Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 8
28 February 2000

Csardas C S A R D A S:
Aquatic Chernobyl
Part Two: Anatomy of a disaster

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

(read part one HERE)

As the following words from the floor of the European Parliament make clear, the Tisza River disaster is not simply a Hungarian or Romanian problem; it affects all of Europe.

Let me associate myself, not least as a former Environment Minister, completely and without any reservation whatsoever, with the expressions of concern by honourable Members.

An objective assessment of the facts is not easy at this stage. But early reports suggest that the poisoning of the Lepos, Somes [Szamos] and Danube rivers is a very serious environmental tragedy. It had destroyed an entire ecosystem in a matter of days. No living organisms, from microbes to otters, have been spared.

Several Members have set out what seems to have happened. We have all seen some of the consequences on our television screens. In terms of destruction to an ecosystem some environmental experts have put the environmental consequences of this disaster, at least so far as the damage to the ecosystem is concerned, on a par with Chernobyl.

It has affected the peoples of three countries - Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia. It is the Tisza, Hungary's second river, perhaps its most beautiful and most loved by its people, that has borne the brunt. As with all such disasters it is the long-term consequences that are the most pernicious. Some estimates suggest that it could take up to five years to restock the river. There is a continuing threat to other wildlife from eating toxic fish.

We plainly have a responsibility to do everything we can, as rapidly as we can, to help cope with this catastrophe. That is certainly the view of my colleague, Commissioner Wallström, who I know would have wished to respond to this resolution in person today. The reason she cannot do so is because, as some honourable Members have pointed out, she is in Hungary and Romania to see for herself the extent of the damage and how best we can help the Hungarian and Romanian authorities to tackle the crisis.

We stand ready to do so. We contacted the Romanian Government and the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River about the accident earlier this month to seek more information urgently. The Romanians have approached UNEF and OCHA, in Geneva, for an assessment of the damage in the Danube catchment area by an independent and international team of experts. We stand ready to assist in this assessment if there is a joint request from Hungary and Romania and if access to the sites for nationals of both countries can be guaranteed, that is obviously crucial. It is plainly essential to establish as rapidly as possible an accurate picture of the scope of the damage so that we can decide exactly how best to tackle it. It is to that end that our efforts are now engaged.

There is also a need to clarify the legal responsibilities of the mining company and of the Romanian authorities. This is an important point, as several speakers have suggested. The polluter-pays principle is a cornerstone of European Union environmental policy. It is mirrored in the International Convention for the Protection and Sustainable Use of the Danube River and it should be applied in this case.

The European Union could not substitute itself for the mining company for any compensation payments due. The Union has mobilised some EUR 20 million over the past seven years to support protection of the Danube River basin. In the context of pre-accession aid to the region it may be possible to redirect some of the assistance we are giving under ISPAR and PHARE to tackle the most severe impact of this accident, as long as the polluter-pays principle is fully respected.

We will want, in the longer term, to see what lessons can be learned from this disaster, above all to see how to prevent such disasters happening in
"This has been an appalling tragedy for Europe"
the first place. The incident reinforces the case for a strengthening of European civil protection, along the lines suggested by Mr Prodi in his recent speech and as suggested by one or two Members today. But for now the priority is to cope with this crisis. As I have said, my colleague, Commissioner Wallström, is on the spot today. She will want to keep Parliament closely in touch with the action she proposes as a result of her visit.

This has been an appalling tragedy for Europe, and Europe has to respond and do all it can to ensure that incidents as dreadful as these do not continue to blight our future.

Commissioner Chris Patten in front of the European Parliament concluding the debate on issues of topical and urgent importance held in Strasbourg on Thursday, 17 February.

The Parliament subsequently adopted a Resolution with the following text:

The European Parliament,

A. alarmed at the ecological, environmental, agricultural and social disaster caused by the spillage of cyanide from a gold mine, located in Aurul, Romania, and owned by a company formed by the Romanian government, Remin S.A., and the Australian company Esmerelda Exploration Limited based in Perth,

B. whereas more than 100,000 cubic metres of water heavily poisoned by cyanide has polluted the Lepos and Somes rivers in Romania, the Tisza in Hungary and the Danube in Serbia and Bulgaria,

C. considering the threat this disaster represents for the delta of the Danube, one of the most important wetlands in Europe covering some 4,300 square kilometres,

D. whereas the concentrations of cyanide have been found to be over seven hundred times the normal levels, killing vast numbers of fish, birds and aquatic flora,

E. whereas this accident has greatly damaged natural ecosystems, leading to loss of biodiversity, contamination of food chains and of drinking and agricultural water resources by heavy metals deposited in the river, and will affect the life of all inhabitants of the region, especially fishermen and those involved in local tourism,

