Cyanide pollution of the rivers Szamos and Tisza
(posted to the Ramsar Forum, 18 February 2000)
Dear Forum Members,
Let me inform you that a serious ecological-environmental catastrophe took place between 1 and 11 February in river Szamos and Tisza affecting a planned quadrilateral (Hungarian-Romanian-Slovakian-Ukrainan) Ramsar site and indirectly affecting 3 already existing Hungarian Ramsar Sites (Lake Tisza, Martely, Pusztaszer). So far, about 12 tons of dead fish was collected which is only the estimated 20% of the total amount along the river Tisza, and dead birds (cormorants, Mute Swans and White-tailed Eagles) as well as Otters have already been found. Presumably all the endemic and highly vulnerable fish species and the fragile invertebral fauna was seriously affected. In fact, the pollution has almost swept out biological diversity along the river Tisza downwards from the Szamos inflow.
Here is an extract from a quick report on the diaster.
The cyanide pollution of the rivers Szamos and Tisza was caused by the AURUL, an Australian-Romanian joint company that is situated in the area of the Romanian Baia Mare (Nagybánya). The company extracts non-ferrous metals from the waste rock piles of mines of the area, using metal enrichment technologies, which is carried out basically by extraction with cyanide after grinding the refuse ore. The process of extraction needs a lot of water, consequently after storage the washing water containing cyanide is recycled into the technology again. The environmental damage that spread over to Hungary was the result of the rupture of the dam of the reservoir containing cyanide.
The extraordinary event took place at 10 p. m. on 30 January 2000, and as a consequence almost 100 thousand m3 waste water with a high concentration of cyanide was discharged into the Zazar and Lápos water courses that belong to the catchment area of river Szamos. The renovation of the burst dam of the wastewater reservoir took place on 31 January 2000, thus the wastewater discharge into the watercourses stopped. The Romanian environmental and water authorities continuously informed the Hungarian authorities about the event and degree of pollution.
The first official Romanian information arrived at 6:20 p. m. and according to it the concentration of cyanide in the Lápos watercourse was 19.16 mg/l at 2 p.m. on 31 January 2000. The polluted water crossed the border at Csenger at 4 p.m. on 1 February, the highest concentration was 32.6 mg/l (8:30 p.m.). The average concentration - according to the data of the Hungarian environmental laboratories - was 18 mg/l in the 6 hour run-off interval, which is 180 times more than the level of the "very polluted" category according to the Hungarian standards for surface waters.The extremely critical water pollution was worsened due to the current meteorological situation (ice on the rivers, low flow rate) because the pollution could not become rapidly diluted.To make matters worse cyanide pollution was accompanied by a significant increase in the concentration of heavy metals in the water. The concentration of copper rose to 40-160 times the level classified as "very polluted", the concentration of zinc doubled and that of lead increased 5-9 times.The polluted water body reached the river Tisza at 4 a.m. on 3 February, where the concentration of cyanide decreased to 12.5 mg/l peak value as a result of natural dilution. The polluted water arrived at the Szolnok, one of the potentially threatened cities, where drinking water is directly abstracted from the river and then treated, at 6 p.m. on 8 February and the highest concentration during the flowing-through was 2.85 mg/l.The total travel time of pollution was 12 days and left the Hungarian border only in the early morning on 12 February, polluting the Yugoslavian part of Tisza and the Danube. The attached table shows the runoff of the pollution and the decrease of cyanide concentration by using representative sites from almost 30 sampling sites.
Besides the ecological damage, the cyanide pollution in the river Tisza meant also significant threat to human health, because in the upper part of the Tisza the cyanide concentration was 100 times more than the limit value for drinking water. The city of Szolnok and the inhabitants of the neighbouring settlements (almost 160,000 persons) were primarily endangered because in that part of Hungary the only source of drinking water is the abstracted water from the Tisza. In the short run, the avoidance of the health damaging consequences was owing to the cooperation of the competent authorities, the Water Treatment Plant of Szolnok and the Health Care Service. The problem increased due to the fact that the length of the polluted water section was more than 30-35 km, consequently the time of the pollution transport increased significantly. The travel of the polluted water body has caused serious ecological damages both in the river Szamos and the river Tisza, which cannot be determined for the time being. Significant damage occurred in the fish stock. After the polluted water section passed, the collection and disposal of dead fish was started in the river Szamos and the river Tisza, in accordance with the respective decrees. The microscopic examination of water samples taken from the Szamos proved that 90-95% of phyto- and zooplanktons died. The effect of the pollution spreads to ecosystems more distant from the river through the food chain and different transmitters.
The pollution affected several protected and strictly protected nature protection areas, like the protected area of Lake Tisza, that is an important part of Hortobágy National Park and has recently become part of the World Heritage, also a Ramsar site. Further areas falling under the scope of the Ramsar Convention and biosphere reserves being parts of the MAB programme of the UNESCO are affected as well. At present no conclusion can be drawn either regarding the damage in the rivers and in the ecological balance of their surrounding areas or the nature and time needed for the regeneration. Furthermore, as a consequence of these, the necessity and extent of environmental health monitoring cannot be estimated. In order to get preliminary data the assessment of damages has started. This covers the damages in the field of the safe drinking water supply, the decreasing use of water, the damage in the flora and fauna of the river, and the expenses resulting from the collection and disposal of dead fish as well as the expenses of flow control and floodplain closure. The restoration of damages in the nature requires special attention, expertise and lots of financial means. We have to take into consideration that the return of the rivers to their original state will last several years, during which continuous monitoring will be needed. To achieve this, the present monitoring system must be developed into a system that monitors the state of environment and nature regularly. According to the preliminary evaluation such a great environmental catastrophe - originating from human activity - has never happened before in the history of Hungarian environmental protection.
For more infomartion please visit the following web site: www.ktm.hu/cian/QuickReport.html
Best regards, András Böhm, Secretary of Hungarian Ramsar Committee, firstname.lastname@example.org
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