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Deadly Discharge

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It began with an unseasonable winter rainfall on Jan. 30 near the northwestern Romanian town of Baia Mare. At a small gold reprocessing facility run by Aurul SA, the rain pounded on snow and ice atop a tailing pond where cyanide and other waste products had been accumulating since the operation started last April. Around 10 p.m. a sand and rock retaining wall gave way, releasing 100,000 cu m of poisonous sludge into a nearby drainage ditch. From there the contaminants swept into a tributary known as the Lapus, then on to the Somes River and on Feb. 1 into neighboring Hungary.

Early in the morning of Feb. 3, it entered the beautiful Tisza River--a comparatively untouched stretch of waterway. There it left a trail of biological devastation worse than anything Europe has seen since the Sandoz pharmaceutical plant spill into the Rhine at Basel, Switzerland, 14 years ago. For the Danube basin the accident may prove the worst ever.

Fishermen and farmers across central and eastern Europe used nets and pitchforks to land more than 100 tons of dead bream, carp, pike and other species from the rank-smelling waters. Otters, endangered white-tailed eagles, herons, even bacteria perished. Along one stretch of river near the Hungary-Romania border concentrations reached up to 800 times the levels considered safe for drinking. Officials were powerless to stop the killer. "You can neutralize cyanide in the laboratory," said Sandor Szoke, head of the Upper Tisza Regional Environmental Inspectorate, "but you can't chemically treat the whole river." This week the poisonous tide continues to flow eastward along the Danube toward the Black Sea.

Residents in Hungary and Serbia flew black banners and posted warning signs to stay away from the river banks. City governments shut down drinking water plants. In the Serbian town of Senta, 30 km from the Hungarian border, commercial fisherman Atila Tot, 52, spent three days hauling dead fish onto the bank. "This river is dead, and so am I," he exclaimed. The tide is losing its toxicity as it drifts, partly as a result of dilution. But tests along the Bulgarian border still found unacceptably high levels of cyanide some 650 km from the spill site.

Though it did most of the initial killing, cyanide degrades relatively quickly in the environment. But heavy metals like zinc and copper that were also in the effluent will remain in the food chain for years to come. Moreover, the destruction was so complete along some stretches of the Tisza that, according to Imre Gyorgy Torok, technical director of the Lower Tisza Water Authority, the entire biosystem will have to be resurrected. "You can't just put young fish in the river," he said. "They need food to survive." Several assessment teams from the U.N. and the E.U. are measuring contamination levels in order to get a better handle on what will be required to heal the wounds.

The Romanian spill has further damaged ties among countries throughout the region. The gold reprocessing facility itself is owned by a small Australian mineral company, Esmeralda Exploration, with a Romanian state-owned corporation holding a 45% stake and private investors holding the rest. Esmeralda executives downplayed the accident, at one point blaming "extreme weather conditions," an assessment that Hungary's Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi dismissed as "immoral and indecent." "We don't believe that we caused it," an Esmeralda spokesman told Time.

Baia Mare is the company's first foray into gold reprocessing. According to a local environmental group, the Eco Carpathian Environment Foundation, the company has had repeated problems with its tailing pond. This month's spill is the fourth accident at the facility since April, the group says. Late last week, Esmeralda's CEO Brett Montgomery agreed to send out his own team to assess the damage. "My heart goes out to those who may be suffering," he said. "I stress, however, that there is no evidence to confirm that the contamination ... is as a result of the tailings dam overflow." But Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vowed if necessary to sue both Esmeralda and its Romanian joint venture, as well as the Romanian government, to recover damages. Gabriel Dumitrascu, of Romania's Ministry of Waters, Forests and Environmental Protection, offered little hope of compensation from Bucharest: "The environmental responsibility was in the hands of the Australian management," he said. "It's our opinion the Romanian government will not pay anything."

Meanwhile, environmentalists and several members of the European Parliament called for a fresh effort to impose uniform standards across Europe for the handling of toxic waste. Two years ago, a similar accident in Spain's protected Do˝ana region led the World Wide Fund for Nature and others to recommend that the E.U. identify hazardous "hot spots" and develop an agenda for cleaning them up. But the proposal languished for lack of funding. Last week E.U. environment Commissioner Margot Wallstr÷m stood on the banks of the Tisza with the bittersweet smell of rotting fish still in the air and said, "We have to learn a lesson from this and we have to act." It can't be soon enough.

With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade, Michael Fitzgerald/Sydney and Jan Stojaspal/Prague