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Strict curbs on industrial hazards after father and son’s complaint about cyanide use at gold mine

Tătar v. Romania | 2009

Strict curbs on industrial hazards after father and son’s complaint about cyanide use at gold mine

. . . if your son, your daughter, your mother, your father is affected by the pollution, then you react immediately.

Vasile Tătar, quoted on Deutsche Welle

Background 

Vasile and Paul Tătar, father and son, lived near a gold mine in the city of Baia Mare, the site of one of the worst ecological disasters in modern history. 

On 30 January 2000, a massive cyanide spill occurred at the mine after a dam burst. The company operating the plant used cyanide in its extraction process.   

Poison flooded the waterways of central Europe – from the Tisza to the Danube. Hungary estimated that the leak had killed 1,000 tonnes of fish. 

After the accident, the Romanian government issued new environmental permits to the company operating at Baia Mare. It authorised the firm to continue to store chemicals in the reservoir where the dam had been breached. 

Vasile Tătar believed that the company’s storage and use of cyanide put the health of local inhabitants at risk. He claimed that his son Paul had developed asthma because of the toxic pollution.

Vasile lodged complaints with the authorities, seeking to have the company’s operating license withdrawn and action taken against the company’s management. His complaints were dismissed. 

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court found that Romania had failed in its duty to assess the risks of the company’s activity and take suitable measures to safeguard Vasile and Paul’s right to enjoy a healthy and protected environment. 

According to the court, members of the public should have been informed of potential risks and had the right to participate in the decision-making process concerning environmental issues. They were instead denied access to the conclusions of key investigations and studies.

Follow-up 

By the time the European court had issued its judgment, Romania had adopted new laws regulating hazardous industrial activity. This included a law which ratified the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention). 

More recently, Romania passed the Industrial Emissions Act 2013 and the 2016 Act on the Control of Major Accident Hazards Involving Hazardous Substances. 

New industrial activities are now subject to mandatory authorisation every five or ten years. Industrial authorisations can be revised if new environmental impacts arise. In case of breaches, authorisations may also be suspended or penalties imposed.