In memoriam of Dr György Csizmazia
Whilst the world looked on aghast at the heartrending sight of thousands of stricken fish and birds along the River Tisza poisoned by the cyanide spill from the now notorious Aurul Plant in Baia Mare (or Nagybánya to Hungarians), the staff of the local water authorities fought heroically round the clock to keep the damage in check as much as humanly possible.
On the first anniversary of one of the bleakest moments in our country's history from an environmental point of view, I once again sought out György Imre Török (GYIT) of the Szeged authority, ATIVIZIG, to give us the benefit of his reflections with the emotional distance only the passing of time can bring. His replies were suffused with characteristic calm objectivity, as I interviewed him in the bustling provincial city, vibrant centre of intellectual and cultural life of the Great Plains region. Although the eyes of the world are no longer on Szeged, its citizens have successfully picked up the pieces and life goes on there as normal.
CER: Could you perhaps say a few words about how the disaster affected the daily work of ATIVIZIG in retrospect?
GYIT: First of all, I should maybe clarify the role ATIVIZIG plays. As you know there are several institutions charged with the task of preventing and coping with the consequences of various natural and environmental disasters. The Law on Disasters provides the framework for the work carried out by the country-level disaster protection authorities, but these do not have a substantial part to play in responding to water damage nor do they have the expertise at their disposal to do so.
There are environmental inspectorates responsible for monitoring natural watercourses on a regular basis as stipulated by the Law on the Environment, analysing samples more frequently in the case of damage having been ascertained. These inspectorates do not, however, take part in the work of real damage prevention or limitation in any substantial way other than by checking samples.
The water authorities are in charge of the water management facilities largely in the public domain, including the rivers, larger lakes, and main flood protection drainage ditches and pumping stations, the protective embankments and all other major water-related infrastructure. They are also responsible for dealing with floods and the protection of all inland water as well as water quality. Should the need arise, they are entitled to call upon the services of the army, the civilian population as well as the staff and technical facilities of various companies.
ATIVIZIG was therefore on the front line of protecting the lower reaches of the Tisza against the cyanide pollution with the help of the Environmental Authority's laboratory. The impact of the disaster on ATIVIZIG's daily life was that numerous institutions; civil society organisations and media representatives contacted us for expert information. These bodies included the Office of the Government Commissioner and the Fisheries Association.
Above regional level
CER: Have you noticed any changes in relations between the Hungarian water authorities and their Romanian counterparts at either a government or regional level as a result of the disaster?
GYIT: No major changes have taken place either at government or regional levels. Our relations in the realm of water management information are not bad, although from the point of view of preventing a disaster this is inadequate. The Romanian Republic has signed both the Helsinki and Sofia Conventions, but has failed to accept the more modern water convention, which meets EU standards, operating on the catchment area principle. Instead of this, the old convention remains in force, according to which co-operation on frontier watercourses only extends as far as the river stretches and catchment areas defined as being in the shared interest of the contracting parties. The Baia Mare region does not fall under that category.
CER: What should be done to address this?
GYIT: Since there have been no major changes in the wake of the disaster, progress could be made on two fronts. On the one hand, more modern conventions could be ratified and, on the other, internal regulations based on these conventions could be drawn up and rigorously and consistently enforced.
CER: Looking back over the past year are you satisfied with the work done by the water authorities during the disaster?
GYIT: At the risk of sounding like I am blowing my own trumpet, I would say that the water authorities carried out their work extremely effectively and attained a very high level of quality in so doing. The Government Commissioner for the Tisza joined in with a chorus of experts in calling the successful defence a brilliantly executed feat. What they were referring to was the work done in protecting the Kisköre reservoir, in other words the Tisza Lake and the broad flood plains below Csongrád, from being swamped with cyanide-polluted water.
We managed to keep the polluted water within the riverbanks, channelling it down them without it overflowing, which meant that once the initial wave of polluted water had passed by no residual pollution was left behind in the flood plains. In this way we ensured that the areas thus spared could act as sources for the regeneration and renewal of the river's flora and fauna. Clearing the river of the carcasses of dead fish and collecting them represented a major accomplishment in itself, requiring improvised technical solutions.
Dangers yet remain
CER: Given that there has been a long series of incidences of pollution, both major and minor, affecting the Tisza, do you feel that the current disaster-prevention infrastructure is satisfactory?
