"It could scarcely be more beautiful, but this quiet corner of Transylvania is the scene of one of Europe's most devastating disasters."
On British TV screens on 20 May, a BBC documentary team journeyed to Baia Mare, Romania to investigate the background to and consequences of the massive pollution of the River Tisza that occurred there on 30 January this year. It made for depressing viewing.
A flurry of articles on the pollution incident appeared in the British press back in February, as the scale of the calamity slowly emerged. It is thought that over 100 tonnes of cyanide - estimated by Greenpeace to be enough, if taken in pill form, to kill one billion people - as well as very dangerous quantities of heavy metals such as lead and cadmium were leaked into the waterways of Central Europe. The poisonous water was carried through Romania, Hungary, the former Yugoslavia and, via the Danube, along the Romanian-Bulgarian border, already an environmentally sensitive spot.
To add to the damage, six weeks after the first incident, a dam was breached at another mine, leading to a leak of polluted water containing 20,000 tonnes of lead and zinc. This further release occurred in Baia Borsa, upstream from Baia Mare, and hence it polluted the only stretch of the River Tisza to have escaped the 30 January leak.
For the most part, British press coverage of the issue had recently dried up, apart from Charles Clover's major feature in The Daily Telegraph on 13 May. So, George Monbiot's documentary, "Our Poison," broadcast in the regular Correspondent Europe slot early on Saturday evening, was a welcome effort to draw attention to a disaster widely dubbed the worst environmental crisis since Chernobyl. Monbiot also wrote an accompanying article in The Guardian ("The dead zone," 19 May) on the same topic.
The pollution occurred when 100,000 tons of cyanide-contaminated water leaked from a commercial lake near Baia Mare run by Aurul, a Romanian-Australian firm, which is 50 per cent owned by the Australian firm Esmeralda. Cyanide is used in a process to extract gold from the dusty "tailings" left over from gold mining at the Transylvanian site, and the lake in question contained a sludge in which water and cyanide were mixed with the tailings before the gold could be separated out.
Nearly all fish in the Tisza, and much other wildlife, were killed in the toxic downstream waters of the great European rivers Tisza and Danube. Ground water, drinking water and in some places air were rendered poisonous, and unknown tracts of farmland are now potentially lethal. Monbiot demonstrated that in addition to the cyanide danger, farmland near the site of the leak contained levels of copper, zinc, lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic that cause conditions in man ranging from nausea and respiratory problems to cancer and brain damage.
"The 90-hectare pond Aurul has built," wrote Monbiot, "looks rather like one of the gravel pits you see in the Thames Valley, but there is so much cyanide in the water that when birds fly over it, they drop dead."
On screen, Monbiot succeeded in causing some discomfort to the British manager of Aurul, Martin Churchhouse, challenging him at a public meeting by asking why it was that apparently no warnings had been given to local residents for days after the leak was discovered, and no compensation had subsequently been paid. Mr Churchhouse avoided the question of the presence of high levels of heavy metals, which can pose more serious problems in the longer-term than cyanide.
In a classic doorstep interview, Monbiot turned up for a 9am interview with Churchhouse, which the latter had agreed to on screen, only to be told the meeting was cancelled and to be refused entry to the factory site. Had Churchhouse never intended to turn up, viewers speculated, or had he in the meantime been given orders by his seniors not to co-operate? Either way, Monbiot seemed to inwardly relish the confrontation with Churchhouse's official at the factory gate.
But the further theme of Monbiot's coverage, more so in print than in the television piece, was that such a toxic disaster is "among the least of the region's problems: a minor component of a permanent public health catastrophe." Amid the rolling Carpathian foothills, Monbiot found poisonous factories causing endless daily miseries for the local population in what he termed "possibly the most polluted place in Europe." Ironically, Aurul's efforts were part of a commercial plan to clean up the toxic "tailings" - from which the deadly fine dust blows through Baia Mare. This dust is believed to cause terrible suffering: "nearly four per cent of all babies born in Baia Mare so far this year suffer from serious disabilities."
Even more ironically, the pollution is caused by the very substances that should bring wealth to the population: "With its massive deposits of valuable metals, this should be one of the richest regions on earth," commented Monbiot in "Our Poison." "But thanks to the deadly legacy of state Communism, compounded by unregulated Capitalism, this great wealth has not enriched the people's lives but ruined them."
If there is a note of hope, it is maybe that the disaster has been the spur for some environmental campaigners in Romania we see on screen, distributing information to churchgoers.
Oliver Craske, 27 May 2000
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- archive of articles by Oliver Craske
- Read CER's in-depth coverage of the Tisza River disaster in:
A River Dies: Part I, Part II and Part III