Romanian Gold Mine Reopens Despite Cyanide Disaster Fears

By Alexandru Savulescu

SZENTENDRE, Hungary, July 28, 2000 (ENS) - An independent body set up by the European Union has made public its environmental concerns over the reopening of the Aurul gold mine tailings recovery facility in Baia Mare, northwestern Romania.

"Based on the commitment of the company and of the Romanian government to reopen the facility, I am concerned by the lack of pattern of heavy metals in river sediments, as of the lack of a list of other similar hazardous sites in the area," said Tom Garvey, at a meeting this week organized by the Baia Mare Task Force in Szentendre, Hungary.

Garvey, a former senior official of the European Commission, is the chairman of the Baia Mare Task Force. This European Union initiative was created to follow up on the cyanide spill that occurred on January 30 when a tailings dam was breached at the Aurul gold mine in Baia Mare.

The six other members of the task force are high level officials from the European Commission, and from international, regional and national bodies for the protection of the environment.

river

Cyanide tainted wastewater killed most aquatic life in its path to the Black Sea. (Photo courtesy Tibor Kocsis and Zöld Pók Hálózat)
On January 30 there was a break in a dam encircling the Aurul tailings pond. The result was a spill of about 100,000 cubic meters of liquid and suspended waste containing about 50 to 100 tons of cyanide, and other heavy metals. The contaminated spill traveled 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), polluting several rivers of the Danube catchment area before reaching the Black Sea.

Established in March 2000, the task force has the mission to establish what happened, assess the damage, and propose actions to remedy the negative impacts of the spill. The task force will work until the end of this year, when its final report will be issued.

"We have to come up with a balanced, eco-conscious report," says Garvey, in order to prevent any similar accidents from happening in the future. But in order to make suggestions to reduce risks, he adds, we have to know the potential hotspots in the Danube River basin. And this is precisely what Romanian and Hungarian authorities didn't do in the last four months, although such sites should have already been known."

In addition to the hotspots list, the Task Force requested that Romanian and Hungarian authorities start measuring heavy metals in river sediments, in order to establish their concentration, and to have a benchmark for the future.

Not only such monitoring did not start, confirms Laszlo Haraszthy, director of World Wide Funde for Nature (WWF) Hungary, but the Hungarian Ministry of Environment stopped its biological monitoring on the Tisa and the Danube rivers in the middle of May, exactly when birds are most active.

map

Map of Romania showing location of Baia Mare (Map courtesy Esmeralda Explorations)
Tibor Farago, from WWF Hungary, said, "We are completely dissatisfied with the measures taken to prevent in the future such events as the Baia Mare cyanide spill."

Aurul restarted its operations in June, and is currently running technological tests approved by Romanian authorities.

The "closed circuit" - no water allowed to be discharged to the environment - was the main cause of the accident, triggered by the difficult meteorological conditions, a number of government and NGO studies done this spring have determined.

It redesigned its system as an "open circuit" that enables discharge of water to maintain safe water levels within the dam, especially during heavy rains or snowfalls.

According to Aurul, any water discharge will be detoxified and will meet the required environmental standards for discharge. Excess water will be pumped to other facilities in the locality, or treated by the scheduled introduction of a cyanide detoxification plant.

Additional safety measures will be also implemented, the company says. Piezometers will be installed in the inner embankment wall of the tailings dam to measure water levels.

Monthly testing of pipelines is required, as well as increased visual inspection of pipelines and dam walls.

Weather stations were installed, and recordings of all rain and snow precipitation at the operational sites will be made.

The existing emergency plan has been reviewed and amended in light of the accident.

fish

The flow of cyanide wastewater killed tons of fish like these in Szeged. (Photo courtesy Zöld Pók Hálózat)
According to Garvey, the safety measures being tested now should have been in place from the beginning.

A recent review of the accident by the United Nations has also identified "a combination of bad weather and inadequacies in the design and consequential operating procedures of the system as the primary cause of the accident."

Aurul rejects the accusation that its operation was designed, constructed and operated by hot climate miners in a Romanian climate that is different.

According to Aurul, "at every material stage, the design, construction and operation of this facility were effected in conjunction with Romanian experts. The process by which the plant was designed, constructed and commenced operation required in excess of 200 permits, approvals or licences in Romania."

While the causes of the accident are now known, the real extent of the damage is still "very difficult to quantify," says Garvey. The Romanian authorities say there is "very little damage."

Hungary was the country most affected by the cyanide spill which wiped out all aquatic life in the rivers downstream of the mine. Hungary recently asked for a US$108 million compensation, judged "excessive" by Aurul. Other claims are coming from Yugoslavia, as well as from Romania. They all are difficult to judge.

Moreover, Aurul does not have the financial means to meet the compensation claims, because it has been closed since the accident.

Aurul SA is a stock company jointly owned by Esmeralda Explorations Ltd., an Australian private company, and Remin, a Romanian state firm.

Esmeralda says it will go bankrupt unless production restarts at Baia Mare.

The shutdown of the Aurul operation was initiated by Romanian authorities in order to investigate the circumstances surrounding the accident and to implement measures to prevent any recurrence of the accident.

Garvey comments that "if the efforts to get this case to court were devoted to an integrated Tisa river development plan, money could come quicker than from legal action." Aurul

Aurul's gold recovery operation at Baia Mare, Romania (Photo courtesy Esmeralda Explorations Ltd.)
"Reopening of the Aurul facilities is the sole responsibility of the Romanian government," says Garvey. "However, as Aurul produced one of the worst ecological disasters of the last few years in Europe, I assume that the Romanian authorities will take absolute measures to prevent any further accident."

The Aurul project was originally designed to cleanup the environment in and around the town of Baia Mare by treating waste dumps containing gold bearing tailings generated by past mining activity.

Explaining the decision to restart, Aurul's newly appointed managing director Martyn Churchouse, said, "Aurul was established as an environmental cleanup operation and there is a continuing need for this role. The events of 30 January are deeply regretted by all parties, however in view of the substantive measures taken and the approvals received, we believe it is now appropriate to recommence operations."

Aurul's process uses high concentrations of cyanide to remove the precious metals from the tailings. As part of the process, tailings are transported 6.5 kilometers away from Baia Mare to a new dam near Bozanta Mare village.

In the event of permanent closure of the project, warns Aurul, not only would the company not gain profit through its mining operations, but the community will lose, as Baia Mare's old contaminated ponds will not be removed, blocking further development in the city.

In any case, if Aurul's treatment plant were to cease operations, mining and processing in and around Baia Mare would still continue.

The prefect of Baia Mare, G.M. Birlea said, "The people of Baia Mare have held a public meeting at which concerns were raised and discussed. They want Aurul to start up again. We need work to resume on removing toxic waste from the Meda dam. Failure to do so would be much more hazardous to the environment. Aurul has satisfied all the conditions laid down by the authorities and its remediation and preventative work has been conducted to the highest international safety standards."

The Baia Mare plant was designed to process 2.5 million tons of tailings a year to recover about 1.6 tons of gold and nine tons of silver per year, for a period of 10 to 12 years.