GYIT: Looking back over a period of three and a half years, I would say that the present infrastructure is not satisfactory either in terms of preventing the various episodes of pollution and disasters or in terms of mitigating their effects. This applies equally to disasters originating from within Hungary's borders as well as to those arriving from the outside.
In our region there is an intensive and flourishing hydrocarbons extraction industry, production wells are dotted all over the flood plains and numerous oil pipelines crisscross the river. If something goes wrong with any of these facilities and they break down, then there is an absence of technical equipment to sort things out. In the course of the last year alone we have witnessed the sudden blow of gas in Pusztaszolos, although it has not been an isolated occurrence in the region by any manner and oil leaks are not a rarity either.
Dealing with these and attempting to limit the amount of damage caused to the environment has been a major undertaking. Fortunately, the rivers have not been harmed by any of these, but the danger is ever present.CER: What steps is the government planning to take to reduce the impact of possible future disasters? Similarly, what plans do the local water authorities have?
GYIT: At government level the best instrument of lessening the detrimental effects of disasters is to improve the legal provisions in force as well as international relations whilst at the regional level, more effective monitoring and preparedness for defence are called for. In reality, however, there is no substitute for eliminating the sources of danger, which would be the most effective method to apply.
Is there life after death?
CER: Was wildlife affected more adversely than expected by the cyanide pollution or did it escape the worst effects thereof?
GYIT: It is extremely difficult to assess the extent of the damage done to wildlife. As soon as the news about how concentrated the cyanide was and the quantity of pollutants released into the river broke, every expert was aware that the complete destruction of the flora and fauna of the river and its banks would ensue. The situation of the Tisza Lake and the flood plains was not quite so cut and dry and at the end of the day the latter escaped unscathed.
Life has gradually begun to return to the river, but the flora and fauna are not the same as they were prior to the disaster. They have come back into the river from the tributaries, the flood plains and the backwaters, but their composition, their stock is different and far from ideal in the biological sense. It will only really be possible to evaluate the true extent of the damage done and how lasting its effects have been after many years have elapsed.
CER: Are there any visible effects in the river today?
GYIT: There are virtually no visible effects whatsoever: there are fish in the river, the birds have returned, the water is pure, but it is obvious to biologists that the composition of fish life is different. Some species have become more rare whereas others have thrived to an unfavourable extent.
CER: How has tourism been affected in the city since the disaster?
GYIT: In the course of the last year, tourism along the Tisza has decreased considerably. Another factor in the decline may have been the major floods along the river after the cyanide spill. This meant that the open-air baths and recreational areas along the riverbanks could only open as of mid-summer.
CER: Did the citizens of Szeged take to the water for a swim and did the amateur anglers reappear along the banks?
GYIT: The inhabitants of Szeged did not spend much time swimming in the river over the summer, but that does not imply a break with tradition. They do not usually swim in the Tisza anyway, because, apart from the cyanide spill, the Maros itself is quite polluted and so bathing is not recommended below the mouth of the Maros. The anglers by contrast immediately put in an appearance as soon as the fishing ban was lifted, though in substantially smaller numbers than previously. Even on the very first day after the ban was revoked, a fishing contest was organised. Catches were made, though they were far more modest than in the old days.
CER: Would it be fair to say that the mood of impending catastrophe, which prevailed in the days of the disaster reflected the gravity of the situation or with hindsight could it be attributed to our notorious national pessimism?
GYIT: When the pollution left a trail of devastation in its wake, the air was thick with a sense of disaster. People felt extremely bitter and this was indeed a true reflection of the seriousness of the situation, because in the space of those few days the appalling spectacle of the innumerable dead fish floating on the surface was truly depressing and the desolation genuinely massive.
As to whether the possibility of regeneration, the prospect of the river coming back to life was as uncertain as it seemed is another question altogether. The process of the water purifying itself is not visible to the naked eye.
Ignorance is not bliss
CER: Did the intense interest of the international media during the disaster have any positive effect?
GYIT: It is quite true that international public opinion was captivated by events along the Tisza at that time. The world's leading media provided extensive coverage and the same was particularly true of the written and electronic media here at home. After the event, however, the disaster no longer made the headlines and was replaced by other more topical news so it is difficult to gauge any positive effects generated by international public opinion. Indeed, it is difficult to speak of any positive effects at all.
Nature's gradual recovery from the flooding is the result of the river's links with the tributaries and, to a certain extent, the activities of the official bodies such as the Office of the Government Commissioner for the Tisza to name but one.
