At a symposium held in Bucharest in June 1999, the Romanian environment minister announced that river sections totalling 320 kilometres have been devastated by mineral oil contamination over recent years. Oil drilling near Suplacu de Barcau is the prime source of contamination of the Barcau (Berettyó) river. Oil refineries in Oradea discharge a part of their products into the Crisul Repede (Sebes-Körös) on a regular basis.

In addition to mines and ore processing operations, chemical works and paper mills also extract large amounts of water from the rivers, returning it laced with toxic substances. The largest polluters of flowing waters in the Tisza catchment are the Somesul paper mill on the Somes (Szamos) in Dej, the Chimica Turda in Turda on the Aries, the Terapia pharmaceutical works in Cluj-Napoca on the Somesul Mic (Kis-Szamos), where a larger accident occurred in January 2000, the Azomures chemical combine in Tirgu Mures on the Mures, chemical plants using antiquated technologies in the surroundings of Dr.Petru Groza and the Sinteza chemical combine in Oradea on the Crisul Repede.

The Avicola Pui Carne SA, Avimar SA and Avistar SA poultry processing combines near Baia Mare caused a major fish kill in the Lapus in July 1999, as did the negligence of the pig-breeding farm in Bontida in January 2000 in Cluj-Napoca on the Crisul-Mic (Kis-Szamos). An outdated heat and power plant close to Velke Kapusany in Slovakia is a further ecological time bomb. Municipal effluents, for instance from the south Hungarian city of Szeged, are an additional severe burden upon the stricken river. Numerous other sources of hazard yet remain to be identified.

Judit Kanthak

As of: 3/2000, main sources: Tibori Szabo Zoltán in the Népszabadság (Budapest), Mediafax (Bucharest), and Leontin Cupar in the Curentul (Bucharest)