Global Policy Forum

Cyanide Spill: What Globalization Really Means


Cyanide Spill: What Globalization Really Means Is Carelessness, Unaccountability, Greed and Destruction

By Donella Meadows

February 15, 2000

Here's a story of the global economy at its worst and maybe also at its best.

In early February, a cry of alarm came over e-mail from my friend Zoltan Lontay in Hungary. Hungarian news had just announced that a wave of cyanide was moving down the Szamos River and into the Tisza, Hungary's second largest river. There was talk of a gold mine, operated by an Australian company, across the border in Romania - a mine that uses cyanide.

The mine was of the modern sort that allows even very diluted gold deposits to be extracted cheaply from tons of rock. The rock is dug, crushed and piled in heaps, through which cyanide drips to leach out the gold. The tricky part is what then to do with the cyanide.

In Romania, it was dumped into an above-ground pool held by an earthen dam. Zoltan wrote, "Though the poison in the pool was enough to kill a million people, the authorities neglected to keep it inspected. On Jan. 30, the dam collapsed. Within half a day, cyanide concentrations in the Szamos reached 150 to 300 times the safe level. Life in the river was exterminated, from fish to plankton.

"Several hundred thousand people live in the danger zone. No drinking, fishing, water extraction from the river or from wells along the river is allowed. The city of Szolnok on the River Tisza is distributing bottled water, five liters per family per day. Food industries and paper mills have shut down.

"For more than 24 hours the polluting company did not report the incident. People in Romania learned about it only from the Hungarian media. A fine of $160 was imposed on the company for late reporting."

The cyanide has now gotten to the Danube, prompting Yugoslavia to announce it will sue Romania. This is being called the worst ecological disaster since Chernobyl.  The offending company, Esmeralda, did not post a bond against environmental damage. The cyanide pond sat in the middle of a Romanian town, 50 yards from an apartment block.

Geoff Evans, director of the Mineral Policy Institute, said, "Serious accidents like this are an inevitable and tragic consequence of using cyanide for gold extraction." The word inevitable leaped out at me. Favorite word of globalization enthusiasts! Free trade, the global economy, it's all inevitable. Don't try to block the train; your only choice is to get on and ride.

But economics is not physics. It doesn't operate by laws we can't revoke. An economy is a human invention designed to serve human purposes. It is probably inevitable that there will be spills from huge open pools of cyanide. It is not inevitable that companies from one country be allowed to mishandle deadly chemicals in another country and spill them into a third. Not inevitable, unless we believe it is and do nothing to prevent it.

Free-trade enthusiasts never define what this "inevitable" globalization actually means to them. I gather that it means something like the freedom for anyone to go anywhere and do anything that makes money without interference from the locals.

But you can see why Hungarians - and New Guineans and other people who have had to live with cyanide and other kinds of spills - might come to believe that, whatever is intended, what globalization really means is carelessness, unaccountability, greed and destruction.

Of course it was a global information system that allowed my group to pass along news of this disaster way ahead of the media. Romanians learned about the poison on their border through Hungarian media. Some aspects of globalization are not only inevitable but desirable; others are neither acceptable nor necessary. It isn't really hard to figure out which is which.

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