On Monday, October 4, 2010, a Hungarian sludge reservoir at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar alumina plant burst, releasing at least 185 million gallons of a refining by-product called red mud. The sludge flooded three villages. Nine people have been killed, over 150 others were injured, others went missing and over 60 have been hospitalized. The sludge’s high alkalinity and possible toxicity give it the potential to wreck ecological havoc.

The red mud first spilled into the Marcal River at a pH of 13 (the safe, neutral level is 7, anything below is acidic, anything above is alkaline), killing all its fish. The Raba River, where sporadic fish deaths have been reported, was also affected. The Hungarian government moved swiftly, pouring plaster in the Marcal River to slow down the mud and diluting the slurry with acetic acid (vinegar) to lower its pH. The government is trying to clean-up the mess as quickly as possible. There are also fears that dry weather conditions will cause the red mud to dry into a toxic dust which can cause lung damage; tests have revealed high levels of arsenic in the air.

At pH 9.3, the sludge has now reached the Danube River, the second-longest river in Europe, which runs through 10 different countries and eventually connects to the Black Sea. A spokesperson for the country’s emergency service, Timea Petroczi, said, “There is a good chance that the aquatic flora and fauna of the Danube and Raba rivers will be able to make it through this contamination…The pH value is quite favorable.” Although dead fish have since been sighted in the Danube River, heavy metal concentration has dropped to drinking water levels, easing many fears about Danube contamination.

As of October 7th, reports said that the reservoir wall had stopped leaking and work had started on building a triple-tiered protective wall around the damaged section. On October 9th, however, new damage was found in the reservoir and the Hungarian government responded by evacuating the nearby village of Kolontar. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said another deadly spill was “very likely.”

As the situation worsens, questions are being raised. How was this spill caused in the first place? Were human error, negligence or inefficient policies involved? How can Hungary and the rest of Europe deal with the spill’s aftermath? Most importantly, can another spill be prevented? How?

An unprecedented disaster

The alumina plant and reservoir in question are owned by MAL Zrt, the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company. MAL Zrt has no recorded history of violations or accidents and the last state inspection of the reservoir on September 23rd showed nothing wrong. After an investigation, the company said that a wall of the reservoir slipped on its clay base, causing it to burst and that it had no way to predict the accident. The Prime Minister disagrees, saying that “human negligence” was responsible for the spill and that “This is an unprecedented ecological catastrophe in Hungary. Human error is more than likely. The wall did not disintegrate in a minute. This should have been detected.”

Heavy rain in the region may have weakened the foundation of the reservoir’s concrete wall and therefore causing a collapse. In fact, MAL Zrt called the disaster a “natural catastrophe.” Others, however, question whether or not the reservoir was large or strong enough in the first place. As investigations continue to find who is to blame for the spill, the government pushes forward to respond to the disaster.

Since no toxic spill like this has ever happened, officials have no precedents to follow for administering aid correctly and efficiently. They have, however, made significant clean-up efforts. In addition to adding plaster and vinegar to the sludge to slow and dilute it, the government has been constructing underwater weirs and handing out rubber boots and food rations to villagers attempting to salvage their undamaged belongings from evacuated towns. Residents of affected areas have been promised that their homes would be decontaminated. Regardless, many villagers do not want to return to the area. Kolontar residents even said that the spill had rendered their land “worthless,” especially since agriculture in the area will be “impossible for many years.” Prime Minister Orban agreed, saying it makes “no sense” to rebuild in these same locations.

Avoiding the affected villages, however, may not ensure one’s safety. The sludge is already making its way down the Danube River, seeping into the water table and drying into a potentially toxic dust. The harmfulness of the sludge depends on its chemical make-up. MAL Zrt asserts that the red mud is non-toxic and that victims’ reports of chemical burns must be due to the substance’s high alkalinity. Others, however, say that the waste contains heavy metals, is toxic and may even contain thorium and uranium. Sandra Bailey, an environmental manager at an American alumina refinery said that the waste contains “almost every element on the periodic table…just every metal you can think about.” If the sludge is as toxic as some believe it to be, the spill may cause continent-wide devastation.

