By Daniel Langenkamp, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
The way István Orbán sees it, he has only one decision to make: whether to close his business this week, or next.
"If I said our turnover was zero percent of what we used to sell, I would be overestimating," Mr. Orbán says.
The owner of a small fish store in Poroszló, a sleepy fishing village on the Tisza River in eastern Hungary, remembers standing on the riverbank in early February and watching much of an ecosystem disappear before his eyes.
A massive spill upstream at a gold mine near Baia Mare, Romania, created a deadly poison "plume" of heavy metals and cyanide, killing tons of fish and other animals along Hungary's second-largest river. The spill then entered Europe's longest river, the Danube, to flow through Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania again, and Ukraine before reaching the Black Sea last week. Experts called it the worst environmental disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.
Orbán is just one of the tens of thousands of people who are looking at an uncertain future in the wake of the Jan. 30 spill. But ironically, the disaster has brought new urgency to environmental protection, which had fallen from the agenda as many Eastern European countries focus on improving their economies.
A special European Union task force is studying the spill's cause and effects and drafting a list of potential industrial hot spots all over Europe that threaten the environment. A team of United Nations scientists finished a tour last week to study the ecological damage, and plans to issue a report later this month.
The spill is forcing countries to take the EU's environment criteria seriously, EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said recently. Both Hungary and Romania have been criticized for poor environmental standards by the EU, which they hope to join.
The EU supports the "polluter pays" principle, which means that both Esmeralda Explorations Ltd., the Australian firm that co-owns the gold-mining operation, along with the Romanian government, could be liable for damages.
Officially, Romania has admitted responsibility, but not guilt, for the disaster, while Esmeralda remains defiant. "There is no evidence to confirm that the contamination and the damage said to have been caused is as a result of the tailings dam overflow," Esmeralda Chairman Brett Montgomery said.
In Hungary, early declarations that the Tisza was "dead" now seem exaggerated, and the waters appear clean again. Cyanide breaks down in sunlight and dilutes quickly, scientists note. But a full recovery will take years.
"It is not just the fish that you have to take into consideration. The whole upper part of the river is very seriously damaged. We are going to have a very hard time rebuilding the [spectrum of] wildlife, only at the end of which there is fish," says János Gönczy, who is coordinating the government's assessment and revitalization programs.
The region had been witnessing a revival, much of it tourism related, following the collapse of communism a decade ago. According to the National Tourism Board, 80 percent of the tourists come here to fish. Local news reports say turnover of fishing produce has fallen by 80 percent nationwide.
"Tisza fish is famous and has great flavor, ... but since this cyanide thing happened, nobody is eating fish. We sit here all day and nobody comes in," says Imre Czinege, owner of the Kormoran fish restaurant and hotel in Poroszló. Mr. Czinege says all his customers cancelled their reservations as soon as they heard about the disaster, which also will cause serious problems for other local entrepreneurs.
"People have done a lot of building here in the last few years," he says. "Now they don't know how they are going to pay off their loans."
The government now must choose between the demands of fishermen and business owners, who want a speedy end to the fishing ban, and environmentalists, who say the ecosystem needs time to recover. Both sides are angry with Environment Minister Pál Pepó, who they say initially played down the disaster and was slow to report it to international bodies. "Even on the fifth day, when people were crying that masses of fish were dying, the minister said there was no catastrophe," says Imre Bordás, a fisherman and hunter. "This government has been useless."
Despite the bitterness, water-protection authorities say they see encouraging signs the Tisza may recover more quickly than initially thought.
Several man-made lakes connected to the river remain untouched. Tests made last week show that plankton, which were completely wiped out by the disaster, have returned to almost normal levels, providing food for any remaining fish. The Tisza's cyanide level has also dropped to what is considered safe. But it remains unclear how many heavy metals - such as zinc, lead, and mercury, which some scientific studies indicate may have long-term toxic effects - remain in the river bed.
That concern makes it difficult to convince many Hungarians that their river is safe. "I wouldn't wash my hands with the stuff," says a resident of Szolnok, which takes drinking water from the Tisza. "Everybody is drinking bottled water now."