Romania's Cyanide Spill

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Romania's Cyanide Spill

Water Contamination and Political Crisis

A gold mine—jointly owned by Romania and an Australian company—dumped cyanide-tainted water into a major river in Romania in January 2000, killing fish and endangering the health of people in several countries.


• Countries weigh the need to encourage investment with the need to protect their environment and people. Strict regulations are often seen as a deterrent to investment.


  • Who should pay for the clean up and help alleviate the economic impact?
  • Fish were killed and water resources damaged, causing economic repercussions for years to come.

On January 30, 2000, a massive spill of water with a high cyanide content occurred at the Aurul gold mine, Baia Mare, in northwest Romania. A reservoir at the mine overflowed its dam as a consequence of heavy rain and winter snowfall, and an estimated one hundred thousand cubic meters of water, with cyanide concentrations as high as seven hundred times the maximum considered safe (0.1 milligrams per liter), was released. Much of this contaminated water entered the region's drainage systems, notably the Szamos and Somes rivers, which are tributaries of the River Tisza. The pollution entered neighboring Hungary through the rivers and polluted a reservoir supplying the city of Szolnok, eighty kilometers southeast of Budapest, Hungary. Some nine days after the spill, cyanide levels were still approximately 2.8 milligrams per liter—twenty-eight times the amount considered safe by the World Health Organization. The pollution subsequently spread to Serbia, though the contamination diluted as the Tisza joined the Danube; the cyanide concentration declined to less than 0.2 milligrams per liter. As a precaution, the Ukraine authorities put an embargo on the use of water from the Danube. This brought the number of countries affected by the cyanide spill to four. To make matters worse, another spill occurred on March 10, 2000, from another mine in the same region; twenty-two thousand tons of tailings (tailings are fragmented ore that is being processed) with high concentrations of heavy metals were released into the River Tisza's tributaries after a tailings dam failed following heavy rain.

Historical Background

The Aurul mine incident in particular has drawn attention to several factors. First, there is the international context of the spill. The mine is jointly owned by Esmeralda Exploration, an Australian mining company based in Perth, Australia, and Remin, a Romanian state-owned mining company, a partnership that calls into question issues of responsibility. Furthermore, the pollution created by this (and other spills) does not respect national boundaries in terms of its impact. In this context, the incident reflects the hydro-politics of the region—the distribution, use, and control of water resources. Second, there is the ecological impact of the spill, which is related to the toxicity of the released water, notably the concentration of cyanide, and the regulatory control that is intended to safeguard ecological health. This is also related to human health in that safe concentrations of cyanide have been surpassed in reservoirs and, as a result, fish that people consume may be contaminated. Third, there is the economic context: the local and regional impact of the spill on river-based economic activities, especially fishing industries, as well as the adverse impact of such a widely publicized event on the share prices of Esmeralda Exploration. These characteristics are typical of other major spills that have occurred elsewhere in the world.

The International Context

The joint ownership of the mine means that, in principle, restoration and reparation should be funded by both Esmeralda and Remin. The concept that the polluter pays for restoration is widely accepted, though enforcement is difficult and disagreements about how much funding is required abound. Commissioner Margot Walstroem, in Szolnok to inspect the Tisza river, said to CNN that "there is great unanimity that the polluter pays" for damages. Serbia threatened to sue in international court for reparations.

It is, however, difficult to envisage how the partners, either singly or jointly, could finance the cleanup. The ramifications in terms of the spatial and temporal dimensions of the spill, such as its widespread impact and the time it will take for the river systems to recover, challenge the capability of any organization. Even with the promised assistance of the European Union the task is immense. In addition to promising funds for ameliorating the pollution in the Szamos, Tisza, and other affected rivers, the E.U. commissioner pledged to initiate legislation to improve safety measures, which should prevent similar accidents in the future. Such legislation could involve restrictions on the use of cyanide for gold extraction, a complete ban on cyanide use, or improved design for tailings dams.

Because the River Tisza is a tributary of the Danube, the pollution from the spill affected a large area of the river network, and spread into at least three countries. That the area affected is so large highlights some of the problems associated with shared water resources. In this case, water management became a challenge of international cooperation and the goal was to avoid not only ecological damage, but also the impairment of international relations. As Romica Tomescu, the Romanian environment minister, remarked, the incident has not been opportune in view of Romania's desire to become a member of the E.U. Moreover, confusion over the magnitude of the incident, its impact and its cause, which was widely reported in the media, upset Romania's affected neighbors.

The Ecosystem/Human Health Context

Cyanide compounds are often used in the mining of both precious and non-precious metals. Many cyanide compounds, such as potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide (chemical formulae is KCN and NaCN—carbon and nitrogen—plus either potassium or sodium) readily combine with metals and are thus useful for extracting metals from ores. However, cyanide also reacts freely with a wide range of other elements to produce many compounds that may be toxic to organisms, including humans. Cyanide's ability to combine with metals is an advantage for metal mining yet its capacity to produce a wide range of toxic compounds means that it can be hazardous unless its use is tightly controlled and adequate safety measures are established to safeguard both workers and the environment.

