Hungary to seek compensation from Romania over cyanide spill

An accident at the first gold mine to be commissioned in Romania since new regulations on mining were introduced in 1998 has led to serious cyanide contamination of the Tisza River.

A breach in a dam holding back mine tailings led to a large-scale cyanide spill into the Tisza on Sunday 30 January. Heavy rain and snowfall is being blamed for the breach. The mine in question is a joint venture between Australia’s Esmeralda Exploration and Romania’s state mining agency.

The mine is located in north west Romania near the Hungarian border. Contamination of the river Tisza has led to anger and calls for compensation from Hungarian politicians. Some Hungarian cities and towns take all of their drinking water from the river. Hundreds of people living along the river have been evacuated and a large fish kill and dead birds have been confirmed.

The Tizsa empties into the Danube and some people are calling this spill the worst environmental disaster in the region in at least a decade.

Esmeralda Exploration officials have denied Romanian claims that repeated warnings had been issued regarding the safety of the tailings dam. Esmeralda contends that only one site visit from Romanian EPA officials has taken place since the smelter opened last March and that the EPA visit produced only one suggestion, completely unrelated to the safety of the dam.

With reports of 700 times the allowable cyanide levels being recorded close to the spill site and three times the legal limit further downstream, Esmeralda Exploration may be in a difficult position. It owns 50% of the smelter, which extracts gold by reprocessing mine tailings. The company was heralded as a great success by the Australian business media when seven years of negotiations with Romanian officials paid off and the joint venture plant opened last spring. Now, Hungary is seeking compensation and Romanian government representatives have said there are planning to sue Esmeralda for allegedly ignoring requests for environmental safety improvements.

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