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WWF presents recovery plan for rivers hit by cyanide spill

Originally published
Budapest, Hungary - WWF, the conservation organisation, today proposed a five point recovery plan for the Tisza and Somes/Szamos Rivers, devastated four weeks ago by a cyanide spill from a mine in northwestern Romania.
"Experience from other river disasters has shown that if the proper conditions are created, nature has a remarkable self-healing capacity. We have to focus our efforts to help the river heal itself from this chemical assault," said Dr. Erika Schneider of the WWF Floodplain Ecology Institute in Rastatt/Germany.

On 30 January , 100'000 cubic metres of wastewater, contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals, spilled from the dam of a tailings lagoon at a mine in Baia Mare, into the River Lapus. The toxins flowed on into the Somes, the Tisza, and finally the Danube rivers - the devastation has been far-reaching. The effect on the Tisza, Hungary's second-largest river, have been particularly grave: much of its wildlife has been destroyed. Hundreds of tons of dead fish are only the most visible sign of the disaster, which has virtually eradicated all life in parts of the rivers and endangered people's livelihoods and drinking water sources.

The five steps WWF recommends are:

  1. Clean-up of contamination near the mine in Romania
  2. Long-term monitoring programme along the whole river system
  3. Improvement of the water quality situation
  4. Conservation and restoration of areas spared by the spill that can contribute to the re-colonisation of the river (backwaters, side-arms, tributaries)
  5. Institution of a river basin management plan
"There can be no doubt that the river has been dramatically altered and damaged by the cyanide poisoning," said Laszlo Haraszthy, Director of WWF Hungary, "but with careful and well-planned intervention we can help the river restore itself to conditions that allow aquatic life and all other organisms that depend on the river to thrive again".

WWF says a newly created Taskforce established by the EU with the participation of the Governments of Hungary and Romania should assume the leadership and co-ordin-ation for the restoration programme. "What is needed is a system-atic and carefully planned programme that integrates and utilizes the efforts of the many institutions and organisations that have expertise or expressed their desire to assist with the cleanup," said Philip Weller, the Director of the WWF Danube Pro-gramme and a member of the Taskforce. "The Taskforce is the logical institution to play the co-ordinating role, representatives of Hungary and Romania are involved, as is the President of the Danube River Protection Convention, the United Nations (which has already completed initial assessment work), WWF, and the European Union".

WWF has pledged to contribute with both expertise and funding of the restoration activities for the Tisza, Somes and Lapus Rivers.

More information:

WWF Hungary, Hajnalka Schmidt,
tel: +36 1 375 47 80,
mobile : +36 30 950 93 36

WWF Danube Carpathian Programme Office,
tel: +43 1 488 17 257,
Fax: +43 1 488 17 277


Details of the WWF 5 Point Recovery Plan:

Immediate Action to avoid further damage

1. Rapid assessment and clean-up of the contaminated sludge near the waste lagoon. Identification and removal of contaminated sediments and sludge likely in the Lapus River.

Restoration and re-vitalisation of the rivers will not be possible if sludge contaminated with heavy metals are present. There are still contaminated sludge on the fields near the tailings pond and in the drainage channel leading to the Lapus river. This sludge has to be removed immediately. Heavy rainfalls or flood can mobilise the contaminated sludge and cause further damage to the river ecosystems.

Detailed knowledge about the kind of contamination of the water and sludge which ran into the river systems are necessary, in particular, which cyanides where present and the identifi-cation of where heavy metal contaminated sludge and sediments are located. It is possible that the escaped sludge are accumulated close to the tailings pond, and if identified quickly, they can be removed before they are dispersed downstream in the spring torrents.

Assessment and Monitoring to Begin Restoration

2. Establishment of a long-term monitoring programme to establish the baseline condi-tions and monitor restoration progress.

A comprehensive assessment and monitoring programme for all the affected areas should be immediately established. This should include the Somes and Tisza rivers as well as the Danube. The monitoring and assessment should include both chemical-analytical methods but also ensure a complete assessment of the biological condition of the river using bio-indicators. Especially important is the monitoring and assessment of the biological organisms that have survived the cyanide spill in the side arms, backwaters and in tributary rivers. These organ-isms provide the potential genetic stock to re-colonise the river when it is free from cyanide or heavy metal contamination.

Reduction of existing pollution

3. Improvement of the overall water quality situation of the affected river systems

Experiences from the recovery work conducted after the Doñana and Rhine accidents show that recovery of the river will depend to a large extent on water quality. To speed up the self-recovery of the river systems, pollution from other sources has to be reduced. An action plan to reduce other pollution sources (agriculture, industrial pollution and waste waters) has to be developed and implemented. The improvement of the water quality has to follow a basin ap-proach. Only through optimising the conditions for re-colonisation of the river by aquatic or-ganisms and reducing all possible stresses can the river achieve a successful restoration.

Restoration of side-arms, floodplains, and tributaries

4. Conservation and restoration of floodplain ecosystems as genetic resevoirs for re-colonialisation

Experiences from the recovery of the Rhine river after the Sandoz disaster in 1986 proved the importance of a healthy floodplain ecosystems for the recovery of damaged rivers. The analy-sis of the ecological state of the floodplain habitat along the affected rivers should clarify the potential of the river systems for self-recovery. Efforts are then needed to mobilise and maxi-mise the self healing and recovery potential the river itself has. This can be done through con-servation and protection of these areas and re-establishing connections between the river and backwater areas. Carrying out floodplain restoration along important tributaries is vital. Valu-able floodplain areas (genetic pools) should be protected immediately and saved from further negative impacts. A restoration plan for river floodplains should be developed and imple-mented. The floodplain restoration should focus on the enhancement of the connectivity be-tween and the enlargement of floodplain ecosystems which would stabilise the ecosystems and speed up the recovery of the river systems. The restoration programme should include the Tisza floodplains (including the Ukrainian stretch) and appropriate tributaries (e.g. Boodrog, Cris/Körös, Mures/Maros rivers).

The enhancement of the recovery potential of the rivers themselves is principal. Measures, such as re-introduction of species, should only be taken as only last option in case none other are available. Any restoration measures should also fit to the special ecological and bio-geo-graphic conditions of the river systems. Measures such as the introduction of alien species which might seem short-term beneficiary can put further damage at the river ecosystems in the long run and have therefore to be avoided.

The restoration programme should be based on ecological, but also socio-economic needs in the region. A socio-economic analysis should clarify these needs in connection to natural re-sources in the area. A regional stakeholder platform should be established to ensure input from the affected sectors into the restoration programme. The restoration programme can build on existing work, especially the analysis of the restoration potential of floodplains in the Danube basin, prepared by WWF under contract to the GEF Danube River Pollution Reduc-tion Programme.

The involvement of the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, European Union, and the Governments of Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Slovakia are all needed.

Long-term protection and sustainable use of the river systems

5. River basin management plan

To ensure the long-term protection of the river ecosystems and natural resources and to avoid further similar accidents in the Tisza basin a river basin management plan in accordance to the EU Water Framework Directive has to be elaborated and implemented. The river basin man-agement plan has to include the improvement of the pollution from point sources, the preven-tion of further threats from storage of toxic waste, pollution from land based sources, water management and flood control. In addition it has to include a long-term conservation and restoration plan for wetland habitat in the Somes/Tisza and Danube river basin as important factor for flood management, pollution reduction and biodiversity conservation.