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Hungary: Summary of the Environment Catastrophe Caused by the Cyanide Pollution to the River Tisza


Spokesman's Office

Budapest, February 21, 2000

The cyanide pollution caused unprecedented damage to the natural environment of the River Tisza which has also had far reaching social and economic consequences. Experts have already started to assess ecological and economic damages.

Hungary contacted and informed of the situation all international organizations concerned, including the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), the UN European Economic Commission, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the OECD, and applied for international technical and financial assistance and expertise for dealing with the consequences and to restore the original environmental situation in and around the River Tisza.

Vice-President of the European Commission Loyola de Palacio called the pollution a "European catastrophe". Foreign Minister János Martonyi and EU Commissioner for Environment Margot Wallström, who visited Hungary and Romania on an on-site inspection, agreed that an international task force should be set up to coordinate international assistance. The UNEP has already sent his experts to the Tisza. From the Czech Republic and Switzerland to Canada and the US, several countries offered their assistance and expertise.

Hungary will claim compensation for the damages from those responsible. Under the "polluter pays" principle, Hungary will launch a civil law procedure against the Aurul company, whose responsibility is undoubted, and also considers to launch such a procedure against the Australian mother firm.

In order to investigate and identify the causes of the pollution as well as responsibility for what happened, Hungary and Romania established a bilateral consultation mechanism. This was agreed by Hungarian Environment Minister Pál Pepó and Romanian Environment State Secretary Anton Vlad on February 10, 2000 at Nagybánya (Baia Mare). This joint Hungarian-Romanian expert commission is also assigned to establish the responsibility of the Romanian state, which is in accordance with the relevant UN documents. Hungary emphasizes that the cyanide pollution is not and will not become a political issue between Hungary and Romania. Hungary believes that all issues related to the cyanide pollution of the River Tisza, including responsibility of the Romanian state and compensation issues are to be discussed and resolved within the framework of the bilateral mechanism. However, if this process will not bear results, Hungary will consider what further steps, including international legal measures, should be taken.

Hungary hopes and urges that the international community, for example the European Union and the Council of Europe should also help the establishment of the appropriate technical and legal conditions that can prevent similar disasters in the future. The EU and the Council of Europe have their own high technical standards and firm legal means that must be introduced in the region. Hungary firmly believes that one of the main tasks is enhanced co-operation.

Hungary has been willing and ready to introduce rigorous technical and legal regulations in bilateral and multilateral agreements with the neighboring countries, as it is in Hungary's vital interest to enjoy higher environmental and legal security in similar situations.

Description of the events

The cyanide pollution of the rivers Szamos and Tisza was caused by AURUL, an Australian-Romanian joint company that is situated in the area of the Romanian Baia Mare (Nagybánya). The company extracts non-ferrous metals from the waste rock piles of mines of the area, using metal enrichment technologies, which is carried out basically by extraction with cyanide after grinding the refuse ore.

The process of extraction needs a lot of water, consequently after storage the washing water containing cyanide is recycled into the technology again. The environmental damage that spread over to Hungary was the result of the rupture of the dam of the reservoir containing cyanide.

The extraordinary event took place at 10 p. m. on 30 January 2000, as a consequence almost 100 thousand m3 waste water with high concentration of cyanide was discharged into the Zazar and Lápos water courses that belong to the catchment area of river Szamos.

The renovation of the burst dam of the wastewater reservoir took place on 31 January 2000, thus the wastewater discharge into the watercourses stopped.

The first official information on behalf of the Romanian environmental and water authorities arrived at 6:20 p. m. on 31 January 2000 and according to it the concentration of cyanide in the Lápos watercourse was 19.16 mg/l at 2 p.m. on 30 January. Since that time the Romanian authorities continuously informed the Hungarian authorities about the event and the degree of pollution.

When the polluted water crossed the border at Csenger at 4 p.m. on 1 February, its highest concentration was 32.6 mg/l (8:30 p.m.). According to the data released by Hungarian environmental laboratories, the average concentration was 18 mg/l in the 6 hour run-off interval, which exceeds 180 times the level of the "very polluted" category as defined by Hungarian standards for surface waters.

The recent meteorological conditions (ice on the rivers, low flow rate) further deteriorated the situation caused by the massive pollution, since the pollutants could not become rapidly diluted.

Furthermore, cyanide pollution was accompanied by a significant release of heavy metals into the water. The concentration of copper rose to 40-160 times the level classified as "very polluted", the concentration of zinc doubled and that of lead increased 5-9 times.

By the time the polluted water body reached the river Tisza at 4 a.m. on 3 February, its concentration of cyanide decreased to 12.5 mg/l as a result of natural dilution, representing the peak value affecting that river. The polluted water reached the vicinity of Szolnok, one of the potentially threatened cities which draws on its drinking water supply from the river, at 6 p.m. on 8 February with the highest level of concentration at 2.85 mg/l.