Possible consequences

Joe Hennon, environmental spokesman for the European Commission said, “There is potential for widespread environmental damage.” Aware of the dangers, the European Union called for the Hungarian government to take every measure needed to contain the sludge as much as possible. The Hungarian incident has caused some to recall the Romanian gold plant spill in 2000 when 4.6 million cubic feet of cyanide-tainted water shot into the Tisza River and killed fish in nearby Hungary. Although areas affected in the 2000 spill are now safe for residency, there are traces of the spill left. Fortunately, river life recovered from the disaster because contaminants were quickly washed down the river and did not have time to completely devastate the area. The Hungarian sludge spill, however, is ten times larger and has left more than 1,000 hectares of land buried under feet of sludge. According to the government, the sludge will take at least a year to clear. Under these circumstances, the Hungarian spill may possibly be worse than the Romanian incident.

Agriculture may become very difficult in Hungary and areas surrounding the Danube. Already, acres of crops have spoiled and topsoil will likely have to be replaced because it is “irretrievably alkaline and possibly contaminated with heavy metals.” There also have been reports that the sludge is slightly radioactive, although the government says it is “well below the dangerous level [of radiation].” The possible threats of radiation have not been determined.

Hungary’s financial markets have not been affected by the leak, although agricultural difficulties, metal industry trouble or government money being fed into the relief effort may impact the economy. Business has, however, for the most part carried on as usual. In fact, MLA Zrt said on October 7th that it hoped to move forward and resume production as soon as one week after the spill, using a new sludge containment pond. The government acknowledges that production must restart to ensure the livelihood of the company’s employees, but insists that proper safety measures be taken and will temporarily freeze MAL Zrt’s assets and place it under state control.

Some government officials, including the Prime Minister, believe the company has been negligent in its operations or maintenance of the reservoir and is therefore to blame for the avoidable disaster. A criminal investigation has been opened and police have confiscated company papers. Orban holds MAL Zrt completely responsible, saying, “We have well-founded reasons to believe that there were people who knew about the dangerous weakening of the reservoir wall, but for personal reasons they thought it wasn’t worth repairing and hoped there would be no trouble.” MAL Zrt’s Managing Director Zoltan Bakonyi was arrested and taken in for questioning but released from police custody after two days due to lack of evidence. Some still think he may be charged with “public endangerment causing multiple deaths” and creation of environmental damage; Bakonyi may face up to 11 years in prison for both charges combined.

The possible long-term effects of this spill could make it the worst environmental disaster in European history. Now cracks have been spotted in the Ajkai reservoir wall, which seems to be on the verge of collapse. While the reservoir contains 110 million gallons of toxic waste, experts estimate that a second spill will only be 50% to 70% the size of the October 4th deluge. The government will have to plan its response, as Orban said, “There’s no technical equipment that could really stop this process and the only thing we can do is prepare ourselves to stop the damage it would cause.”

Another spill

On October 9th, Hungarian officials realized that one of the reservoir walls was severely damaged and would inevitably collapse. The northern wall has numerous cracks that have temporarily stopped widening due to favorable weather conditions, but will continue to expand, especially at night. The northwest corner of the storage pool also shows a 50-meter-wide, 23-meter high hole through which the sludge broke through the week prior. In this condition, the reservoir is bound to release another deluge of toxic matter that could travel a half-mile north, re-devastating Kolontar and posing a threat to a neighboring town to the north, Devecser. While Kolontar has been evacuated, Devecser’s residents have been told to pack one bag and to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

Tibor Dobson, Hungary’s disaster agency spokesman, noted that the government is doing all that it can: the wall being built to protect the undamaged parts of Kolontar was scheduled for completion by October 12th, the reservoir’s cracks are being repaired and a 2000-ft long dam is also being built. Environmental State Secretary Zoltan Illes said he hopes to close the opening in the reservoir wall within two months but notes that it will not be easy: “The job, including pouring enough concrete to raise three 10-story buildings, will have to be done from the air,” Illes said. “This is unprecedented.”