CER: What is your reaction to the group of German tourists, who allegedly visited the Tisza a few weeks ago to have a look and see if there were still any dead fish floating around in the water?
GYIT: My astonishment as to the profound depths of their ignorance knows no bounds. In every river from time to time fish die off in slightly greater numbers, but this is not always linked to pollution of the kind we encountered here. At the present juncture, the quality of the water in the Tisza is such that there is no reason to go looking for drifting fish carcasses. The river is entirely suitable for water-related leisure activities and tourism and the fish caught are of good quality and perfectly edible, although there are far fewer of them to be had.
CER: What is your opinion of the fact that the plant in Baia Mare is still operating today?
GYIT: The fact that it has resumed production gives you ample food for thought. As far as I know—although I must stress that this is not verified information—the plant has not yet been awarded the official permit to resume operations, but the dam for the slurry pit has been repaired and plans are in the pipeline for production to begin again in the near future.
In my opinion, the worrisome aspect of the whole (situation) is not so much that the plant will be resuming operations soon, as that there are doubts concerning the safety measures adopted or as to whether it is even possible to take such measures at all in the interests of preventing another accident. I am not familiar with the precise layout of the plant having never visited it myself, but according to the information I have received; the so-called slurry pit was created by blocking off a channel.
No solution has been found, however, to the problem of draining off large quantities of rainfall or of slush from melting snow from the reservoir separately and there are no dual safety arrangements, by which I mean there is no overflow or emergency reservoir should the dam burst. Dangerous technologies of the type we are dealing with here should only be authorised once every possible safety measure has been put in place.
Reconstruction and prevention
CER: Do you think that the appointment of a Government Commissioner for the Tisza helped reduce the worst effects of the disaster or could more have been done? If so, what else?
GYIT: The appointment and subsequent work of the Government Commissioner (János Gönczy) was and continues to be both necessary and valuable. Having said that the powers and the budgetary resources at his disposal are scanty. At the end of the day alleviating the worst effects of the disaster was not an achievement to be notched up to the Commissioner's Office but to the successful efforts at warding off the potential damage from the flood plains and the Tisza Lake, to the active defence of these areas at the height of the crisis. In the aftermath of the disaster, however, the work performed and the support given via the Commissioner's Office has been invaluable in terms of improving the situation.
CER: Was the EU's response satisfactory?
GYIT: I was disappointed by the EU's reaction. A group of experts ought to have been dispatched to the scene as soon as the events took place. The experts only turned up weeks later. They did not see the river awash with rotting fish carcasses, although they would have had ample opportunity to do so because the disaster was spread over a fortnight and we hauled several hundred tons of fish out of the water during that period. For this reason, the expert report was based on an ex post reconstruction of the situation. This is similar to assessing a patient's state of health by using the results of the post mortem instead of having the doctors examine him whilst still alive.
CER: What else should the EU have done?
GYIT: The EU ought to have arrived here sooner, examined the river in the middle of the events and expressed its opinion on that basis.
CER: Should the EU not be bringing more pressure to bear on the Romanian government in the interests of safeguarding water cleanliness?
GYIT: The EU ought to bring a great deal more pressure to bear, not just on the Romanian government to encourage it to safeguard water purity, but in the interests of preventing damage being done to the environment in Europe as a whole, including, of course, on its own territory. I think deficiencies in the area of flood protection for example have become apparent within the member states. On that particular front we in Hungary are way ahead of the EU.
CER: What are your expectations of the international court ruling?
GYIT: I don't expect very much of the international court ruling at all because the "wise judgements of Solomon" generally emanating from international courts can be interpreted in a variety of different ways. There are no instruments or sanctions of any kind to enforce the decisions anyway.
CER: Do you think that the Tisza disaster might dissuade potential polluters from ruining the environment?
GYIT: The events of one year ago and the episodes occurring subsequently might make potential polluters think twice or even dissuade them from polluting the environment altogether, but I do not believe that a general improvement will be brought about as a result of this single disaster.
CER: Thank you very much indeed.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 2 February 2001
Photo by Nigel Dickinson, courtesy of the WWF-Canon Photo Gallery
Also of interest:
From CER's original coverage of the Tisza disaster
- A River Dies
- Aquatic Chernobyl
- Central Europe is Europe Too!
- A Second Wave
- Fish First, EU Entry Later
- Read Gusztáv Kosztolányi's ebook on the great Hungarian oil scandals
- Archive of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Hungary through CER
- Return to CER front page