Baia Mare: Five Years After the Cyanide Spill

Posted on 31 January 2005

Five years after becoming known for cyanide and heavy metal spills, the wonderful Maramures and its resources – including the river Tisa and its tributaries – is now part of a pan-European WWF project which aims to promote new approaches to integrated land and water management.
Through the One Europe – More Nature (OEMN) initiative, a co-operative programme between WWF Hungary and the Danube-Carpathian Programme (DCP), the WWF expands and upscales its activities in the Tisa region, harmonising the needs of local communities with sustainable approaches based on biodiversity conservation, through the development of new forms of partnership between nature conservation and economic interests and actors. 

The Tisa river basin is one of the biggest in Europe. It includes five countries, forming a direct ecological connection between Central and Eastern Europe’s principal Global 200 ecoregions – the Carpathian Mountains and the Danube river floodplains.

Presently, WWF activities in the Tisa river basin concentrate in three areas – one in the high mountain headwaters (the Oas-Gutai plateau in Maramures, Romania), one in the middle basin (Ecsed/Ecedea, stradding the border between Romania and Hungary), and one downstream on the main Tisa channel (Nagykoru, in Hungary). 

According to Edit Pop, WWF’s OEMN Project Co-ordinator in Romania, the WWF-DCP works closely in Maramures with the water management authority and local communities to restore upland landscape integrity through creation of alternative income sources based on watershed manegement, integrated forestry, extensive grazing, marketing local (eco-) products, and cultural and eco-tourism. 

The Oas-Gutai plateau is a remarkable place for nature, with self-regulating ecosystems with large carnivores and herbivores. It is home to 24 species of mammals; 9 species of reptiles; 155 species of nesting birds; and 8 amphibian species. As 65 of the vertebrate species within the plateau are vulnerable or rare, and 6 bird species have a population size over 1% of the Romanian population, the establishment of a Natura 2000 site was recommended here. 

But first and foremost, the Oas-Gutai plateau is a cultural landscape, a home for people, a living workplace and an important economic resource. 

WWF’s vision for the plateau is a mixed patchwork of interlinked wetlands, forests and grasslands. This patchwork supports different human activities – none of which undermines any other. Each habitat is vital to ensure the hydrological functions, the ecological values, and the economic opportunities. But it is the combination of these three habitats which makes the plateau so special, so beautiful, the “Switzerland of the Carpathians”, the treasure trove of Romania.

“Nature and economy can go hand in hand and mutually reinforce each other, not undermine each other”, says Charlie Avis, WWF’s OEMN Project Leader. 

This hasn’t however always been the case. 

Two major accidents in the area, of which the first occurred in January and the second in March 2000 pointed to the continuing threat posed by mining activities, a traditional local activity. The first accident was a major cyanide and heavy metals spill which occurred following a dam burst of a tailing pond at a Romanian-Australian joint venture, Aurul Baia Mare. The second was a spill which occurred at a pond owned by the state regie Remin at Baia Borsa, close to Baia Mare.

Risks arising from mining activities are generally associated with altered landscape, changes in surface and groundwater regime and quality, effects on air and soil quality, impacts on ecosystems, loss of productive land use, and physical instability of waste facilities.

These risks are now just starting to be seriously regulated. In December 2003, the European Union amended a piece of its environmental legislation, the Directive on the Control of Major-Accident Hazards commonly referred to as the Seveso II Directive. The history of the Directive is a long sequence of regulatory responses to major industrial accidents involving dangerous chemical substances. Seveso II replaced the original Seveso Directive, bringing provisions which regulate chemical plants and storage facilities where dangerous substances are present in quantities above certain threshold levels.

The recent amendments were triggered by a series of unfortunate events of which the first was the Baia Mare accident at Aurul. The amendments expanded the scope of the Seveso II Directive to include a larger number of potentially dangerous activities and sites, i.e. processing activities in mining. 

However, even with the latest amendments, Seveso II does not cover tailings disposal facilities that do not contain any hazardous substances other than those naturally present in the ground, such as heavy metals.

To ensure adequate coverage of risks from such tailings disposal facilities and to promote environmentally safe management of mining waste in general, the European Environment Ministers agreed in 2004 on a Mining Waste Directive, which will enter into force before the end of this year. This proposal was also triggered by a series of events among which the Baia Mare accidents.

In the meantime, activity in many mines in Maramures has been discontinued after 1997, when the new policy for restructuring the mining industry entered into force, says Sorin Pop, a mining engineer and a consultant for social and institutional development. This makes it difficult to implement the EU legislation in the field, he adds.

Indeed, a research carried out by the EU Joint Research Centre, points out to the fact that Central and Eastern European countries face “problems of inadequate control and monitoring of mining operations, especially regarding the closure and after-care phases of waste facilities. Another important issue is the large number of abandoned mines, which require appropriate remediation and control measures”. 

In 2007, when Romania will become a EU member country, the already insuficient subsidies provided by the state for mining will be completely cut, adds Sorin Pop, leaving behind many unsolved problems. This means that the only chance for mining in Maramures will lie in the hands of private companies such as Transgold (previously known as Aurul).

According to Sorin Pop, the lack of money may be a reason why only few kept the promises made following the 2000 accidents.

Among these few is Transgold. “We have now a good communication with Transgold”, confirms Ioan Pop, an orthodox priest in the Bozanta Mare village, and also a funder member of the Bozanta Mare Ecological Association. This village, situated 15 km from Baia Mare, was one of the hardest hit by the January 2000 accident at Aurul. Ioan Pop says that not only the company has improved its safety and environmental record, but it also got involved in community development. While Transgold is not a problem anymore, suggests Ioan Pop, the state owned regie Remin continues to be one. Communication with Remin is difficult, says the priest, and the only constant response he gets from the state regie is that there is no money.

Rodica Babut is the president of the Concordia Association from Sasar, a village 6 km from Baia Mare. Her village was the second seriously hit village during the January 2000 accident. While she knows that there is little or no money available for the moment, she is however confident that things will continue to improve, as the villagers began knowing better the mining companies, as well as the local authorities, and they understood at the same time that progress will be possible if they all start working together. 

By Alexandru R. Savulescu freelance Romanian journalist
© WWF Hungary
After the spill
© WWF Hungary
© Edit Pop
Switzerland of the Carpathians
© Edit Pop
3D map preparation with students
© Edit Pop