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  Case Study: The Tisza-Szamos Cyanide Pollution
 
  Description of the events

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

The extraction process requires a lot of water. Consequently, the used water is stored, then used once again in the extraction process. The environmental damage that spread over to Hungary was the result of the rupture of the reservoir dam containing cyanide-laced water.

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

The burst reservoir was finally repaired on January 31st, and thus the wastewater discharge into the watercourses stopped.

The Romanian environmental and water authorities kept Hungarian authorities informed about the event and degree of pollution. On the February 7th, Romanian authorities reported a second cyanide spill. It happened in a location close to the first one. Fortunately, it was much less serious than the previous event, although in some places the concentration of cyanide exceeded the permissible limit by a factor of sixty.

The first official Romanian information came at 6:20 p.m. and identified the concentration of cyanide in the Lápos watercourse as 19.16 mg/l at 2 p.m. on January 31, 2000.

The polluted water crossed the border at Csenger at 4 p.m. on February 1st, the highest concentration was 32.6 mg/l (8:30 p.m.). The average concentration – according to the data of the Hungarian environmental laboratories – was 18 mg/l in the six-hour run-off interval, which is 180 times more than the level of the “very polluted” category according to the Hungarian standards for surface waters.

The extremely critical water pollution was worsened due to the meteorological situation of the time (ice on the rivers, low flow rate) and as a consequence the pollution could not dilute rapidly.

To make matters worse the cyanide pollution was accompanied by a significant increase in the concentration of heavy metals in the water. The concentration of copper rose to 40-160 times the level classified as “very polluted,” while the concentration of zinc doubled and that of lead increased to 5-9 times the “very polluted” level.

The polluted water plume reached the Tisza River at 4 a.m. on February 3rd, where the concentration of cyanide decreased to 12.5 mg/l peak value as a result of natural dilution. The polluted water reached the boundaries of Szolnok, one of the potentially threatened cities where drinking water is extracted directly from the river and then treated, at 6 p.m. on February 8th at which time the highest concentration measured 2.85 mg/l.

The contamination plume traveled for twelve days within Hungarian territory, leaving only in the early morning on February 12th, at which time it crossed over the border with Yugoslavia and began polluting the Yugoslavian part of the Tisza and the Danube.

Preliminary evaluation of the consequences

In addition to the ecological damage, cyanide pollution in the Tisza meant also significant threat to human health, because in the upper part of the Tisza the cyanide concentration was 100 times more than the limit value for drinking water. The city of Szolnok and the inhabitants of the neighboring settlements (almost 160.000 persons) were primarily endangered because in that part of Hungary the only source of drinking water is the Tisza. In the short run, avoidance of the health-damaging consequences was owing to the co-operation of the competent authorities, the Water Treatment Plant of Szolnok and the Health Care Service.

The problem increased due to the fact that the length of the polluted water plume was more than 30-35 km, consequently the time of the pollution transport increased significantly.

The passage of the polluted water plume has caused serious ecological damage, both in the Szamos River and in the Tisza River, which cannot yet be determined with exactitude.

Significant damage occurred in the fish stock. After the polluted water plume passed, collection and disposal of dead fish started in the Szamos and the Tisza, in accordance with the thereupon enacted decrees. The quantity of dead fish collected from the surfaces of the two rivers alone was over 100.000 kg. This is estimated to be only a small part of the actual kill, because a layer of dead fish drifted downstream quite a few fish corpses remained at or sunk to the riverbed.

Microscopic examination of water samples taken from the Szamos showed that 90-95% of phyto- and zooplanktons died. The effect of the pollution spread to ecosystems more distant from the river through the food chain and other transmission methods.

The pollution affected several protected nature reserves, such as the protected area of Lake Tisza, an important part of Hortobágy National Park that was recently named a World Heritage site as well as a Ramsar site. Further areas falling under the scope of the Ramsar Convention and biosphere reserve parts of the MAB programme of the UNESCO were affected as well.

No direct human health consequences were reported. However, this may yet happen, as poor villagers living alongside the polluted bodies of water also fish therein.

The assessment of damages has started. The data gathered covers damages to the supply of safe drinking water, the decrease in water usage, damage to flora and fauna, and expenses resulting from the collection and disposal of dead fish as well as expenses of flow control and flood-plain closure. Restoration of the damaged areas requires special attention, expertise and significant financial means.