Other European countries have been cautious, making sure that they are not negatively affected by the disaster. Local authorities in Romania have been testing the waters in Bazias, a village near where the Danube enters Romania, every four hours and will continue tests throughout the week. The government has warned people about letting animals drink from the Danube and urged them to be careful while fishing; fishermen have gone out into the river despite the warnings, seemingly “unperturbed by any potential hazards.” Serbia is not willing to take any risks and says it will immediately shut down water intake if the spill reaches its stretch of the river.

The incident has also raised European awareness about the dangers of industrial processes and waste containment, especially since Europe has many ill-maintained, decades-old facilities that could potentially endanger large numbers of people. Each country is addressing problems in their areas. Bulgaria is developing a classification system to identify dangerous facilities as dictated by a 2006 European Union law. Serbia is receiving attention for its martially inspired environmental problems. According to a World Wildlife Fund report, “the country’s environmental risks derive partly from the Kosovo war in 1999, when NATO bombings of fertilizer and vinyl chloride manufacturing plants and an oil refinery caused the release of mercury, dioxins and other carcinogens into the water.” Hungary itself has inspected other waste containment sites in response to the sludge spill.

Like these countries, the European Union is concerned about the spread of the disaster and may have to provide financial assistance for the job to be done sufficiently. Hungary, however, has only asked for knowledge and expertise from other countries. Five European experts from France, Belgium, Sweden, Austria and Germany have formed a civil protection team for this purpose and will assess the environmental impact of the spill on agriculture, wildlife and water supplies. It will also anticipate risks, suggest solutions and help Hungary restore natural, agricultural and urban areas. The EU crisis response commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva praised this development. “The quick selection of this team…clearly shows that European solidarity is working.”

Response may be a European issue, but other countries may be able to help Hungary prevent reoccurrences in the distant future. Some suggest that companies like MAL Zrt switch to safer sludge-storage techniques such as the dry storage techniques used in the United States. In its dry form, alumina waste is easier to handle and is less toxic. The waste can be dried by extracting the caustic soda used to isolate the aluminum in the ore which will also reduce the alkalinity of the substance to below 13, the pH measured in the untreated Hungarian waste.

The high toxicity of the substance can also be reduced in its present form. A geologist from Indiana University Bloomington suggested mixing the red mud with oil-field brine, a by-product of oil and gas production, and then with carbon dioxide. The brine gives the carbon dioxide a medium to dissolve in so it can chemically react with water to form carbonic acid which will lower the substance’s pH, making it less harmful.

Other organizations that cannot offer waste-storage advice have been willing to instead assist Hungarian relief efforts through other means. For example, the U.S.-based Falken Industries has donated $125,000 worth of their 800 hand wipe product to relief and medical workers.

MAL Zrt has said that it is not planning to shy away from its responsibilities and has issued an apology to all of those affected. On Sunday, the company expressed its condolences to the families of the people who were killed. They also promised to pay compensation “in proportion to its responsibility” for the damage caused by the spill. MAL Zrt originally offered emergency compensation of $500 to each citizen rendered homeless or injured by the spill, but this figure was widely criticized. Orban plans to hold the company financially responsible and said, “Since this is not a natural catastrophe but the damage was brought about by people, the damages must be paid first and foremost not by taxpayers but by those who cause the damage.” The State Secretary estimated that the company has incurred at least $97.3 million in fines so far.

Determining the responsibility of various parties is still an objective, but not an immediate priority. If another spill is truly inevitable, MAL Zrt, the Hungarian government and the European Union will most likely have to work together to prevent as much damage as possible. An unprecedented, wide-spread catastrophe will hopefully yield an unprecedented, united response.

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