BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — Colombian authorities, seeking to head off a potential environmental disaster, were still searching Tuesday for two missing cyanide barrels that had been aboard a ferry that capsized in the Magdalena River.
A total of 96 drums of the highly toxic chemical were aboard the vessel when it sank early Saturday in Colombia's longest river. All but two of the canisters, which were loaded on a vehicle that was on the ferry, had been recovered by late Tuesday afternoon.
The urgency of the situation was made clear Sunday and Monday by the fact that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe remained at the site, about 220 miles north of the capital, Bogota, to oversee salvage operations.
He ordered a ban on all shipments of cyanide and other toxic substances on the river until further notice. More than a ton of herbicide and 1 1/2 tons of toxic zinc sulfate also were lost in the accident, officials said.
The country's disaster preparedness office issued a warning to 40 towns in four states that lie along the river downstream from Bodega Central, where the accident occurred. Several rely on the river for drinking water.
Panic buying of bottled water briefly broke out Saturday in the coastal port city of Barranquilla when water company Triple A said it was suspending deliveries as a precautionary measure. It later reinstated service saying it had found no evidence of contamination.
Cyanide crystals, which are used in a leaching process to mine silver and gold, were packed in thick plastic inside the 55-gallon drums. So far, none of the cyanide is believed to have leaked into the river, a crucial fishing and transportation channel.
Colombian navy ships and a crane owned by state-run oil company Ecopetrol were rushed to the area in an effort to raise the vehicles that had fallen fell off the ferry.
Teams of navy divers were working around the clock to find the drums. On Tuesday they used a huge compressor to suck up mud that was covering 25 drums. All of those barrels were recovered, Uribe spokesman Cesar Mauricio Velasquez said.
Some of the divers told television reporters that they were hampered by strong currents and pollution in the Magdalena River. "Close your eyes. That's how it is down there," said one diver.
An editorial in Tuesday's El Tiempo newspaper of Bogota noted that the river is used by much of the nation as a dumping ground.
"Very little luck has our Magdalena River. . . . Cyanide! One would have thought extreme precautionary measures were being taken in its transport."
In recent weeks, the appearance of hospital waste, including syringes and blood containers, and other industrial garbage in the river and on the Caribbean coast has generated calls for more stringent guidelines for hazardous waste disposal.