Baia Mare

Lessons Learned

A spill of toxic chemicals will spread wherever the surrounding air or water takes it. A technological disaster can therefore affect several countries at once. In these cases, the response effort needs not only efficient coordination, but also impartial and neutral assistance – best provided by a multilateral response.

The cyanide spill in Baia Mare decimated local fish populations and polluted drinking water in Romania, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria, before dissipating into the Black Sea.

Following requests from the Governments of Hungary, Romania and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), and consultations with European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström and OCHA, UNEP announced that a team of international experts would be sent to the affected area to carry out a scientific analysis of the environmental damage caused by the spill.

The mission was organized by the Joint Environment Unit and headed by the Director of UNEP’s Regional Office for Europe. Its terms of reference included an independent, scientific description of the spill, the situation and events causing it, the collection and review of data related to the spill and its environmental implications, and the preparation of recommendations for future action and prevention.

Sixteen experts from seven countries (Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland) were selected at very short notice to travel to the affected areas. In addition to the expert group:

  • A four-person United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team from the Disaster Response Branch of OCHA was dispatched to provide essential logistic and coordination support for the mission
  • UNEP’s Regional Office for Europe provided a press officer and a scientific coordinator
  • Representatives from the World Health Organization, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the European Commission delegations in Romania and Hungary were included in the mission
  • The Governments of Germany, Switzerland and the Czech Republic provided three mobile laboratories
  • Mining specialists in the UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics in Paris also provided specialist advice 
  • Logistical and other support was received from the UNDP Office in Bucharest, the United Nations Liaison Office in Croatia and the OCHA Office in Belgrade.

Finally, sampling was undertaken along the Danube in Serbia. Since so many different institutions were involved, the mission represented a useful model for inter-agency cooperation and multi-disciplinary rapid assessment work. It combined sampling and analysis with discussions among relevant national and local experts, national authorities, affected populations and local non-governmental organizations. The mission was not intended to provide a full overview of the emergency and its implications; instead, it provided an environmental input to the ongoing process of international investigation and review.

“This was an obvious environmental emergency
with little humanitarian need; however, dealing with
it was complicated by land-ownership issues,” says Rudolph Müller,
Deputy Director of OCHA’s Coordination and Response Division in New York.

“The case gave the Joint Environment Unit high visibility and
credibility: it was important that a neutral body intervened and this
was the key to coordination among the different stakeholders.”

In response the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents was signed by 26 member countries and the European Community and entered into force on 19 April 2000. The Convention promotes active international cooperation among contracting parties and its scope goes well beyond disaster response. It aims to protect people and the environment by preventing industrial accidents where possible, reducing their frequency and severity and mitigating their effects.

Another example is the International Maritime Organization (IMO). It is responsible for keeping a wide range of shipping conventions (including those governing oil spills) up to date, and introducing new ones as and when the need arises.

These international governance frameworks promote cooperation and clarify roles and responsibilities in specific cases. However there is no overarching framework for environmental emergencies within which the different agreements and institutions operate. This results in fragmentation, gaps in the international systems and limited coordination. The Advisory Group on Environmental Emergencies (AGEE) is seeking to address this through the Rosersberg Initiative which aims to strengthen the global regime that governs environmental emergency response and preparedness.