1. Expresses its sympathy and support for the countries affected by this catastrophe;

2. Considers that the EU should intervene to help the countries affected by this ecological disaster and calls on the scientific community, environmental groups and the EU institutions to provide all necessary assistance and to take part in the major clean-up operation required;

3. Notes that, according to the information available, the Aurul mine was using technology that did not comply with the EU environmental acquis communautaire and calls on the Romanian authorities to do their best to speed up the incorporation of the acquis, particularly in the field of industrial safety;

4. Considers that according to the polluter-pays principle, the owners of the Aurul mining company should accept full responsibility by compensating victims, financing the clean-up of the areas affected by the disaster and paying for the ecological damage;

5. Believes that EC legislation on industrial safety, pollution prevention and liability for environment and consumers should, under no circumstances, be subject to derogation during the negotiations with the applicant countries;

6. Restates its proposal that an EU civil protection corps be created in order to provide and co-ordinate emergency assistance for industrial and/or natural disasters;

7. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission, the Romanian, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Yugoslav Governments, the Aurul mining company and the Esmeralda Exploration Limited company [B5-0164, 0167, 0168, 0173 and 0179/2000, adopted on 17 February 2000].

Dismay and sadness at the tragedy are by no means confined to Hungary and Romania, but the benign influence of the EU on the process of tackling the myriad problems arising from the cyanide poisoning can be felt in subtler ways than the declarations and resolutions reproduced above. The prospect of enlargement (and subliminal anxieties as to whether the catastrophe might lead to a postponement of the day of accession or jeopardise chances of membership at all) has been enough in itself to change attitudes. A spirit of co-operation is fostered and the governments of candidate countries are spared the need for a ritual of mutual recriminations as well as that of covering up the true extent of what went on, paying obeisance to the hollow, ideologically based cordiality between representatives of to sister parties.

By incorporating rigorous environmental standards into the acquis communautaire (the corpus of legislation forming the main body of agreed law implemented throughout the EU and which all candidate countries are obliged to transpose into national legislation prior to
the EU has made quite sure that aspirants will clean up their acts
joining the Union, negotiated waivers notwithstanding) and stipulating that the environmental dimension shall be taken into account throughout the entire spectrum of community policies, the EU has made quite sure that aspirants to membership have to clean up their acts. In this context, the much-vaunted polluter-pays principle acts as a protective counterbalance against the depredations of profit-fixated exploitative multinationals, the champions of unbridled capitalism.

Within the current member states, the earth is no longer being regarded as a mere storehouse to be raided at will. Resources are recognised as being scarce, nature as vulnerable as well as bountiful. Human, animal and plant health take precedence over gain (though sadly this is all too often is left by the board for electoral dividends, sheer incompetence or simple greed) and the EU has set an excellent example in the standards it has adopted in affording protection. The gap that yawns between the candidate countries and the "centre" will evidently have to be closed if the net contributors, such as Germany, are not to balk at the unattractive prospect of injecting untold billions into a bottomless environmental pit.

Anatomy of a disaster

What follows is a detailed chronicle of the disaster seen from the point of view of Hungarian public opinion, both in the Budapest and in the provinces. A certain degree of tension became gradually apparent, based on suspicions of myopia on the part of the capital and apathy on the part of the government, both of which provoked a response...

Sunday, 30 January

22.00 The dam of the wastewater reservoir bursts, discharging almost 100,000 cubic metres of water into the Zazar and Lapos (Lepos).

Monday, 31 January

The Romanian environmental and water authorities inform their Hungarian counterparts of the pollution of the Szamos, of its nature and the catastrophic proportions it had assumed.

Tuesday, 1 February

At 16.00 hours, the pollution crosses the Hungarian border. Samples taken at Csenger show 35.5 milligrams of cyanide per litre of water in the Szamos. A Defence Committee is set up. Information is passed on to the media and to organisations co-operating in the defence work. The Ministry of the Environment contacts the Committee and proposals on how to protect both the environment and the human population are agreed on.

Wednesday, 2 February

Mr Attila Madarai, a dam-keeper, spots the first dead fish in the River Szamos at four am at Túnyogmatolcs, fuelling fears of an ecological disaster involving all living organisms in the river, from humble plankton to sturgeon. A layer of ice, breaking up in patches, hampered efforts to gauge the real extent of the damage. Although the poisonous substances (cyanide and heavy metal compounds) had become diluted, measurements taken near the mouth of the Tisza in the afternoon showed that the cyanide concentration was two hundred times that of the permitted quantity. Water drawn from wells dug along the Szamos and Upper Tisza was deemed unsuitable for drinking or cooking, a ban on fishing was introduced, and the dead fish were not be used to feed livestock.

