Brussels: Student-led demonstration focuses on environmental liability

The Hungarian Student Association in Leuven, Belgium (LEMDE) has held a demonstration about the cyanide contamination of the Szamos, Tisza and Danube rivers in front of the Australian Embassy in Brussels.

The demonstrators, who descended on the Australian Embassy on 2 March, want the Australian mining firm Esmeralda Exploration to pay full compensation for the spill, but they realise that Esmeralda is a small company and may not pay much or any compensation. “That’s why one of our demands is that the Australian Government take some responsibility,” Balazs Vizi of LEMDE told edie.

According to Vizi, the Australian government officials have been in touch with its Romanian and Hungarian counterparts, but that “they are still debating the amount of damage that has been caused”.

“We want to stop Western companies from using our environment in Central and Eastern Europe as dumping grounds for hazardous technologies,” Vizi says. “Companies like Esmeralda exploit the weaker environmental legislation and lower public awareness in countries like Romania to carry out their dirty business.”

Until the spill took place, Esmeralda’s joint venture with Romania’s mining agency to extract gold from tail minings was being hailed as a resounding success in Australia’s business press. The mine tailings process, which is not accepted in the EU, involves the use of cyanide for extraction. The spill occurred when a dam holding mine tailings was breached. Esmeralda immediately denied that its operation was unsafe, saying that excessive rain and snowfall was to blame for the breach (see related story). The company also argued that the fish kill documented in the Tisza could not be blamed solely on the release of cyanide from its operation.

Eventually, Esmeralda admitted that the spill – referred to in some reports as the worst in the EU since Chernobyl – was the sole cause of the environmental disaster. “It was a really hard struggle to make them acknowledge their responsibility,” says Vizi, who believes the firm may declare bankruptcy and thus avoid paying compensation.

LEMDE also wants to see EU environmental liability legislation given greater priority. It is asking the EU to apply its proposed environmental liability directive (see related story) to Central and Eastern European countries even before they accede to the EU.

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