It started on January 30, when water overflowed a containment dam at the Baia Mare gold mine in Northwestern Romania. The water, contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals, coursed through nearby streams and into the Szamos and Tisa rivers, which flow into Hungary and Serbia, and eventually into the Danube, the longest river in Europe.

Within a week, several tons of dead fish of all sizes and species washed ashore along the banks of the Tisa. All aquatic life in the river–from algae and the tiniest aquatic creatures up to fish that weighed as much as a grown human–were killed. Some species of fish that live only in this water system were completely wiped out–extinct within a matter of days. Within two weeks, the spill covered a 30-mile stretch of the Tisa and the Danube. Witnesses claimed that parts of the Danube were “all white with the bellies of dead fish.” Hunters began to find dozens of dead cattle, cats, dogs, seagulls, deer, pheasants, ducks, and wildlife that rely on the Tisa river for drinking water.

In a part of Europe that is largely rural and serves as a breadbasket for the region, farms along the river banks cannot use water from the Tisa or the Danube–or even their own nearby wells–to irrigate their crops. Drinking water is being trucked in to towns that pump water from the Danube.

Over 300 tons of dead fish have been pulled from the Tisa and the Danube rivers in three countries. In the Yugoslavian section of the Danube alone, over 400,000 birds rely on the fish in the river to help them survive the winter. In another week or two, birds dead from starvation or from eating poisoned fish may become as common as the heaping piles of dead fish wrapped in nylon bags that litter the region. The problem of how to dispose of the contaminated carcasses–now officially toxic waste–is only the first step in a cleanup effort that could last for decades and cost well over $100 million dollars.

And the problems will get worse as time passes. Currently, there are few places to bury the fish carcasses, because seasonal heavy rains have turned portions of the region into a swamp. Also, the bottoms of the slow-flowing Tisa and Danube rivers are littered with piles of cold, dead fish that are perfectly preserved, because the cyanide killed the bacteria that would have decomposed them. Once the weather warms up, those fish will float to the top and wash downstream onto the banks of towns and cities, creating a second, larger mess.

The spill also carried high doses of heavy metals: iron, copper, mercury, and lead. These contaminates won’t become diluted over time, like the cyanide will. They will persist as poisons in the river, the soil, the groundwater, and the food chain for decades.

The Baia Mare spill has been called the worst environmental disaster in Europe since Chernobyl.

It couldn’t happen here in the U.S., right?

Wrong. A comparable cyanide spill has already occurred in the U.S.–at the Summitville mine in southern Colorado in 1992. Cyanide water spilled into the Alamosa River system, killing everything in the water within 17 miles of the spill site. The Alamosa cleanup continues to this day, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the final costs will be at least $170 million. Said Steve D’Esposito of the Mineral Policy Center: “You’re having to re-establish an entire ecosystem … So it takes years, if not decades.” D’Esposito also acknowledged that the Alamosa spill contaminated groundwater and soil in the region; to this day, local farmers have to test their crops every year for cyanide contamination.

Cyanide is used in gold-mining to increase the yield (and the profits) from low-grade ores. Cyanide compounds are mixed with water and flushed through ores to extract tiny flecks of gold; the process is so efficient that it can extract nearly 100% of the gold from a pile of ore dust. But the process produces a highly-toxic waste, which is usually stored in containment ponds. Experience shows that, over time, containment ponds can fail, and the results can be devastating.

The Baia Mare mine is operated jointly by the Romanian government and an Australian company, Esmeralda Exploration Ltd., and both claim the affects of the spill into the Tisa and Danube rivers have been exaggerated. Similar claims about the effects of cyanide have been made by the Houston-based company, Battle Mountain Gold Inc., which is still pursuing a cyanide-leaching gold mine in Okanogan county in Eastern Washington.

The proposed Crown Jewel mine has survived a number of setbacks. Last March, the federal government ruled against it on the basis of the 1872 mining law that limits the per-acre amount of rock that can be dumped in the area surrounding a mine. Senator Slade Gorton, always ready to serve big business, came to the rescue by inserting two paragraphs into an unrelated bill on relief for victims of Hurricane Mitch; those two paragraphs exempted the Crown Jewel mine from the 1872 law.

Hardworking opponents of the mine, including the Okanogan Highlands Alliance (a citizens’ watchdog group) and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, continued their fight by filing an appeal at the state level. On January 19 of this year–less than two weeks before the Baia Mare disaster in Europe–the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board ruled against the Crown Jewel mine. In their ruling, the pollution board said that Battle Mountain Gold Inc. had not adequately provided for pollution control, and the mine would pull too much water from the overused creeks in the area.

The struggle over the Crown Jewel mine, however, is not finished. On February 10, the company met with Gov. Gary Locke (who supports the mine) and the State Department of Ecology (which initially issued the permits for the mine) to hammer out a strategy to save Crown Jewel. The mine may yet go forward.

Battle Mountain wants to rip at least 97 million tons of rock from the eastern face of a mountain located mostly on publicly owned U.S. Forest Service land. They expect to employ about 140 people. But if cyanide spills over into the local watershed and spreads down 30 miles of river, destroying everything in its path, those jobs will mean nothing. Surely eastern Washington farmers, a powerful lobby in Olympia, should be taking a closer look at something that could so easily threaten their livelihoods.

And, of course, all the talk about saving the salmon in the Columbia River watershed will be meaningless if a large portion of that river system is completely and thoroughly destroyed.