According to Mr Sándor Szőke, head of the Upper Tisza Regional Environmental Inspectorate based in Nyíregyháza, cyanide concentrations at Csenger had reached 32.5 milligrams a litre, 325 times that of the permitted level. Continuous monitoring was called for (the Inspectorate was taking samples for analysis from the Szamos every two hours at Csenger and Túnyogmatolcs), not only to determine whether the concentrations were on the decrease, but also because the city of Szolnok draws its entire water supply directly from the surface waters of the Tisza, of which the Szamos is a tributary. The work of the observation teams was subsequently extended to encompass Vásárosnamény, Lónya and Záhony. One of the problems involved in producing precise estimates of the level of pollution was that the concentrations by the riverbanks and those in the main current could be expected to differ. Here too, the ice formed the main obstacle, preventing the dedicated experts from venturing midstream.

There were major discrepancies between the information arriving from Romania and the results of local Hungarian analyses: the water authorities in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca) revealed concentrations of 77 milligrams of cyanide per litre, the corresponding figure from the Hungarian stretch of the Szamos was only 18. Subsequent, more accurate laboratory analysis of water samples taken between six and ten o'clock showed that the true figure was in excess of 30 milligrams per litre.

Mr Sándor Istenes, in charge of the Bereg County Disaster Protection Board, introduced stringent preventive measures, informing the inhabitants of a cluster of small settlements between Olcsva and Tiszaszentmárton of the hazards of using river water from the Tisza. At the same time, however, he and his staff were quick to provide reassurance concerning the safety of tap water.

Two hundred cubic metres flow down the Szamos every second and four hundred down the Tisza. The inexorable progress of the pollution downstream meant that the relevant local water boards had to keep in constant touch with each other as well as in a permanent state of alert in order to keep the harmful substances out of the irrigation and industrial supply channels connected to the Tisza (the source for this section was Tamás Romhányi's article in Népszabadság, 3 February 2000).

Thursday, 3 February

The pollution enters the Tisza at 04.00 hours.

In preparation for the arrival of the cyanide in Záhony, the Upper Tisza Regional Environment Inspectorate lower the sluice gates of the East and West main channels in order to safeguard the drinking water supplies in Debrecen and smaller towns and villages in Hajdú-Bihar County.

The Mayor of Szolnok, Mr Ferenc Szalay, announces at a press conference that he expects the pollution to reach Szolnok (population 80,000) by Saturday at the latest, and that it may prove necessary to shut down the drinking water network on a temporary basis. The local inhabitants would be given plenty of warning.

Mr Gábor Szilágyi, Deputy Director of the Hortobágyi National Park responsible for the region, lamented the prospect of lasting ecological damage to life in the two rivers. Fourteen protected fish species are to be found in the waters of the Szamos and Upper Tisza, including the zingel (magyar buco, or aspro zingel), the pénzes pér (thymallus thymallus) and the halványfoltú küllő (gobio albipinnatus, a species of gudgeon). What these fish have in common is that they prefer fast-flowing, oxygen-rich watercourses.

Six years ago, an earlier incidence of serious pollution caused by a mining accident upset the ecological balance of the Túr. On that occasion, toxic heavy metals flowed down river from Romania, inflicting such severe damage on the river's ecosystem that it has not recovered to this day. Iván Gyulai, a biologist, predicted that the Szamos would be in a better position to convalesce, as its entire length was not affected. This would allow for a gradual spread of regenerating life from its upper reaches.

Carla Chivu of the Romanian Ministry of Water, Forests and Environmental Protection stated that the maximum fine which the Ministry could impose on Aurul for the pollution of the Lapos (Lepos) and the Szamos would be a meagre 75 million lei. Liliana Mara, on behalf of the Ministry's water authority, stressed that the Romanian-Hungarian Environmental Agreement only provided for mutual information and assistance. This obligation had already been complied with, since the Romanian authorities had immediately informed their Hungarian counterparts of the spillage. The Agreement did not contain any stipulations on compensation (the source for this section was Népszabadság, 4 February 2000).

Friday, 4 February

The pollution continues on its path of destruction, arriving at Tuzsér on the Tisza, having killed off every living being in the Szamos. 68 communities are prohibited from coming into contact with water from either the Tisza or the Szamos. Népszabadság journalist Attila Varga interviewed locals in Szamosszeg, sounding them out concerning their reactions and apprehensions. Béla Simai, dam-keeper responsible for the 30 kilometre stretch of river between Csenger and Olcsva, recounted how large numbers of people had been making their way to the riverside to gaze at the devastation. Under normal circumstances, keen local anglers would be only too quick to take out the fishing rods concealed in their pockets, or the gear hidden away amongst the undergrowth to catch carp, pike-perch and the like. Mr Simai claimed that water quality in the river left a lot to be desired even prior to the current catastrophe, nor was this the first episode of pollution from Romania. Industrial plants had discharged untreated wastewater into the river without informing the Hungarian water authorities. In summer heat waves, filthy brown foam collected in clumps by the riverbanks, an unedifying sight deterring all but the most foolhardy of bathers. The situation was quite different a number of years ago, when locals decked in swimming costumes paddled carefree in the river. "Last summer I didn't dare to go in even up to my ankles, the river water was so murky" Mr Simai, whose duties have been extended to include taking samples every two hours for analysis in the laboratories at Nyíregyháza.

