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EU Spokesman: Hungary Has Requested Sludge Clean-up Help

October 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner speaks with Joe Hennon, a European Commission spokesman, about the health and environmental risks of the toxic red sludge spreading in Hungary.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the wider implications of the accident in Hungary, we’re joined by Joe Hennon, the environment spokesman for the European Union Commission.And, Mr. Hennon, thank you for joining us.

How alarmed, how concerned is the E.U. by the fact that today this — this toxic sludge did reach the Danube?

JOE HENNON, environment spokesman, European Union Commission:Well, we’re very concerned.I mean, we were concerned already, even if this just was within Hungary’s borders.I mean, it’s one of our member states, and this is a very significant environmental disaster.So, the fact that it’s gone to the Danube now makes it potentially much more of an international incident.

The Danube is one of the most important waterways in Europe. And it crosses the borders of at least seven countries. So, clearly, we’re very concerned. We’re hoping that the Hungarian authorities are doing everything they can to stop this. We have made it very clear that other E.U. member states are ready to provide assistance.

And, in fact, a couple of hours ago, the Hungarian government has asked for assistance.So, we will be looking at providing that.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said you hope the Hungarian government is doing all it can.How closely are you monitoring what, in fact, is being done?

JOE HENNON: Well, we’re in daily contact, I mean, throughout the day with the Hungarian authorities at all kinds of levels.

But, clearly, we’re here in Brussels, and they’re on the ground in Hungary, so we see a lot of reports from the media, and we follow it a lot that way.So, yes, we have a good idea what’s happening, but it’s — still, they’re the people on the ground and we’re the ones who are in another part of Europe.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what are the potential dangers from this kind of aluminum sludge?I know you probably don’t know about this particular — this particular event, but in terms of — it’s been described as highly alkaline and containing lots of heavy metals.

JOE HENNON: Yes.And we still don’t know exact composition of it.We know what to expect from this kind of mud.It’s certainly caustic.And we have seen that with the effect on people who have been in contact with it.They have been in hospital with burns.The affect in the water seems to be so far that it’s killing both animal and plant life.

Clearly, some of the heavy metals that may be in there like — that would include things like mercury, lead, arsenic, cyanide, we don’t have an indication yet as what kind of volumes of these things are contained there, but we can see already the effects are pretty obvious on people’s television screens.

MARGARET WARNER: What are the potential effects to human health from heavy metals?

JOE HENNON: Well, it depends, again, on which — on what quantities you’re talking about.

But, certainly, if they’re ingested, then they can be poisonous.So, clearly, they can kill you if they’re in sufficient quantities.So far, most of the injuries that have happened have been from caustic soda, so it’s been burns to skin and damage to people’s eyes.

But the effect, obviously, if it gets into drinking water, it could be very serious.But, so far, we don’t have any indications that that has happened.

MARGARET WARNER: Or if it’s ingested by fish?

JOE HENNON: Yes.We have seen pictures of dead fish being taken out of the river.

That’s clear.If you get any kind of quantity of these elements in the water, then it can kill fish, it can kill plant life.So that’s clearly a major worry if we have substances like this getting into the Danube.

I can say, so far, the measures of alkaline, they have been above normal, but they’re not critical yet.So, we’re hopeful there that it’s not going to get any worse.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you have a sense of — I mean, the Danube is a very big river.It’s sometimes called the mighty Danube.Do you have a sense of at what point this material becomes so diluted that it is no longer a hazard?

JOE HENNON: We don’t.We will be hoping that the scientists can tell us that.And, in fact, the Hungarian government has now asked for help from experts in the E.U., so people who are used to dealing with heavy metal, for example, and with decontamination and with fighting ecological disasters of this kind.

So, it remains to be seen.It really depends on the volume.And they can be diluted in water.The Danube is big.And it goes down as far as the Black Sea, which clearly is also extremely large.But, yes, we have seen the effects in smaller rivers.And that has been to kill the fish and other living things in the water.

MARGARET WARNER: It — it was reported today that there’s a commission for the protection of the Danube, and that this particular site has, in fact, since 2006, been on a list of at-risk sites for an industrial accident, something like this happening.

Does the E.U. have in place the laws and the authority it needs to guard against the degradation that can come, especially from these communist-era plants that are scattered throughout Eastern Europe?

JOE HENNON: Yes, we have very strict environmental legislation in the E.U.You know, it covers all kinds of toxic and hazardous wastes and extracts from mining.

All of the new member states have the same environmental legislation as the rest of the older member states do.So, when they were joining the European Union back in 2004, one of the things that they signed up to was to gradually introduce and respect all of the legislation, and that includes the environmental legislation.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, does the E.U. have any authority to do anything about, whether you — if you think there are sites like this that pose a danger?Or is it totally up to the local authorities?

JOE HENNON: Well, the enforcement of the law is on our side.We have to make sure that member states respect environmental law, that they introduce it properly into their national legislation, and that they give permits which are respecting the law.

So, our — our role is to control the member states, if you like.On the ground, it’s up to the member states to give out the permits and to make sure that the operators are operating within license and within the law.


JOE HENNON: The Hungarian authorities need to be sure that the operators did what they were supposed to do.And, if they didn’t, well, then they could be liable for damages.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Joe Hennon, the environment spokesman for the E.U. Commission, thank you so much.

JOE HENNON: You’re welcome.