Here’s a story of the global economy at its worst and maybe also at its best.

Early this month a cry of alarm came over email from my friend Zoltan Lontay in Hungary. The Hungarian news had just announced an enormous fish kill in the Szamos river on that country’s eastern border. A wave of cyanide was moving down the Szamos and into the Tisza, Hungary’s second largest river. No one knew what had happened, but there was talk of a mine, operated by an Australian company, across the border in Romania — a mine that uses cyanide.

Zoltan’s message went out to a discussion list of over 100 friends all over the world. Replies bounced back, a guess that it must be a gold mine using cyanide heap leach technology, reports of similar disasters in other parts of the world. Philip Sutton in Australia said he would find out which Australian mining companies operate in Romania.

By February 8 Zoltan had more information. It was indeed a gold mine, of the modern sort that allows even very dilute gold deposits to be extracted from tons of rock economically. The rock is dug, crushed, and piled in heaps, through which cyanide drips to leach out the gold. The tricky part is what then to do with the cyanide. In Romania it was dumped into an above-ground pool held by an earth dam.

Zoltan wrote:

 

Though the poison in the pool was enough to kill a million people, the authorities neglected to keep it inspected. On January 30 the dam collapsed. Within half a day cyanide concentrations in the Szamos reached 150-300 times the safe level. Life in the river was exterminated, from fish to plankton.

Several hundred thousand people live in the danger zone. No drinking, fishing, or water extraction from the river or from wells along the river is allowed. The city of Szolnok on River Tisza is distributing bottled water, five liters per family per day. Food industries and paper mills have shut down.

For more than 24 hours the polluting company did not report the incident. People in Romania learned about it only from the Hungarian media. A fine of $160 was imposed on the company for late reporting. Eight days after the spill a similar spill occurred in the same region. The Romanian authorities again did not warn Hungary, and they have not withdrawn the operating licenses of the mining companies.

Direct economic damage is several hundred million dollars. No one knows how long cyanide in the mud will poison the river and neighboring wells and soils. It is shocking to see on television local people standing along the dead river and mourning it.

 

The following day Philip Sutton passed on news from the Mineral Policy Institute, an Australian nonprofit that keeps its eye on the mining industry. The offending company’s name is Esmeralda. It did not post a bond against environmental damage. The cyanide pond sat in the middle of a Romanian town, 50 yards from an apartment block. The dam broke because rain and snow had filled the pond beyond capacity.

Geoff Evans, director of the Mineral Policy Institute, said, “This adds to the legacy of environmental disasters by Australian mining companies. Serious accidents like this are an inevitable and tragic consequence of using cyanide for gold extraction.”

The word “inevitable” leaped out at me. The favorite word of globalization enthusiasts. Free trade, the global economy, it’s all inevitable. Don’t try to stand in the way of the train; your only choice is to get on and ride.

That “inevitability” claim stops both thought and action. Economics is not physics, it doesn’t operate by laws we can’t revoke. An economy is a human invention designed to serve human purposes. It is probably inevitable that there will be spills from huge open pools of cyanide. It is not inevitable that companies from one country be allowed to mishandle deadly chemicals in another country and spill them into a third country. Not inevitable, unless we believe it is and do nothing to prevent it.

Free trade enthusiasts never define what this “inevitable” globalization actually means to them. I gather that it means something like the freedom for anyone to go anywhere and do anything that makes money without interference from the locals. I don’t suppose anyone actually wants a planetary pollution free-for-all. But you can see why Hungarians — and New Guineans and other people who have had to live with cyanide and other kinds of spills — might come to believe that, whatever is intended, what globalization really means is carelessness, unaccountability, greed, and destruction.

Of course, it was a global information system that allowed my group to pass along news of this disaster way ahead of the media. The WTO protesters in Seattle organized through the global Internet. Romanians learned about the poison on their border through Hungarian media. Some aspects of globalization are not only inevitable but desirable, while others are neither acceptable nor necessary. It isn’t really hard to figure out which is which.