András Molnár, Mayor of the village of Szamosszeg, cites gloomy statistics concerning a population of 2220 souls, many of whom are young children or elderly. 23 per cent of the 600 individuals of active age are unemployed and 135 receive some form of income support. The majority live off the land or pensions. As a result, fish poached from the river is a nutritious staple for many locals. In spite of this, the villagers have respected the ban on angling, heeding the warnings printed in the columns of the local newspapers and announced over the loudspeakers of civil defence vehicles. The Mayor can still recall the days when the people of Szamosszeg would go to the river armed with cans to fill up with drinking water. No one fell ill from it. How great the contrast with the present day, when consuming the untreated water would be virtually suicidal!

Sándor Szőke reports that microscopic organisms have begun returning to the Szamos, although the more sensitive fish stocks will require far longer to regenerate. The Nyíregyháza laboratories conducted experiments in which guppies and water fleas from aquariums were released into water collected from the Szamos only to die instantly. Decay of the dead fish trapped beneath the ice could lead to the further poisoning and oxygen starvation for the remaining flora and fauna in the river.

Along the Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok section of the Tisza and across the entire extent of the Tisza Lake, including the backwaters, a blanket ban on fishing and angling is imposed (for this section, see Népszabadság, 5 February).

The East and West sluice gates were lowered at Tiszavasvári to prevent the cyanide from entering the conduits used for providing Debrecen and other towns and villages with their drinking water supplies.

The tone of reports in Délmagyarország, the local newspaper for Szeged and Csongrád County in general, was sombre, yet calm: it was not yet possible to predict the concentrations that would be involved once the pollution hit the county, though its inexorable progression at a speed of two kilometres an hour meant that it would arrive the following week. There was no need to panic, as the water level in the tributaries of the Tisza had risen, and this would mean that the concentration of pollutants could be expected to fall considerably, perhaps even to a level close to the maximum permitted amount.

Drinking water supplies in Szeged could be considered safe, as they are drawn to the surface from a depth of two to three hundred metres and are sealed off by alters of rock, so that even in the worst case scenario, the pollutants would take several thousand years to seep their way down.

In Csongrád county, experts were on standby with water quality measurements being taken at regular intervals at Mindszent, Tápé and Tiszasziget, as well as in the vicinity of the city of Csongrád (see Délmagyarország, 4 February).

Saturday, 5 February

Staff of the Water Board for Northern Hungary (évízig) remove large quantities of dead fish from the Tisza. Icebreakers stationed at Tokaj began clearing the ice in order to facilitate the task.

Szilárd Podmaniczky writes poignantly in Délmagyarország about the frustration caused by the Ministry of the Environment's perceived failure to rise to the occasions:

Recently at Tiszaújváros, whilst travelling to Miskolc I could hardly recognise the Tisza as the real Tisza because its waters were the way the waters of a proper river, or we might even say like river living up to EU standards, should be. Of course, this was just by looking at it with the naked eye, although that is already quite something. Now the cyanide is coming downstream on this beautiful water... Nor is this the first occasion on which the rivers flowing into the Tisza from Romania have covered it (with pollution). Up to now, the fish have just about managed to cope with the onslaught and, thanks to the spates of the last two years every fisherman had taken it on trust that there would once again be a decent quantity of fish in the Tisza. Now, however, the season has barely got going and the cyanide is here. On top of everything else the damage that might be caused cannot yet be predicted. The Szamos has not been "sterilised for good". At times like this, you would expect the Ministry of the Environment to pick up the gauntlet, as it were. It hasn't though. Everyone in the Ministry is still preoccupied with Csaba Aradi [this is a reference to a recent scandal in which Csaba Aradi was the main dramatis personae, responsible for the unlawful purchase of land adjoining the National Park at Hortobágy, which belonged not to the State, but to a number of smallholders, although he was acquitted when the disciplinary proceedings launched against him reached Court], whilst the second largest river in the country is threatened by an incalculable danger. All that they are saying is that "We were informed in good time about the danger, and the information we received is correct". And they are happy to make do with that? It's as if they're not on top of things at all. It's as if having got hold of correct information the whole problem had been solved! The mind boggles, it really does! Or perhaps they are just biding their time until the bodies of the dead fish choke up the whole river? I bet that's what they're waiting for! Because what guarantee is there that the cyanide dam won't rupture again tomorrow? There is no such guarantee at all. Even though there is, according to our information, no international agreement covering payments of compensation in cases of this type, that's the sort of thing the Ministry ought to be dealing with, seeing to it that one comes into existence. Of course I am more than aware that one of the problems here is that the Tisza does not flow through Budapest. Alongside a lot of other problems as well (see the edition of 5 February).

