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The Tisza Cyanide Disaster and International Law

July 2000

Citation: 30 ELR 10509

Issue: 7

Author: Aaron Schwabach

Just under 14 years ago, at a few minutes after midnight on Halloween, a fire broke out in Sandoz Warehouse 956 in Schweizerhalle, near Basel, Switzerland. The fire and subsequent fire-fighting efforts resulted in the discharge of 1,351 metric tons of chemicals, many of them toxic, into the Rhine. At the time, the Sandoz spill was considered Europe's worst environmental disaster in decades, and perhaps its worst watercourse disaster ever. The incident briefly spurred interest in protecting Europe's environment, particularly its watercourses and especially the Rhine.1

As is so often the case, however, "never again" actually meant "not for a while." On January 31 of this year, at least 100,000 cubic meters of highly polluted water escaped from a tailings dam at the Aurul gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania. The water flowed into the Somes, Tisza, and Danube Rivers, causing enormous environmental damage. Most of the damage occurred in Hungary, downstream from Baia Mare. Hungarian politicians compared the spill not to Schweizerhalle but to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster; one said "it is as if a neutron bomb had been detonated. All the living organisms have been destroyed."2

Associate Professor of Law and Director, Center for Global Legal Studies, Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Mr. Schwabach received his J.D. in 1989 from Boalt Hall. He may be contacted at aarons@tjsl.edu.

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