At the Aurul mine, cyanide solution, most likely sodium cyanide, a white solid that dissolves easily in water, was being used to extract gold. When placed in water, the two components of NaCN separate into a positively-charged sodium ion and a negatively-charged cyanide ion. The latter combines with the positively-charged hydrogen ions in the water to form hydrogen cyanide (also known as hydrocyanic acid or HCN). Hydrogen cyanide combined with any of the cyanide ions left in the water creates a particle called free cyanide. The amount of free cyanide that occurs in the water varies according to the alkalinity of the water. At high alkalinity there is a high volume of the negatively-charged cyanide ions, but as alkalinity decreases an increasing amount of ionic cyanide converts to HCN. The most efficient extraction of gold or other metals takes place when alkalinity is kept high to maintain high concentrations of ionic cyanide, which combines with the gold. Elevated alkalinity is achieved by adding lime or sodium hydroxide. The degree of alkalinity is usually considerably higher than that which normally occurs in nature. Consequently, the water used to extract gold is highly alkaline and contains high concentrations of free cyanide. It is confined to reservoirs that are isolated from drainage systems by a so-called tailings dam. In Aurul, the escape of cyanide-rich water was caused by the overflow of the dam.

The ecological impact was most marked in the vicinity of the mine and the Szamos and Somes Rivers, and spread to the River Tisza, the tributary of the Danube into which the Szamos and Somes flow. Media reports of the impact on aquatic life are varied but it is estimated that approximately one hundred fifty tons of fish were killed. Many of these were washed into the Danube, an occurrence with implications for the aquatic ecology of the affected rivers in Romania, Hungary, and Serbia. Undoubtedly, many other aquatic organisms and bird populations were equally affected and food chains disrupted. Bird populations, in particular, will be affected by eating contaminated fish and by the loss of their food sources as fish and other aquatic organisms die. In addition, there is concern that the impact of the spill will be long lasting because of the presence of heavy metals, such as cadmium and zinc, which may also have been released. This is certainly the case with the subsequent spill in March 2000 from another mine in the same area as the Aurul mine. The impact of the spill from the Aurul mine has been so great that it has been compared with the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster of 1986. While this may be an unrealistic comparison, there is no doubt that the Aurul spill has been serious.

Reports indicate that the incident may have affected the drinking water of as many as two million people, but because it was registered very soon after it happened its direct impact on human health was limited and no casualties have been reported. Citizens of Szolnok, southeast of Budapest, were warned not to drink tap water because of excessive cyanide concentrations in the water-supply reservoirs. Moreover, freshwater was transported by tankers to hospitals and schools. In the long term, it is possible that some contamination of ground-water may occur. Fishing has also been banned in the area, and restaurants throughout the affected area have been obliged to remove fish from their menus. These latter impacts not only reflect ecological impact but also the economic impact. Fears concerning poisoning through the consumption of contaminated fish stem from the fact that cyanide will be present in tissue. It does not, however, build up in tissue. If ingested in large quantities cyanide can cause breathing difficulties, cardiac problems, and enlargement of the thyroid gland; there is, however, no evidence to show that high concentrations of cyanide give rise to cancer and the role of cyanide in causing birth defects remains unknown.

The Economic Context

In addition to human health, the Aural spill has caused problems for the fishing, farming, and mining industries, and damaged the provision of domestic water supplies. The latter is the most short-lived since the pollution was diluted fairly quickly as the polluted water passed through the drainage system. Nevertheless, costs are incurred by local authorities whom provide domestic water. Because of the tailings spill two months after the cyanide spill, authorities with active mines in their regions, or even individuals living in the vicinity of mines, must be prepared to finance alternative water supplies on short notice.

Local and regional fishing industries, both recreational and commercial, experienced problems as a result of the spill. It may be a medium-term problem. Food chains and food webs within aquatic ecosystems do not recover immediately; new organisms need to be recruited and become established. The intricate web of life that characterizes river systems is particularly vulnerable to damage, and it, in turn, affects the range of species and populations of bird life that depend on it. It is impossible to estimate how long it will take before fish populations recover to economically viable populations. Local ecologists suggest that around eighty percent of river life could die as a result of the spill and that it could take many years to recover. Thus the prospects for the recovery of livelihoods based on fishing are not encouraging. This is a particularly significant problem for a part of Eastern Europe that is struggling economically and that is recovering from the recent Balkan conflict.

