Dam must be secured to prevent further damage, warns WWF

News and Press Release
Originally published
Gland, Switzerland - Following a visit to the site yesterday with European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, experts from WWF, the conservation organisation, have warned that the tailing lagoon at the Romanian mine, the scene of a deadly toxic spill nearly three weeks ago, may still not have been fully secured. It could be a further threat to people and waterways in the region.
"Preventing further damage should be one of the first priorities," said Guido Schmidt, a WWF Freshwater specialist who visited the mine and surrounding areas. "International experts should assess the tailings pond and ensure that sufficient repair measures are undertaken immediately. The effect of the heavy metals in the toxic sludge is of immense concern to us at the moment."

The toxic spill was the result of a dam of a tailing lagoon breaking at the Australian-Romanian owned gold mine in Baia Mare, north-western Romania, on 30 January 2000. 100,000m3 of toxic sludge contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals flowed into Romania's Lapus and Somes rivers, then into Hungary's Tisza river and the Danube in Yugoslavia. Virtually all aquatic life in the Hungary's upper Tisza river died as a result.

According to WWF the most immediate threat was to people living in the areas closest to the scene of the spill - for example, in Bozinta Mare, a town of two to three thousand people that lies on the Lapus river within 2km of the tailing lagoon dam.

"Most of the people in this town draw their water from wells in their backyards - but many of the town's wells are contaminated; official laboratory tests show that the level of cyanide in some of them is over 60 times the limit for drinking water," added Guido Schmidt. "The people of Bozinta Mare must be offered an alternative water source."

WWF has however welcomed and supported the initiatives taken jointly by the European Commission and governments of Romania and Hungary to:

  • immediately assess in detail what has happened at the mine in Baia Mare;
  • assess the extent of damage to the environment, and to people and their livelihoods along all the affected rivers;
  • assess what can be done to repair the damage and rehabilitate the environment.
Cooperation between Romania and Hungary has been good but international support and expertise is needed. WWF is prepared to help with expertise in river restoration. WWF also believes that the "polluter pays" principle should be upheld, as stated by Romanian environment minister, Mr Romica Tomescu . This is an established legal principle in Romanian law.

For further information: Guido Schmidt: mobile +34 670 601 893; Philip Weller: tel +43 1 488 17 271, mobile +41 79 238 9652, email; Laszlo Harasthy: tel +36 1 375 4780.

Notes: One threat to local populations is from oxidised particles of heavy metals from mining waste ore, which can easily be inhaled by both people and animals. During the normal production process, mining waste ore is milled into extremely fine stone ore dust, which is dissolved in water before cyanide is applied to the mix. The chemical reaction makes the gold and silver metal float, enabling collection. The rest - the tailings - goes into a tailing lagoon, where the fine stone dust must be covered with water to prevent it from oxidising.