Sunday, 6 February

The Central Tisza Region Environmental Protection Inspectorate decrees that second-degree water quality protection measures be introduced. This involves samples being taken every four hours from the stretch of the river between Tiszafüred and Szolnok.

Anxiety amongst inhabitants of the city on the Great Plain has become palpable, with long queues forming at the public artesian wells, which pump warm, mineral-rich water from a depth of 3,700 metres. The assembled crowds fill empty soft drinks bottles, jerry cans and even 50 litre drums, loading them into bicycle saddlebags, shopping trolleys and even small lorries. Groceries and supermarkets profit from a roaring trade in bottled mineral water, as worried customers horde stocks, preparing for the worst (Népszabadság, 5 and 7 February).

Should the cyanide concentration in the river water exceed the limit value of 0.2 milligrams per litre, the drinking water system for Szolnok, újszász, Zagyvarékas, Szászberek, Tószeg, Rákóczifalva and Rákócziújfalu will be shut off, an exercise that could give rise to unexpected costs: once the water is allowed to flow back through the pipes again, they might very well burst, causing waste water to seep in with the resulting risk of infections. Pouring water from the reservoirs around the Tisza Lake represents a further precautionary measure, helping to dilute the cyanide concentration.

The growing feeling of panic in Szolnok could have been avoided had plans to invest in an alternative reserve supply to be extracted from the Holt-Tisza by Alcsisziget. The extra capacity thus created would have sufficed to keep the city's inhabitants supplied for at least a fortnight in cases of emergency. State reluctance to aid the city in implementing the proposals drawn up years previously meant that the idea existed only on paper. All for the sake of one and a half billion forints.

"What I want to know is what has happened to Pál Pepó [the Minister of the Environment, ed] at a time like this?" complained one woman, "The cyanide has just about descended on us, talk of an environmental catastrophe is on everyone's lips and he hasn't uttered a single word about what we are supposed to do. Will we get compensation if our river-system goes to pot?"

Ferenc Szalay outlined what steps had already been taken to ensure the city's needs were adequately covered: the capacity of the emergency reservoir amounted to 12,000 cubic metres, which was enough drinking water for eight hours should the worst come to the worst and extraction from the Tisza be called off. Calling on the large-scale consumers, such as the sugar factory, paper mill and chemical plant to limit the amounts they consumed falls within his sphere of responsibility. The water thus spared could then be devoted to individual consumers. If surface water extraction were to be suspended, then supplies to creches, nursery schools and primary and secondary schools would automatically be cut off. Mr Szalay was quick to announce that as long as water came flowing out of the taps, it would be safe to drink. Failing that, preparations had been made to fill plastic bags with water from the artesian wells, with a total capacity of 1,600 litres a day.

The surface water plant at Szolnok is one of the most modern such installations in existence. In May of 1999, a three-year four billion forint upgrade was completed. Various filters were installed to bring purification standards in line with EU regulations. The plant is now capable of purifying 45,000 cubic metres of water a day, of which Szolnok and the six surrounding communities consume a daily average of 22 to 25,000 cubic metres. However, the system cannot cope with filtering out more than 0.1 milligrams of cyanide per litre. Although the Hungarian Public Health Board (áNTSZ, az állami Népegészségügyi Tisztiorvosi Szolgálat) would allow twice this amount to pass through the system, further measures would be required to guarantee public safety, such as disinfecting the water supply with chlorine.

After breaking through the ice at Tokaj, 200 kilograms of dead fish are lifted out of the river by local water board staff.

Cyanide concentrations above Tiszalök and throughout the entire length of the Szamos in Hungary dropped, with values approaching the maximum permitted amount of 0.1 milligrams per litre. These glad tidings, however, did not give rise to undiluted optimism: the entire fish stocks of the Szamos and the stretch of the Tisza above Tiszalök had died.

The Prefect's Office in Nagybánya (Baie Mare) imposed a three million lei fine on Aurul for pollution caused in the Zazar and the Lapos. The grounds cited for the punishment was that the company had failed to give immediate notice of the accident leading to the spillage until 24 hours after it had occurred. The Prefect, Mr Gheorge Mihai Birlea, and a representative of the Romanian Water Authority reproached the County Buildings Department for having failed to inspect the safety of the dam in June of last year when the purifying basin was handed over. According to Mr Birlea, had the inspection taken place, the present disaster could have been prevented. By 1 March, environmental experts from the Disaster Prevention Committee would have to complete a tour of inspection of all areas in the County where potential health hazards were to be found and steps would have to be taken to rectify the situation wherever problems were uncovered.

