A huge cyanide leak into the River Labe - known internationally as the Elbe - has now contaminated an 80-kilometre stretch of the river, killing tons of fish. It is being described as one of the worst toxic spills in years, and environmentalists say that the full extent of damage to river life will only become apparent in the spring.
The first sign that something was seriously wrong with the water in the River Labe was when locals noticed dead fish floating along a ten-kilometre stretch of the river last week. Samples of the water were taken for analysis, as the number of dead fish rose by the hour and local fishermen fought to save what they could - netting the fish and separating the live ones to move to a clean environment. The analysis of water samples takes three days and by the time the results came through - showing that the toxin was cyanide - the worst of the damage had already been done. Specialists who have been monitoring the environment say the concentration levels are slowly decreasing, as the cyanide is gradually eliminated through contact with oxygen. Petr Makovsky of the Environmental Inspection Service says that by the time the contaminated water reaches Germany it should no longer present a hazard to people or river-life:
"We can reliably predict that, thanks to the inflow of clean water at the confluence of the Labe and the River Vltava, concentrations of cyanide will drop significantly. This should happen on Czech territory - around Melnik we expect the level of cyanide to be at around thirty micrograms -which will no longer pose a threat to river life."
Despite such reassurances, the spill has evoked serious concern in neighbouring Germany where the river flows, and provoked an angry reaction from Saxony's environment minister who demanded to know why the German authorities had been alerted to the accident a week after it happened. Karolina Sulova is the Czech environment ministry's spokesperson:
"The main reason is that it only became clear on Monday what substance had actually leaked into the river. It is the duty of the river administration to alert their foreign partners and I believe they did so on Monday, as soon as they themselves got the results."
Of course, there are also a lot of questions on the Czech side. Like why the culprit - the Lucebni Zavody chemicals plant, one of several located further up the river - did not own up to the spill as soon as it happened. The company now faces a fine of up to ten million crowns (around 400,000 US dollars) and it will have to pay for the tons of fish the spill killed. The company's director has promised to upgrade the detoxification technology where the spill occurred within six months at the company's expense. But for the fishermen and anglers - who claim they've lost three generations of fish - the promise is "too little, too late".