The Most Polluted Place in Europe

The public health emergency no one has noticed

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 19th May 2000

I’ve been feeling lousy for the last ten days. I’ve had headaches, a sore throat, streaming eyes and a claustrophobic tightness across my chest. I know what I’ve got. It’s not hayfever, or flu, or asthma. I’ve been poisoned. It’s hardly surprising, for I have just returned from the most polluted place in Europe.

The north-west corner of Romania featured briefly on the world’s news in February, when a lake full of cyanide burst its banks and poisoned 2000 kilometres of the River Danube and its tributaries, killing thousands of tonnes of fish. I wanted to find out why this had happened, but the story I uncovered, working with a BBC film crew, suggests that this devastating spill was among the least of the region’s problems, a minor component of a permanent public health catastrophe.

It’s not hard to see why the journalists who flocked to the scene of the spill three months ago missed the bigger story. The dam burst in the middle of one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. The forested foothills of the Carpathians sweep down to plains divided into tiny plots, where peasant farmers still plough by horse. Even the town of Baia Mare, the source of most of the region’s environmental disasters, looks like any other eastern European provincial capital: with wide boulevards, grim slabs of system-built housing, half-completed churches and thousands of trees. The factories poisoning its inhabitants are tiny. They employ, between them, only 5,000 people. They are killing many more.

Baia Mare – which means “Big Mine” – processes some of the world’s richest mineral deposits. The western Carpathians are built of copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold. But, thanks to a lethal combination of the legacy of state communism and the arrival of unregulated capitalism, far from enriching the lives of its inhabitants, this great wealth has ruined them.

When you first set eyes on the lead factory on the outskirts of town, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The roofs are stoved in, the walls have collapsed, pipes have ruptured or rusted away altogether, the chimneys are crumbling. Miraculously, however, it still produces thousands of tonnes of lead. Less surprisingly, that’s not the only product which leaves the factory gates. When the plant is working, clouds of poison blow straight into the houses clustered around it.

Ioan Zidaru told his son to lift up his T-shirt. Protruding from his belly was an ugly purple scar. Like most of the people in his village, the boy had duodenal ulcers. Six weeks before I met him, one of them had ruptured, and he was rushed into hospital to have part of his gut removed. The people’s teeth are falling out, there are lumps and blotches all over their bodies, their kidneys, livers and nerves are damaged. They told me that sometimes the smoke is so dense, they pass out. A few months ago, the seven-year old son of one family we spoke to dropped dead. But they can’t move away. The men, who worked in the lead plant, all took early retirement when they fell ill. Incapable of working again, they can’t afford to buy land anywhere else.

But the most intractable problem in Baia Mare is not smoke but dust. The southern side of town is disfigured by apartment blocks as grim as any Ceaucescu built, in which some of Baia Mare’s poorest people live. Upwind, just fifty metres away, is the edge of vast toxic tip, the “tailings” left behind when rocks have been pulverised to extract the gold and silver they contain. When the wind blows, it whips up a storm of dust so fine that it can pass straight through the lining of the lungs, carrying zinc, copper, manganese, lead, cadmium, mercury and arsenic into the bloodstream. The dust pours not only through windows of the flats, but also into a school for handicapped children, who have been dumped, like the poor, beside the tip.

Many of them are likely to have been handicapped by pollution. Nearly four per cent of the babies born in Baia Mare so far this year suffer from serious disabilities. Some of the town’s children have so much lead in their blood that it cannot be measured: the gauge on the standard instruments stops at 650 micrograms per litre: six and a half times the concentration known to cause mental impairment. Dr Gheorghe Gradinaru, who runs a private clinic in Baia Mare, maintains that life expectancy in the town is between ten and fifteen years lower than in the rest of Romania. Hundreds of children are stillborn, hundreds more are premature. Genital cancer, kidney and heart trouble, brain damage and lung disease are rife. But one of the region’s biggest public health problems results, ironically, from an attempt to clean the pollution up.

In 1992, the national mining company, which owns the toxic tip on the edge of Baia Mare, formed a joint venture with a small Australian company named Esmeralda to get rid of it. The new firm, called Aurul, would dismantle the dump with the help of the money it made by extracting the residual gold the tailings contained. In May last year, Aurul began mixing the toxic dust with water and cyanide. The cyanide forms a compound with the gold, which can then be separated from the other wastes. But as the gold is sparse, very high concentrations of cyanide are needed to capture it. The resulting sludge is pumped out to a pond in the countryside, twelve kilometres from Baia Mare.