We must bear in mind that the return of the rivers to their original state will take several years, during which time continuous monitoring will be needed. To achieve this, the present part-time monitoring system must be turned into a full-time one.

According to the preliminary evaluation, a human-generated environmental catastrophe of this magnitude has never happened before in the history of Hungary.

Evaluation of the public participation situation - information given to the public about the catastrophe

Immediately after the disaster, preliminary information went only to the Ministry of the Environment, and came partly from the Romanian partner and partly from the concerned Hungarian environmental inspectorates. Nearly a week lasted from the time the water reservoir broke in Romania to the time the Hungarian public was informed, but still not fully aware of the magnitude nor the nature of the disaster. Pál Pepo the Environmental Minister in office at that time (a couple months later he was forced to resign) had enormous personal responsibility in this dearth of action, because he failed to recognize both the importance of the event and the measures needed.

Hungarian environmental organizations summarized the Minister's faults in their letter "WHAT DID PÁL PEPÓ FAIL TO DO IN THE CASE OF THE CYANIDE SPILL ON THE TISZA?":

  • He failed to take immediate action in response to the catastrophe
  • He failed to classify the region as a special region in accordance with the Catastrophe Act
  • He failed to address Parliament on the matter and he did not inform the legislature
  • He failed to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in time in order to take necessary steps
  • He failed to inform the European Union and the embassies of Danube countries
  • He failed to hold an international press conference
  • He failed to establish a crisis board
  • He failed to inform the public
  • He failed to propose that the government establish an inter­departmental committee
  • He failed to open the Ministry of Environment’s official allocation for emergency and disasters in order to promote and ease the elimination of damages
  • He failed to seek cooperation with scientists and NGOs
  • It took him more than a week before he traveled to the scene of the disaster to inquire about the damages caused

The angry letter continues with its second part titled "ON THE OTHER HAND, WHAT DID PÁL PEPÓ DO IN THE CYANIDE SPILL CASE?":

  • in his statement to the electronic media he played down the scale of the catastrophe and at the same time he mislead the general public
  • he made himself an object of ridicule by his statement on whether the protected fish species were damaged
  • by his statement “The damaged fish species can be reintroduced from the Fish Farm of Hortobágy to the Tisza River and Szamos River” he proved his complete incompetence and that he has not even a single idea about ecology and the basic principles of the functioning of the biosphere

Finally, the NGOs added, under the heading of "CONSIDERING THE SERIOUSNESS OF THE SITUATION":

  • the Government is requested to draw the necessary conclusions
  • repeatedly declared that we think it very important to provide access, for scientific/technical groups and NGOs who are aware of the environment, to information and participation in the elimination of the impacts of this catastrophe and to prevent such incidents in the future

This case showed that neither the Hungarian Environmental Minister nor even one administrative body could bear the responsibility of handling such a case on its own. Unfortunately, as concerns environmental protection in Hungary, such cases are all too common. They must share with the public the responsibility of evaluating the facts, working out the range of possible solutions and executing the best and most effective ones. In the case of the Tisza River spill, Hungarian authorities hardly made an effort to involve the public in the decision-making process. This was a serious fault.

Fortunately, the press and the NGOs made their own job. They played an enormous and indispensable role in informing the public.

The role of the press

Hungarian press followed the events, as soon as the importance was realized. Naturally, information was not forthcoming from the Romanian side. Consequently, while the poison flume continued down river and killed masses of fish, the written and electronic media could produce only pictures of dead fish and report on desperate interviews with local people begging for answers. In this phase, the Hungarian Environmental Minister still tried to bagatellize the catastrophe, even denying that the term "catastrophe" should be used.

At this point, the Western European press took the lead. Swedish State television brought out its first documentary report on February 7th. The Swedish public was especially sensitive to this topic because of the similar case of a Swedish Company in Spain. Soon thereafter, Western journalists flooded Hungary, and showed curiosity for extraofficial opinions. That week WWF-Hungary and other concerned Hungarian NGOs gave numerous interviews to foreign journalists.

NGO Activity

NGO activities were threefold: information, controlling and independent activities.

a.

