The spill, which reached the Danube in Yugoslavia yesterday, originated in Baia Mare, north-western Romania on 30 January after a dam broke at a tailing lagoon at a Australian-Romanian owned gold mine. Around 100,000m3 of toxic sludge contaminated with cyanides and heavy metals spilled into the Lapus and Somes (Hungarian: Szamo) rivers, and reached the Hungarian border several days later. It killed virtually all aquatic life in the Hungary's upper Tisza river. It now seems clear that despite the danger to people living on the rivers' banks and wildlife living in the river or depending on it, news of the spill was not immediately made public by the governments of either country.
"We've experienced enough delays already," said WWF Hungary Conservation Director György Gado. "The time for the two Governments to act is now - not next week, and not next month. We first need to move quickly to properly assess the level of the damage, secondly implement a recovery plan, and thirdly start looking at what needs to be done to prevent similar accidents in future1."
The upper Tisza is an extremely diverse freshwater ecosystem - of the 29 species of protected fish in Hungary, 19 of them can be found in this stretch of the river. So far more 100 tonnes of dead fish have been collected from the river's surface - but many more are believed to be lying on the river bottom. In addition to those species directly affected by the toxic spill, there is a secondary danger to all species which feed on anything living in the river, including birds - for example the white-tailed sea eagle.
"This spill has, in practical terms, eradicated all life from a stretch of up to 400km of the Tisza river," added György Gado. "We won't know the real extent of the damage until an evaluation can be carried out in spring - but we know already that the rehabilitation of the river will take decades. The sooner we can fully assess the impact of the spill, the sooner we will know what it will take to recover what has been lost."
For further information:
György Gado, WWF Hungary, tel +36 1 375
Jasmine Bachmann, WWF International Danube Carpathian Programme Office, tel +43 1 488 17 253;
Shaleen Russell, WWF International: tel +41 22 364 9571 or +41 79 477 3553.
1. WWF last week called on the European Commission to follow-up recommendations for preventing similar accidents within the EU, including compiling an inventory of toxic waste lagoons. The recommendations came out of a report released last year pinpointing hotspot areas throughout Europe, in the wake of the ecological disaster affecting the Guadiamar river and the Doñana wetland in Southern Spain in April 1998.