The 90-hectare pond Aurul has built looks rather like one of the gravel pits you see in the Thames valley, but the smell – sickly sweet, halfway between almonds and rotting flesh – is unfamiliar. There is so much cyanide in the water that when birds fly over it, they drop dead.

Last winter, the dam surrounding the pond burst. Between 50 and 100 tonnes of cyanide poured over the surrounding farmland and into a stream. By the time it reached the Black Sea, five weeks and 2000 kilometres later, it had killed much of the life which lay in its path. As the United Nations Environment Programme later concluded, the pond was so badly designed and constructed that the disaster was all but inevitable.

The people of Bozinta Mare, the small farming village 800 metres from Aurul’s pond, knew that something had gone wrong, but had no idea how serious the spill had been until the international media covered the obliteration of fish in rivers 800 km away. Aurul’s factory was shut down, but the authorities told the villagers nothing. They had been drinking out of poisoned wells for days.

Their land was devastated, but they have, so far, received no compensation. If they are not to starve this year, they must farm, and some of them have already begun to plough and graze their animals on soil saturated by the metal compounds which poured from the pond.

The acute problems caused by the spill are dwarfed by the chronic pollution afflicting Bozinta Mare. Aurul’s pond is just one of three now surrounding the villagers’ fields: two others had already been constructed by the state mining company. The dams are all built from the same reprocessed dust that’s blowing into the tower blocks on the edge of Baia Mare: Aurul has simply moved part of the toxic tip from the town to the village. Even if the damburst had not taken place, the dust would have rendered the fields unfit for farming. “This a dead land,” Gavril Matra, one of the villagers, insists, “which will never flourish, no matter what the experts say.”

The Aurul pond is just one of 215 toxic waste lagoons in the region, most of which could burst at any time. Indeed, while riding out on Gavril Matra’s cart to examine his fields, I found eight men struggling to plug a leak from one of the old state ponds. As grey sludge spurted out, they fought to mend the antiquated pipes and valves without masks, gloves or protective clothing.

Aurul’s “environmental remediation project” is helping to ruin the environment of Bozinta Mare. It hasn’t done much for the people of Baia Mare either. When the company started to mine the toxic tip, it broke the frail crust which had begun to develop, exposing its neighbours to even more poisonous dust. I watched the children who lived beside it using the dump as a giant sandpit, riding bikes and rolling tyres in it, digging holes, kicking up clouds of dust. Though Aurul had posted two guards on the dump, they made no visible efforts to stop them. An old woman tottered out to collect flowers from the acacia bushes clinging to the tailings. She told me she would use them to make herb tea. No one had sought to dissuade her.

Extraordinarily, however, before it has cleaned up the mess it has made, Aurul wants to resume production. At a public meeting in Baia Mare, a representative from the plant told the villagers that the dam was now perfectly safe. Aurul’s manager, a British man called Martin Churchhouse, was also on on the platform. I pointed out to him that the villagers remained uncompensated, and their land was unsuitable for farming. “I think you’ll find,” he answered, “that the cyanide levels [in the soil] are at acceptable levels.” What about the heavy metals?, I asked. He conferred with his colleagues, but didn’t reply.

The government officials in the hall played an impressive game of regulatory tennis: the man from the environmental protection agency said that the agriculture department was responsible. The man from the agriculture department said it was the department of health’s concern. The man from the department of health said it was up to the environmental protection agency. In theory, Romania has some of the toughest environmental regulations in the world. In practice, it isn’t hard to see why they aren’t enforced.

Afterwards, I asked Martin Churchhouse for an interview. He promised to meet me at nine o’clock the following morning. He failed to appear. His secretary handed me a letter explaining that Aurul could not talk to me, but if I wanted to find out more I should read the United Nations report. I found this response interesting, as the report could scarcely be more damning.

Like the people suffering from industrial pollution in the film Erin Brokovich, the villagers of Bozinta Mare desperately need a lawyer. They want help in setting up an organisation with which to defend themselves: Ceaucescu’s secret police ensured that they never experimented with mobilisation. “It was hard during communism,” Gavril Matra told me, “but it is also hard now. I wish they would pack their bags and go away. They are destroying us.”

George Monbiot’s film about Romania’s environmental disaster is broadcast on Correspondent, BBC2, at 6.50pm on Saturday.