NGOs themselves traveled to the scene the quickest amongst all of the participants. They made their own measurements and assessments and they made the piecemeal work of picking up information from the reluctant authorities. Environmental inspectorates seemingly received a central order not to give out information, while the water management authorities were just reluctant because of their decades long reflexes. However, those who had enough personal connections (i.e., knowing the people with information) could gain the water quality information quickly and accurately.

It is typical that the Hungarian Public Information Agency (MTI) received its information from a green activist who was well-connected and painstaking enough to collect and summarize it. At the same time, we have to state that --owing to the urgent nature of the case-- even the concerned Hungarian NGOs did not consider informing the public to be a priority issue.

b.

The main priority of the concerned Hungarian environmental NGOs was to supervise the environmental and water management authorities in their decision-making processes in order to ensure quick and effective responses. NGOs had a decisive role in making the Hungarian Government consider the Tisza cyanide spill of high enough priority to assign a State Commissioner to manage governmental activities.

NGOs accessed the Hungarian Parliament through the NGO-friendly leader of the Parliament's Environmental Committee. The open letter of the NGO coalition to the MPs contained their main requests for items such as: 1) the organization of an international committee to examine the case; 2) the summarizing of scattered official and NGO research; 3) the provision of funds for research; 4) proper information to the press and the public about the consequences of the pollution, and about the possibilities of restoration; and 5) preparation of proper international legal tools of information and responsibility and amendment of cooperation of the several governmental and non-governmental parties.

c.

Feeling the need to concentrate their efforts, fourteen individual NGOs formed the Tisza Platform. Apart from the information and controlling work, each member had its own monitoring programme. For instance, the Foundation for Otters had 20 control sites along the Szamos river and 54 along the Tisza.

The coalition organized a forum in Budapest, held on the 17th of February, to measure consequences of the disaster and to determine further activities. At the forum the long-range ecological processes and effects were discussed, the possibilities for international cooperation were surveyed, and an investigation of the legal side of the case began. The forum resulted in a call for the government to strengthen monitoring, to inform the public on a regular basis, to work out a rehabilitation programme and to start substantial cooperation with neighboring countries in the issue of protection of international waterways.

On February 15th, Environmental NGOs organized a demonstration in Tokaj to express their discontent and to urge the government to take much more effective steps in the case.

Information situation on the Romanian side

Naturally we have much less information about the events and situation on the Romanian side of the border, but there are some characteristic traits which underline the basic factors in such cases.

In Romania there was significantly less press information on the cyanide pollution catastrophe. The Hungarian language Transylvanian newspaper "Hargita Népe" brought one of its first announcements about the case on the 10th of February. The Csíkszereda Partnership office (Partnership is an NGO network which has offices in several Central European countries) had no substantial information about the case at this time.

Although the Romanian government wanted to handle the case in the most correct way possible and they strove to cooperate with the Hungarian counterpart agencies at the highest level, they simply underestimated the environmental case itself and the international press campaign about it, as well.

Legal, institutional, practical problems to be addressed by the policy and capacity building workshops

  • how could we develop legal guarantees that state organisations, administrative bodies inform the public immediately, as soon as they receive information about serious environmental catastrophes (we should take into consideration positive, incentive, administrative procedural type of guarantees and negative, sanctioning ones, too, on the field os labour law and even criminal law, too; the incentives, deatiled and mandatory procedural rules and the sanctions should refer to the timeliness and exhaustiveness of the information, as well).
     

  • the role of media in promoting right to environmental information (refinement of entitlements of the representatives of the media in access to information matters; training needs; need for independent analyses on the environmental sensitivity of the media)
     

  • establishing the proper legal and technical conditions enabling NGOs to make independent measurings of ambient environmental quality and of emissions of polluters (standardisation issues; training and equipment; crating independent expert centres, laboratories; financial background)
     

  • institutionalising the relations between the environmental inspectorates and the NGOs of a certain region (lobby list; mutual training and other invitations; workshops, leaflets, other information exchange; the possibilities of creating normative frames, the danger of losing independence and how could we avoid the phenomenon of “the favourite NGO of the authority”)
     

  • the best available technics of forming NGO coalitions (examples from international alliances, networks; handling the communication problems; independency and legitimacy problems)

Contents of this page:

Description of the Events

Preliminary evaluation of the consequences

The role of the press

NGO Activity

Information situation on the Romanian side

Legal, institutional and practical problems

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