Sludge Spill in Hungary Flows Toward Danube River

BUDAPEST, Hungary, October 6, 2010 (ENS) – A flood of red toxic sludge spilled by an aluminum plant in western Hungary has advanced along a secondary tributary to the Danube River and could reach the international waterway by the weekend, according to a local defense authority official.

One million cubic meters of sludge flooded the villages of Devecser, Kolontar and Somlovasarhely on Monday afternoon when a waste impoundment wall broke at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant owned by MAL Magyar Aluminium in the town of Ajka, 160 kilometers (100 miles) southwest of Budapest.

Red stain on the landscape of western Hungary (Photo credit unknown)

Four people lost their lives, six remain missing, 123 others were injured, and about 280 homes were flooded by the toxic sludge, which causes burns or blindness when in contact with skin or eyes. The spill now covers about 40 square kilometers (16 square miles), causing the Hungarian government to declare a state of emergency in three counties.

Imre Szakacs, head of Gyor-Moson-Sopron County’s defense authority, told the state newswire MTI that the red sludgy mess is in the River Marcal which flows into the River Raba, which in turn flows into the Danube, 125 kilometers (75 miles) to the north.

Szakacs said the sludge would reach the Raba in a diluted condition and would cause “no ecological harm to the Danube.”

Other observers are not so sure.

WWF-Hungary is warning that the environmental impacts of this spill could be longer lasting than the 2000 cyanide spill into the Danube basin from a Romanian gold mine.

Speaking from Kolontar today, Gabor Figeczky of WWF-Hungary said, “It is certain that the contaminated water would pass through the Danube, and with a smaller concentration, large and interconnected parts of Europe’s Natura 2000 protected areas.”

Red marks on these houses in Kolontar show how high the sludge flood reached. (Photo courtesy WWF Hungary)

“This puts the conservation related damages very substantial, even at international scale,” said Figeczky

“We expect further damages to fauna and flora, as the materials used in rescue operations and to neutralize alkaline are toxic as well,” he said. “Some animals and plants die instantly, some will face the consequences of serious poisoning in the longer term as the heavy metals from the red mud accumulate in their bodies, however there is still no information about the concentration of heavy metals in the red mud of this reservoir.”

More than 500 personnel from the National Disaster Management Authority, as well as soldiers and experts from the aluminum company, are trying to stop the toxic sludge before it reaches the tributaries of the Danube, Jeno Lasztovicza, head of the defense committee, told reporters last night. He said workers are pouring plaster and artificial fertilizers into the Marcal River in an effort to bind the sludge.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Tuesday that there is no danger of radiation from the toxic sludge spill. “There is no danger of radiation in the area,” Orban said in response to public concern.

The cause of the spill is under investigation and Orban has ordered the interior minister to investigate the criminal as well as the financial aspects of the spill.

Orban said he suspects the spill is due to human error. “The way the situation stands now is that we have no information which leads us to believe that the disaster had natural causes,” Orban said after a meeting of the Government Coordination Committee. “If a disaster has no natural causes, then we can believe that people are at fault.”

Production has been suspended at MAL Zrt, and a decision on when it can go back online will be made on the weekend, Orban said. The company will not be shut down for a lengthy period, he said, because offline it could not generate the revenue it can use for paying compensation.

Resident of Devecser, Hungary surveys the damage. (Photo by Takacs Lsazlo)

Interior Minister Sandor Pinter told reporters that MAL Zrt lacks adequate insurance coverage for such a spill, so the insurers will not make payments for damage claims based on the company’s contract.

Pinter said the government will ensure that people affected by the spill have a roof over their heads for the winter and are properly cared for.

Figeczky said the flood survivors feel hopeless. “Locals try to save their belongings but many are bereft of hope,” he said. “Most of them say they never want to move back to their previous homes.”

“I have come from a house in which the red sludge is waist high. Everybody is wearing masks and gloves as they are shoveling the red sludge,” Figeczky said. “The air is poisoned as well. It is very irritating to breath in.”

In a statement today, the management of MAL expressed “deepest regrets” to all those affected by the spill.

Saying that the sludge is not classified as hazardous waste by the European Union, MAL gave the constituents of the material as:

  • Fe2O3 (iron oxide) 40-45 percent, this gives the red color of mud
  • Al2O3 (aluminium oxide) 10-15 percent
  • SiO2 (silicon dioxide) 10-15 percent
  • CaO (calcium oxide) 6-10 percent
  • Tio2 (titanium dioxide), 4-5 percent
  • Na2 soda with 5-6 percent O

MAL said, “The company will mobilize all available means and every effort will be made jointly with the competent authorities to ensure that the effects of human tragedy – if at all possible – are mitigated.”

But it is not just a human tragedy, says WWF’s Figeczky. “Locals constantly collect the surviving animals, the red, opalescent eyed pets are being carried around in barrows, because their injuries unable them to move. The case is just as bad with the livestock too.”

“The damage in the wildlife cannot even be appraised,” he said. “Hunters are collecting dead and injured animals including deers, foxes, rabbits and wild boars.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.