A slightly different version of events was given by árpád Virág, Director of the County Buildings Department. He reckoned that the entire burden of guilt lay squarely on the shoulders of Aurul, as the construction work itself had been technically sound and the fault was in the running of the water purifying plant.

The Lower Tisza Region Environmental Inspectorate called for a stage two alert in communities along the river.

Monday, 7 February

Mr Gábor Bagi, Deputy Under Secretary of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, summoned Romanian Ambassador Petru Cordos to discuss the environmental disaster. Mr Bagi informed the Ambassador of the extent of the catastrophe in Hungary, particularly in the Tisza, and of the urgency with which effective action would have to be taken. Mr Bagi also requested the Ambassador contact the government in Bucharest with a view to procuring more detailed information on the precise causes of the pollution, what had been done to alleviate the damage and what measures had been adopted to ensure that similar disasters could not happen.

In Szabadság, Kolozsvár's [Cluj-Napoca] Hungarian language newspaper, Liliana Mara, head of the Romanian Water Authority in the Ministry of the Environment, pointed out that Romania would not pay Hungary compensation for the cyanide pollution, as the only obligation stipulated under the Environmental Agreement between the two countries was that of providing information and assistance.

In the course of the morning the pollution arrived at Tiszafüred. This meant that Szolnok could expect it to enter the city's vicinity on the morning of 8 February, taking approximately 30 hours to pass by, out of the immediate surroundings. As a result, the Central Tisza Region Water Board declared that the damage-prevention efforts should be stepped up to stage three and new tap outlets had been fitted to the Szolnok's artesian wells to cut queues. Announcements were broadcast via local radio and TV stations advising inhabitants of the city and neighbouring communities to stock up on tap water for safety's sake until midnight, using whatever vessels available to them. After midnight, the water would still be suitable for washing dishes, clothes, taking baths and flushing toilets.

Five lorries, each equipped with water containers with a capacity of 7,000 litres, set off from the capital to Szolnok to help distribute water brought to the surface from the artesian wells (for this and the preceding sections see Népszabadság, 8 February).

According to Sándor Szőke, pollution levels in the Szamos had become negligible, and the situation had likewise improved near Tisza Dombrád and Tiszabercel (see source listed above).

Dead fish would be collected by civil defence workers and transported to carcass-disposal pits and animal protein processing plants for destruction so that they would not present any further hazard to the environment (Magyar Nemzet, 8 February).

The Hungarian Anglers' Association (Mohosz, a Magyar Horgászok Szövetsége) was not yet able to give even a rough estimate of the damage caused to fish stocks and, alongside stopping the issue of daily fishing permits, was buying back valid permits that had been issued before the tragedy struck. Mohosz intended to sue for the damage it had incurred, but would have to wait until the situation became clearer, when the matter of the legal body responsible had been clarified (Magyar Nemzet, 8 February).

Professor Zoltán Varga of the University of Debrecen deplored the way the government had been trying to play down the effects of the pollution on animal life, claiming that it had spoken of the devastating effects in a disparaging manner. This was to ignore the tragedy of the complete extinction of the dunai galóca [hucho hucho, a species of trout, ed] and the impending demise of the tiszavirág [a species of mayfly]. Mr Károly Pintér, Head of Department within the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, by contrast took pains to deny that every single species of fish had sustained equal damage. The chief victims as accounted for by the county fishing authorities had been bream, pike-perch and pike. Carp and wels stocks had not suffered as extensively. Replenishing the various species would not be a problem, as supplies of juvenile fish remained plentiful. The most important contribution that local populations could make to the recovery of fish stocks would be to respect the prohibitions placed on fishing until further notice (Népszabadság, 8 February).

Meanwhile, in Csongrád, tension was mounting in anticipation of the arrival of the cyanide: the Lower Tisza Region Environment Inspectorate stepped up the water quality alert to stage three, keeping in constant touch with colleagues in the Yugoslav Water Authorities (for this and the following section, see Délmagyarország, 8 February). Consumption of water from wells sunk in the flood plain near Szeged was banned even for purposes of watering livestock, as was rowing on the Tisza, fishing, hunting and picking up dead fish washed on to the river banks. Water samples were being taken every six hours to determine the cyanide concentration and local Civil Defence Committees had received instructions as to how best to tackle the emergency. The pollution's slow progression was also being observed from the air.

