Hungary + 1 more

Danube Pollution

Originally published
BIO/00/28, Brussels 16/02/2000
1. The accident

A dam at the Aurul smelter of the "Baia Mare" goldmine (owned by Aurul SA, a joint venture between the Australian Esmeralda Ltd and the Romanian State) at Sasar, Romania broke on 30 January 2000 at around 20:00 GMT. This caused cyanide compounds to enter streams which flowed into the Lapus river a tributary to the Somes (Szamos) river that then flowed into the Tisza river and finally into the Danube. According to the Secretariat of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube, the Romanian authorities reported the incident on the 31/1/2000.

According to information transmitted an estimated 100.000 m3 of mud and wastewater with a 126 mg/litre cyanide load entered the Lapus River on 30/1/2000. Measurements on the 1/2/2000 at Satu Mare on the Somes showed a maximum concentration of cyanides reported to be 7,8 mg/litre (compare with maximum limit value for surface waters of 0,01 mg/litre). Subsequent reports show that the question of waste loads remains a key uncertainty of this major disaster.

First estimates indicate that the 30-40 kilometre long contaminated wave has wiped out flora and the fauna of the central Tisza River with damages estimated of hundreds of thousands of euro. Environmental experts fear that some rare and unique species both of flora and of fauna have been endangered, e.g. the five ospreys living in the Hortobagy National park.

However, the water supply of the two largest cities along the Tisza River, Szolnok (120.000 inhabitants) and Szegod (206.000 inhabitants) was not endangered due to efficient precautionary measures.

The cyanide contamination seems to be continuously diluting. In fact, the authorities in Hungary and in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are reported to have detected a drop in the cyanide concentration, as the chemical becomes further diluted, but levels are still highly dangerous. Moreover, the risk does not relate to cyanide only. Heavy metals, dangerous for the eco-system, were also released in the river.

The Hungarian and Romanian authorities have set up a joint commission of experts in charge of monitoring and evaluating the damages. According to the Hungarian authorities, a final assessment of the damages will not be ready before the end of March.

2. Legislation

Some international legislation aim to ensure a better protection of transboundary watercourses and could have been relevant in this type of cases, i.e. the UN/EEC Convention on the protection and use of transboundary watercourses and international lakes, the UN/EEC on the transboundary effects of industrial accidents and the Convention for the protection of the Danube. However, not all the states concerned are parties to this Convention.

All these conventions are based on a certain number of important environmental principles as the precautionary principle and the polluter-pays principle. Chemical accidents and limitation of their impact on transboundary waters is also dealt with in the context of these conventions, and they provide a framework for studies on measures to improve international coordination and prevention of accidents. However, these texts do not provide for liability of polluters.

3. Possibilities of technical and financial assistance

In the framework of the Civil Protection Task Force of the European Commission, the Finnish and Swedish Authorities have support from seven experts within the areas ecotoxicology, water system ecology, spreading models for water pollution and emergency or rescue management. Finland is responsible for carrying out an important project on development of rescue actions based on dam-break flood analysis within the Community Civil Protection Action Programme.

Financial support in the context of the pre-accession aid instruments could be considered. However, in any case, the "Polluter Pays Principle" will be part of the situation analysis, and possible assistance cannot be used to cover the responsibilities of the company involved.

DG Environment has been informed on the 15th February 2000 by the World Bank of their availability to contribute to the re-habilitation programmes.

4. Similar cases in Europe

On 25 April 1998, the breach in the tailings dam at the Aznancollar mine (Andaloucia, Spain) created a flow of over 5 million cubic metres of toxic waste which polluted a large area approximately 4500 hectares on the border of the Doñana national park.

Shortly before the Donana Accident there was an incident which did not lead to any serious consequences at an old mining wastes dam in Grängesberg, Sweden. A general review of all such dams in Sweden has been started by the Swedish Rescue Services Agency together with the Boliden Mining Company.

The management of waste from the extractive industry can lead to environmental problems due to the volume and the potential hazardousness of mining and quarrying waste. The issue of waste from extractive and quarrying activities requires therefore further investigation. DG ENV has launched in 1999 an analysis on the existing legislation and practices concerning the management of waste from the extractive industry. The final report is expected by June 2000.

5. Legislation applicable to mines and metal ore treatment in Europe

Directive 75/442/EEC on waste as amended by Directive 91/156/EEC applies to waste from the extractive industry. Moreover, this Directive establishes that Member States shall take the necessary measures to ensure that waste is recovered or disposed of without endangering human heath and without using processes or methods which could harm the environment.

The deposit of waste in a pond is a waste disposal operation covered by Directive 99/31/EC on the landfill of waste. This Directive came into force on 16 July 1999 and will be effective by 16 July 2001. The Directive lays down requirements concerning the authorisation of landfills, the technical construction of landfills, the types of waste acceptable at landfills and the monitoring procedures for landfills. Although the Directive is not yet applicable, there are a number of requirements which would have helped to prevent the accident:

The location of the landfill must take into consideration i.e. the distance from groundwater or superficial water and the risk of flooding, subsidence, landslides or avalanches.

Appropriate measures must be taken to control water from precipitation and prevent it from entering into the landfill body.

The storage of waste on the site must be done in such a way to ensure the stability of the waste and the associated structures, particularly to avoid slippages.

The landfilling of liquid waste is forbidden. Any waste must be pre-treated before being landfilled.

A monitoring programme for the control of water, leachate and gas is laid down. The monitoring results must be reported to the competent authorities.

Installations of "chemical concentration of metals from ore" are considered by annex 1 (cat. 2.5.a) of the IPPC Directive (Directive 96/61/EC). The concerned activities must use safety issues from Best Available Technics, and control and prevent accidental pollution. It is up to local permits from authorities to specify notification and payment systems in case of damage to environment. The IPPC Directive is applicable since 1999 for new activities, and in 2007 at the latest for existing ones.

6. Possible implications for European legislation

This accident has illustrated the need for a horizontal regime of environmental liability, as envisaged by the White Paper on Environmental Liability, which was adopted by the Commission on 7 February.

An inventory of situations and practices in the field of management of mining wastes, undertaken prior to the accident, is underway (final report expected by June 2000).

Discussions with Member States have started (first conclusion expected for mid-2000) in view of changing the classification category of dangerous waste and including these wastes in the Hazardous Waste list.

Furthermore, in the draft water framework directive currently under discussion in the European institutions, calls in its article 11.3 (i) for measures at watershed level including "measures required to prevent significant leakage of pollutants from technical installations, and reduce the impact of accidental pollution incidents", and "systems to detect or give warning of such events".

From a civil protection point of view, the experience from the Baia Mare accident in Romania also clearly demonstrates a need for improvement of the early warning system.

Baia Mare cyanide spill Help-line: Telephone: +32 2 299 66 60