It took the polluted water body approximately 12 days to reach the Yugoslav border in the early morning on 12 February, wreaking further havoc on the downstream of Tisza and consequently the Danube.

Preliminary evaluation

Besides the ecological damage, the cyanide pollution in the river Tisza also posed significant threat to human health, since in its upstream the cyanide concentration exceeded 100 times the standards set for drinking water. The city of Szolnok and the inhabitants of the neighboring settlements (cc. 160.000 persons) were especially exposed since their entire drinking water supply is abstracted water from that river. Thus far, the health damaging consequences of the pollution have been averted by the prompt intervention of the competent authorities, the Water Treatment Plant of Szolnok and the Health Care Service.

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the effected area stretches 30-35 km along the river, increasing the time of pollution transport significantly.

The polluted water body left behind ecological damages both in the river Szamos and the river Tisza, although full assessment of their scale cannot be given at this time.

The fish stock was particularly hard hit. The prompt collection and proper disposal of the dead fish was initiated in the rivers Szamos and Tisza to prevent further disruption and damages in the food-chain.

The microscopic examination of water samples taken from the Szamos proved that 90-95% of phyto- and zooplanktons were wiped out. The effects of the pollution may well spread to ecosystems far more distant from the river through the food chain and different transmitters.

The pollution affected several parts of protected and strictly protected National Parks, such as Lake Tisza, incorporated into Hortobágy National Park that has recently become part of the World Heritage, also a Ramsar site. Further areas falling under the scope of the Ramsar Convention and biosphere reserves being parts of the MAB program of the UNESCO are affected as well.

For the time being no conclusive assessment can be drawn with regard to the scope and extent of the damages caused in the ecological balance of the rivers and their vicinity, accordingly the necessity and extent of an environmental health monitoring system cannot be estimated. It is also difficult to assess the time and resources needed for the complete rehabilitation of the effected areas.

The preliminary assessment of damages has focused on the deterioration of the drinking water supply, the diminished availability of safe water for other purposes and the harm done to the flora and fauna of the rivers and their vicinity. The expenses incurred by the prompt collection and proper disposal of dead fish, furthermore the costs related to flow control and flood-plain closures are also being assessed.

The rehabilitation of the natural habitat requires special care, expertise and abundant resources.

Full recovery of the rivers and reestablishing the former conditions will require considerable time with the maintenance of a permanent monitoring system. To this end, the currently used equipment and procedures are to be enhanced to achieve full-scale surveillance of the state of the environment.

Even though the damage assessment is still in progress, it can be reasonably stated that such a great environmental catastrophe induced by human activity has never occurred before in the history of Hungarian environmental protection.

Measures implemented and international assistance offered

The relevant authorities had initiated the necessary emergency measures to protect the local population and reduce its exposure to the pollution.

On 3 February the Disaster Prevention Directorate (DPD) of Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg county (N-Hungary) briefed the civil defense of Ukraine's Subcarpathia region on Hungarian precautionary measures implemented against the cyanide contamination flowing down the Tisza, a common border river of the two countries.

On 10 February Hungarian Minister for the Environment, Pal Pepó engaged in talks in Oradea with Romanian State Secretary of Waters, Forestry and Environmental Protection Anton Vlad. The urgent meeting was initiated by Hungary following the Hungarian prime minister's statement on the spill.

On the same day Hungary informed the Serb authorities about the latest data concerning the level of contamination of the river Tisza.

On 16 February Hungary submitted a plea for assistance to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Secretary General Walter Schwimmer stated that the CoE is considering to provide help to countries affected by the cyanide spill that contaminated a number of East Central European waterways.

On 16 February the Tilburg-based European Center for Nature Conservation (ECNC) has called for taking concerted actions in Europe to prevent catastrophes similar to the recent cyanide spill in Romania.

Margot Wallström, EU Commissioner for Environment arrived in Budapest on 16 February to study the circumstances of the cyanide spill in Hungary and Romania. The chief commissioner had talks with the Hungarian Minister for the Environment Pal Pepo and later on traveled to Baia Mare, Romania, accompanied by Romanian Minister for the Environment Romica Tomescu.

József Szájer, Chairman of Parliament's European Integration Affairs Committee addressed a letter to leaders of the European Parliament, asking to put the issue of the cyanide spill in the Tisza river on its agenda.

Several international organizations and countries have sent in offers of technical and expert assistance to solve the problems arising from the cyanide pollution in the Tisza river. The European Union indicated its intention to cooperate.

The Geneva-based disaster prevention sub-unit of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has accepted to collect and to direct towards Hungary and Romania the natural, technical and legal assistance offered by the individual countries.

UNEP's Nairobi center has also indicated its cooperation intention.

The Vienna-based Danube Protection International Committee has offered its assistance to Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia.

Offers from individual countries have been received by Hungarian authorities. The Czech Republic has offered to send three experts to the region, at its own cost. The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland are awaiting a reply to what sort of experts and means are required by Hungary. Germany and the Netherlands have also offered to contribute to solving the problem.