Csongrád County's Civil Defence Committee held an extraordinary meeting together with experts and organisations involved in monitoring developments and warding off damage. Although the cyanide concentration would be well below the levels experienced in the Tisza's upper reaches, attempts at diluting it by raising the water level at the reservoir in Kisköre made the task of the Csongrád experts more difficult, since the amount of water flowing down the Tisza had swollen by 100 million cubic metres. The main concern of experts would therefore be keeping the river from bursting its banks. A minor flood on the Hármas-Körös led to a high water mark of some 620 centimetres being recorded at Szarvas, increasing the Tisza's rate of flow. A maximum water level of 400 centimetres was calculated for Szeged.

On the reaches where the river banks were not quite as high, however, the soil was already so waterlogged that vehicles had difficulty approaching to deliver the sandbags urgently needed to shore them up. This meant that there was a risk of the polluted water inundating the flood plain. Emergency dams were being hastily erected to afford as much protection as possible to nature conservation and popular recreational areas as well as to seal off the mouths of the flood plain channels. Due to the natural features of the landscape and the limited technological resources available, all these measures could only offer a sure defence against a water level of 450 centimetres.

Dr Kálmán Burger, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Szeged explained that the huge quantities of chemicals that would be required in order to neutralise the cyanide would themselves wipe out the river's biosphere. In time, however, the cyanide would start to break down naturally.

Tuesday, 8 February

A meeting between Hungarian and Romanian experts is held, including a visit to the source of the pollution. No further cyanide pollution from Romania had been detected according to István Pádár, head of the Hungarian delegation at Nagybánya [Baie Mare]. Having examined the state of technology at the gold mine, his fears concerning a repeat of the unfortunate events had been allayed. The same could not be said of the state of a similar plant, which relied on so-called traditional Romanian technology and left a lot to be desired. It was impossible for Mr Pádár to make proposals as to what steps should be taken to remedy the problem there, since the visit had been too short. At the same time, however, he quashed rumours concerning another major cyanide leak. What had happened was that water containing cyanide concentrations slightly above the limit value had escaped, but pollution was restricted to the immediate surroundings of the plant and could therefore not pose any threat to watercourses on Hungarian territory (Délmagyarország, 9 February).

Further details of exactly what had occurred gradually came to light in the course of the day: over a four hour period untreated industrial waste water containing cyanide had made its way into the beleaguered Szamos from another mine at Nagybozinta. The seven milligrams per litre measured was 60 times over the accepted limit (Népszabadság and Magyar Nemzet, 9 February).

In an article entitled "Second Wave", István L. Horváth reacted angrily to the news of the latest episode of pollution:

You can throw a wreath into the Tisza, as the river has died (for quite some time at least). Its waters flow along emptily, gloomily and here and there dead fish float to the surface. If carp and sturgeon could weep, the great river would burst its banks. Everyone, on the other hand, who was ever caressed by the blond Tisza is shedding tears. Those who live by its banks, those who earn a livelihood from it can certainly only cry bitterly in their helpless anger.

The problem is far greater than it appears from a distance. Our country has been struck by an ecological catastrophe. The wave of cyanide that has descended upon us from Romania has killed every living being from single-cell organisms to shellfish, from snails to the giant Balsa wels [a balsai óriás harcsa].

This is a tragedy. Even once the bitter poison has left our country, diluting further as it proceeds, the serious illness it leaves in its wake will still be with us. Not just for days, not just for months. It might take years, maybe even decades for nature to begin to recover. Is it possible to do anything against environmental terrorism? Are we, living at the bottom of the Carpathian Basin, at the mercy of countries situated higher up from us? We can give the answer straight out: we are for the moment, unfortunately. It is more than flesh and blood can bear to observe how the polluting company, at the very site of origin of the poisoning, that the office in the surrounding area and that the powers that be are doing nothing and are trivialising the order of magnitude of the damage done. Apart from diplomatic expressions of regret, nothing has happened at all.

And it is impossible to know just how many such plants, factories and sites exist in the north, north-east and east, which have been banished from the better-off parts of the world because of the risk they pose to the environment and which have been exported into our region on the cheap on the pretext that they are good enough for us as well.

Our lawyers here in Hungary are browsing through the reams of paragraphs in the hope that they might hit upon a passage somewhere along the line, on the basis of which we might be able to wring out some compensation. If this meets with failure, we could turn to the Hague and years of litigation. Of course, we won't get very much further by these means. Europe is a small place and it would be a good thing if, in the midst of globalisation, environmentally friendly technologies, plants and capital destined for investment in suchlike could flow from West to East as rapidly as the companies that bring such quick fix benefits in the business sphere.

We are running out of time: a new wave of poison is approaching the Tisza from the Szamos, with all the dangers this implies (Magyar Nemzet, 9 February).

