WMU News

River-killing cynide spills could occur again in U.S.

Feb. 22, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- The kind of catastrophic cyanide spill that sterilized a river in Romania and poured into the world-famous Danube could -- and has -- happened in the United States.

According to Dr. Charles F. Ide, director of WMU's Environmental Institute, the practice of storing cyanide in ponds at gold mining sites is common in the United States. Cyanide is used to separate gold ore from the surrounding rock and just a teaspoon of a 2-percent solution of it is lethal to most adults.

"Because cyanide blocks oxygen utilization, all life forms that get a dose of it die. Nothing is spared," Ide says.

Such spills have happened in the United States, including a spill in 1993 of the Lynches River in South Carolina.

"Once this stuff is in a river there is no stopping it," says Ide. "In addition to killing all aquatic life, there have been human deaths linked to at least one of these spills. But these mines have big ponds of this cyanide solution just sitting outside, and they use the stuff like it was chicken soup."

Ide says that while sunlight can break down cyanide fairly quickly, it will take years for the river and surrounding environment to recover.

"It could be in the soil and the sediment for a long, long time. Cyanide can be absorbed by other compounds, become toxic and then be re-released into the environment again for quite a while."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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