The Baia Mare disaster: 16 years of inaction

From ToxicLeaks

Just over 16 years ago, at the end of January in the year 2000, an ecological calamity occurred that since became known as the Baia Mare disaster. Thousands of cubic meters of water contaminated by cyanide, spilled over into the Sasar River at the Bozinta Mare gold mining works in Romania. Although only a relatively minor waterway, the Sasar nonetheless connects to a network of rivers and by the time the cyanide eventually made its way to the Danube, the effects were already catastrophic. Thousands upon thousands of tons of fish were killed, and the consequences for mammalian, bird and insect life equally grim. The company responsible, Aurul, attempted to carry out a damage limitation exercise, firstly in trying to impede the flow of cyanide from the source, but later in preserving the company's image – especially as Aurul was a joint venture between the Romanian government and Esmeralda Exploration, an Australian mining giant with a lot, in terms of reputation, to lose. That the company changed its name to Transgold shortly after speaks volumes about its approach to the whole disaster.

According to Aurul, the disaster was an “unfortunate” side product of unusual weather conditions and a dam which proved inadequate for the task of collecting the cyanide by-product of gold mining. Due to the extremely high rainfall of the preceding winter, more water than was expected to be the case collected in the cyanide pools and were frozen there in the subsequent weeks of an equally unexpected cold snap. Those two factors, combined with a final freak bit of weather in the form of unseasonal highs which melted the ice rather rapidly than usual, placed too much pressure on the dam which eventually gave way and released a fissure within its main wall. From the dam the cyanide flowed into the Sasar River, from there into the Somes, then into the Tisa and from thereon into the mighty Danube itself and eventually the Black Sea. The spill released an amount of cyanide 7000 times above the permitted levels and affected the drinking water of 2.5 million people. The numbers of river dwelling creatures were devastated, the whole length of the river from where the spill began, whilst the directors of Aurul shook their heads in sympathy and bemoaned the freak conditions that had led the region to this sorrowful state of affairs. Of course, by this point anyone with an even remotely investigative eye would be questioning a process that would necessitate the damming of a substance as deadly as cyanide in the first place.

The process, known as “heap leaching”, is one where an ore is crushed into small pieces and heaped up on an impermeable pad. A leach solution is used which drips through the heap and dissolves the valuable metals in a slow process which can take anything between months and years to complete depending upon the level of resistance the metal presents to the solution. In the case of gold, the process is specifically called “gold cyanidation” and takes just a couple of months. Most of the cyanide is recycled after use and dripped through a new heap to restart the process again, but residual pools of contaminated fluids unavoidably occur and it was such that was held by the dam at Bozinta Mare. Because of this and the consequently controversial nature of the process, gold cyanidation is banned in a large number of countries of which Romania, unfortunately, is not one. Even more unfortunately, there a number of alternatives to cyanide which can be used to effect the same end. However, these alternatives are far less cost effective than the toxin which destroyed the ecosystem of half of the Danube and its tributaries. Of course, when blaming nature for the disaster, the directors of Aurul failed to point this out.

There are significant moves afoot to change the technologies involved in gold cyanidation by those who worry over the potential for further environmental disasters like those at Bozinta Mare. Primarily these are focused upon replacing cyanides with other less, or even non, toxic alternatives. Foremost amongst these is thiosulfate, which operates in a very similar manner to cyanide with a stability and rate of gold recovery only a little less than its toxic counterpart. Even more environmentally friendly is alpha-cyclodextrin which, being extracted from corn starch, has next to no hostile effect, although operating in a considerably different manner to cyanides and with an even weaker rate of gold recovery. The argument for a change to thiosulfate is particularly strong, especially when one takes into account the fact that the process is almost identical to that used with cyanide and hence demanding a far lesser cost in transition fees. This in addition to an easing up in costs over meeting the demands of modern regulations in the use of cyanide. However, such arguments fail to take into account that the modern multinational, when confronted by uncomfortably strict and lawful regulations on such matters, can simply up sticks, find a country that is poor enough to be willing to accept thirty pieces of silver in return for a risk to its welfare, and just carry on regardless – much like Transgold did and probably with lower operating costs to boot.

The issue of the Baia Mare cyanide run off did not, unfortunately, stand alone – although in its severity it certainly stands above the rest. In 1991, the Summitville mine in Colarado was served with a cease and desist order after it was discovered that leaking heap pads had contaminated water in nearby creaks, although luckily with limited effect upon the environment. In 1995, a dam wall broke at one of the world's largest gold mines in Omai, Guyana, releasing cyanide into the Essequibo river and killing a laughably conservative and contrived official figure of 250 fish. Perhaps one of the most worrying cases, however, is that of the Ok Tedi mine in Papa New Guinea, which has been releasing unrestrained cyanide wastage since the 1980s without halt. The significant ill effects of this discharge upon the environment and human life alike has been well recorded, but the then owners BHP Billiton, yet another Australian based mining firm, took until 1999 to admit to the severity of the problem. In light of these and other similar disasters, including several that were caused by accidental dumping of cyanide into waterways and forests during more legitimate waste removal processes, the calls for a change in technology have been numerous and especially so where new plants using this process have been built.

The incidents in Summitville, Omai, OK Tedi, but especially so Baia Mare, have served to increase public awareness of the perils of gold cyanidation, upon both the environment and human life to acquire a product that, anyway, lies out of reach of the hands of those who live and toil upon the land where it lies. Prior to this awareness there was still a somewhat fairytale-book picture in most people's minds regarding the process, of toughened men carrying picks and sifting through sieves for gleaming nuggets of golden fortune. Once they realized though that gold extraction was primarily achieved through the use of chemicals widely known for their deadliness to humans, opinions changed, although fleetingly as it turned out. Mega-mining firms like Transgold and BHP Billiton are able to sit snugly away from the scene of the crime upon their thrones in Perth and Melbourne, riding out the worst of the negative publicity storm until their PR departments decide the atmosphere is right to put the issue to bed. After all, what is $1 million spent in spin when the potential market returns are so much greater.

Sixteen years on, the neutral observer is able to identify, with some not unexpected cynicism, that the response to the Baia Mare disaster amounted to little more than an acknowledgement and an apology. Transgold restarted operations under its new name within months of the accident occurring and no steps taken to identify and relieve of duty those most at fault for allowing Baia Mare to occur. An EU report identified the design faults in the dam as being responsible for the disaster, thereby justifying Transgold's continued operations in Romania, as well as its continued use of cyanides in its gold removal operations. The Romanian government, at least, attempted to ban the use of cyanides for these purposes, but found itself impotent without the backing of Europe. Transgold did its best in the following years to convince Romania, Europe and the world that new safety procedures had been implemented which would ensure Baia Mare would never happen again, but in most peoples eyes this was too little too late; and no significant compensation for those local inhabitants directly affected by the disaster, such as those involved in fishing and agriculture, was ever forthcoming. Meanwhile, although fish numbers are near to those prior to the disaster, many species have not returned and commercial fishing is entirely impossible; potentially remaining so for generations to come. The real disaster here, of course, is that without any true recourse to effectively challenge those responsible for such disasters as Baia Mare, there is no incentive to end the process of toxic heap leaching for those few untouchables who have the most financially to gain.