The contamination may adversely affect other economic activities in the region. If the cyanide contamination spreads into groundwater and thus into wells, agriculture may be adversely affected. Local people interviewed after the incident from the Aurul mine now believe that the spill caused contamination of the area's wells, with cyanide levels reaching fifty times more than the acceptable level. This contaminated water may impair pastoral agriculture, notably cattle and horse production. As in the case of fishing, recovery and, equally important, confidence in products from such pastoral activities may take several years to recover fully. The short-term future, for many residents in the area engaged in farming, is no more encouraging than it is for those involved in fishing industries.

Although relatively few people are employed in the mining industry in this region of Romania, the closure of the Aurul plant following the spill, and the possibility of other mine closures, limits opportunities for employment and has repercussions for the local economy. Furthermore, the initial publicity surrounding the cyanide spill had economic repercussions for the Esmeralda Exploration Company. On February 9, 2000, the company's share price fell by approximately thirty-eight percent and dealing of shares was then suspended. As a result, Esmeralda's shareholders will have been considerably disadvantaged financially. Pollution is all encompassing; it is rarely confined within international boundaries—nor does it discriminate on the basis of human, ecological, or economic factors.

Alternative Methods of Mining

The potential toxicity of cyanide compounds means that their use in metal-extractive industries is potentially hazardous. Nevertheless, the method is still relatively widely used because it allows the extraction of low-grade ores, including those with as little as 0.02 troy ounce or 0.622 grams per metric ton. After the ore is extracted, it is crushed into fragments of approximately 1 to 3 centimeters in diameter. It is then heaped onto huge sheets of impermeable plastic, and diluted solutions of cyanide compounds (usually sodium cyanide) percolate slowly though the heap over several months. The gold is then recovered by heating. In addition, recent research has focused on the use of microorganisms, notably bacteria and fungi, to degrade cyanide salts and release the gold. This is one aspect of bio-mining, which is becoming increasingly important, though in this case it does not eliminate the need for the use of cyanide compounds. In the future it may become possible to employ other organisms that concentrate gold in conditions free of cyanide or other toxic substances.

Other methods of gold extraction include the use of mercury, a metal that readily combines with gold to create amalgam. The addition of mercury to a gold pan results in amalgam production and allows the gold to be subsequently recovered by either heating the amalgam to vaporize the mercury (this can be recovered by immediate cooling which causes condensation) or by squeezing the amalgam through a fine cloth. Neither method is safe in terms of ecological or human health because mercury is easily lost during such operations and can cause nerve and brain damage to those who come into contact with it. For this reason, it is not recommended for gold extraction, though it is still used in many parts of the world, such as in the Amazon Basin, where it has become a serious pollution and health problem. Overall, the use of mercury for gold extraction causes more problems than the use of cyanide compounds.

Recent History and the Future

The Challenge of International Disasters

Contemporary ecological disasters often breech international boundaries and challenge methods for addressing them. International courts and relations are addressing new and complex issues in attempting to balance the many diplomatic, environmental, and commercial interests. As in the case of the cyanide spill in Romania, a company owned (at least partially) by individuals in one country (in this case Australia) may be held responsible for a disaster that happens in another country—and affects still other countries. Differing environmental and business regulations and challenges to management further complicate the situation.

In 1986 a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, was destroyed during a routine test. Radioactive material was released, causing death and illness in the vicinity of Chernobyl. Radioactive material rose into the atmosphere and covered most of the northern hemisphere.

The 1989 oil spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled about eleven-million-gallons of oil, has yet to be resolved. Exxon spent about $2 billion on the project and another $300 million in compensation for losses; though is appealing a court order to pay $5 billion to those damaged by the spill. The court cases continue.

And in 1984 in Bhopal, India, a Union Carbide chemical plant experienced a gas leak, releasing forty tons of methyl isocynate (MIC) into the environment. People asleep awoke gasping for breath; approximately seven thousand died within days, and five hundred thousand were affected. The Indian government estimates that—more than fifteen years later—several people die from poison-related illnesses a month. The leak has been traced to a disgruntled employee.

Every day governments attempt to balance environmental and labor regulations with attracting new businesses and jobs to the region. Every day courts weigh responsibility and penalties associated with disasters. In many cases there is not a single legal arbiter of responsibility—due to the complex ownership and impact of man-made environmental disasters, a corporation may be sued in numerous venues, including its host country, its own country, and international courts.


Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "Cyanide." 2000. (8 September 2000).

Craig-David, J.R., J. Vaughan and B.J. Skinner. Resources of the Earth: Origin, Use and Environmental Impact. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Korte, F. "The Dilemma of Processing Gold with Cyanide."Fresenius Environmental Bulletin 7 (1998): 141-228.

Moran, R.E. "Cyanide in Mining. Some Observations on the Chemistry, Toxicity and Analysis of Mining-Related Waters." 17 February 2000. (8 September 2000).

Antoinette M.Mannion


January 2000 Cyanide from a gold mine was released and water supplies contaminated in Romania, Hungary, the Ukraine, and Serbia.

March 2000 A second spill of tailings was released, further contaminating the water supply.