Mr Pál Pepó, Hungarian Minister of the Environment, was scheduled to travel to Romania to discuss the disaster and broach the issues of disaster prevention and payment of compensation (Népszabadság, 9 February), although, on the latter front, no tangible results were expected to emerge before the summer.

Mr Zoltán Illés, Chairman of the Environment Committee of the Hungarian Parliament, stated that Hungarian and Romanian experts should gauge the extent of the damage sustained and submit a claim for damages to the Romanian government. That the costs could assume giddying proportions was made clear from various estimates, such as the gloomy assessment given by István Hafra, head of the Central Tisza Region Environmental Inspectorate, according to whom 80% of all fish stocks had succumbed to the poison between Tiszafüred and Szolnok. Meanwhile, Mr Illés lamented the sorry state of affairs according to which the local population had to suffer the ecological consequences of the disaster, whilst the polluter pockets the profits of the mining operations. He intended to turn to the Australian ambassador for information (Népszabadság and Magyar Nemzet, 9 February).

Efforts at keeping the population informed and nipping panic in the bud continued in and around Szeged. Reassurances concerning water quality were repeated: the waterworks at Szeged complied with the most stringent of standards, as testified by the ISO 9002 certificate awarded. The laboratories attached to the waterworks tirelessly analysed samples to determine the physical, chemical and bacteriological composition of the water.

Mr Károly Kónya deputy director of the Lower Tisza Region Environmental Inspectorate Atiköfe) took pains to show how the cyanide concentrations would have dropped considerably once they crossed into Csongrád County, whilst Tamás Törköly, head of the water protection department in the Upper Tisza Inspectorate, informed the press that cyanide levels had fallen considerably within the upper reaches and some stretches were altogether cyanide-free.

Warnings about the dangers of drinking direct from the Tisza were reiterated and locals were also discouraged from using water either from the river itself or from the wells sunk along its banks for purposes of watering animals or even plants. Fish and game of uncertain provenance should not be purchased at markets and a ban of indefinite duration was placed on hunting and fishing within a one-kilometre radius of the flood protection embankments. Beyond fish, the ban also extended to freshwater crabs, snails, shellfish, frogs and leeches. Contact with dead fish and animal carcasses was not recommended. All authorised hunters were placed under obligation to report sightings of carcasses to the Csongrád County Hunting Authority or the local vet, dam-keeper or local authority to ensure safe disposal of the unfortunate animals by vets (Délmagyarország, 9 February).

The first wave of cyanide crossed into the Szolnok area. Mr Ferenc Szalay, Mayor of the city, did his best to allay fears by giving interviews both on local and national radio. Constant monitoring would provide sufficient information in order to decide whether the water works would be in a position to guarantee that supplies remain drinkable. If not, the city would begin using the reserves, which would cover needs for six to eight hours. Once these reserves were exhausted, the network would be closed down. As long as water came out of the taps, it would be entirely safe to drink.

Many of the people queuing for water at the artesian wells expressed their doubts about the tap water fuelled by a barrage of conflicting rumours. The message that the reports of a fresh incident of cyanide pollution from Romania would not affect Hungary had obviously not come across as locals were seriously contemplating hoarding further supplies to be on the safe side.

The water-packaging machine set up at Puskás Tivadar Street continued operating ceaselessly. 1,500 litres of water, destined primarily for public institutions, were pumped from a depth of 330 metres and sealed in plastic bags every hour. Every family was entitled to eight litres per day free of charge, and the water bags could be collected from food shops. In spite of its yellowish colour, it was perfectly drinkable. The military barracks at Szolnok were taking care of supplies for themselves and virtually all livestock farms had their own wells bored deep into the soil. The sole exception, the Alcsisziget Agricultural Company, received its water supplies piped direct from the water works in Szolnok and had set aside reserves sufficient for three days. The water container lorries from Budapest were not in use, although they were kept on standby (Magyar Hírlap and Magyar Nemzet, 9 February).

By the evening, the reserves (some 10,000 cubic metres of water) were being put into the network and the inhabitants of Szolnok and surrounding communities were urged to use tap water sparingly.

In an expression of solidarity, the Mayor of Budapest [Gábor Demszky] offered the capital's help in dealing with damage caused by the pollution (Népszabadság, 9 February).

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 27 February 2000

Next week: the chronicle and analysis continues

Read part one of this article HERE.

Author's note: readers may be interested in consulting the brief English-language summary of events on the Hungarian Ministry of the Environment web site at: http://www.ktm.hu/cian/QuickReport.htm

Archive of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's Csardas series of articles on Hungary



The Tisza River

Aquatic Chernobyl:
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Sam Vaknin:
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Jan Čulík:
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Catherine Lovatt:
Chaos in Romania


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