this month, villages in the European country of Hungary were flooded with bright
red toxic sludge from a nearby industrial facility, and environmentalists warned
there are other lethal accidents waiting to happen across the region.|
massive flood of caustic red sludge in Hungary has killed nine people, displaced
hundreds and damaged tens of millions of dollars in property. Above, a man trudges
through the red sludge in Kolontar, Hungary.|
Swathes of the Hungarian
countryside resembled scenes in a science-fiction film with animals, people, cars
and buildings covered with a bright red mud-like material after two million gallons
of toxic industrial sludge surged from a cracked reservoir into several rural
villages 100 miles southwest of the capital, Budapest.
Nine people were
killed and hundreds suffered injuries -- including burns from the caustic waste.
Hundreds of people were displaced from their homes and private property worth
tens of millions of dollars was destroyed.
What was the red sludge?
The red mud-like industrial byproduct
was being held in a containment pond owned by Magyar Aluminum Zrt., the Hungarian
Aluminum Production and Trade Co.
The collapse of a wall at the Magyar Aluminum Zrt. containment pond released a
wave of the red sludge, which is a byproduct of the aluminum mining process.
The byproduct is produced when bauxite
rocks are processed to make aluminum. Investigators believe cracks in the reservoir's
walls led a portion of the wall to collapse, releasing a toxic torrent that swept
cars off roads and measured eight-feet high in some areas.
was repaired, but red mud still coats more acres of land and Hungary's environmental
minister estimates the clean-up will take up to a year.
must be removed and replaced because the alkaline chemicals will stunt future
growth. Furthermore, once the sludge dries, it can become toxic airborne dust
and cause respiratory problems.
Toxic materials entered major European
Not only did the sludge poison miles
of farmland, but it has also entered local water sources and spread to the Danube
River, the second largest river in Europe. From Hungary, the Danube flows through
Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine territory en route to
the Black Sea.
The red sludge was visible from outer space. Here, a satellite image shows the
toxic spill on its way to the Danube River.
Hungarian scientists sought to reduce the effects of the
caustic alkaline red mud on water sources by adding acidic material and fertilizers.
Relief efforts were successful; the Danube measures a pH of 9.8, higher than normal,
but much less than the 13 pH level at the accident site.
The exact chemical
composition of the waste material remains unknown; however, aluminum processing
generally involves compounds that include heavy metals and cancer-causing carcinogens
such as cadmium, cyanide and chromium. Residents and relief workers complain that
the sludge causes burns and irritation of the eyes and throat.
"accidents waiting to happen"
Officials warned that the dangerous conditions that caused the accident
are not limited to the aluminum industry.
Hundreds of people were displaced as the sludge made its way through Hungarian
towns and villages.
"There are accidents waiting
to happen, and it is not only happening in Hungary but across the region,"
Zoltan Illes, Hungary's state secretary for the environment, told The New York
"The lesson of the sludge disaster is what can happen if
environmental rules and regulations are ignored in the pursuit of profits."
European Union law stipulates that the company or organization responsible
for disasters pay for all clean-up costs and compensation to injured parties.
MAL Rt. Alumina has been fined more than $100 million for water damage thus far.
An investigation is underway, and the operating manager of MAL Rt. was detained
on suspicions of public endangerment.
"This is an unprecedented
ecological catastrophe in Hungary," said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor
Orban. "Human error is more than likely. The wall (of the reservoir) did
not disintegrate in a minute. This should have been detected."
environmental minister blames the spill on corporate negligence and "weak"
European Union regulations. The EU does not classify the mud as a toxic substance,
thereby allowing the aluminum manufacturer to process the waste material itself.
Prior to joining the EU in 2004, Hungary classified red mud as toxic and required
more stringent de-contamination and containment.
from industry and oil
Eco-disasters such as the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill were caused by human activity
rather than natural occurrences.
Since the Industrial Revolution, a number of eco-disasters have threatened
human health and greatly harmed the environment.
One of the worst eco-disasters
happened in April 1986 at a Ukrainian government-owned nuclear plant called Chernobyl.
A malfunction sent a massive plume of radioactive smoke over much of the former
Soviet Union and Europe. Radioactive material infiltrated water systems, destroyed
nearby land and caused 50 fatalities and an estimated 4,000 cancer-related deaths
The disaster site is covered in concrete, but the reactors
that were not damaged by the explosions and fires remain in use today.
Nuclear and toxic chemical disasters have happened in the United States as well.
In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear generator in Pennsylvania melted down releasing
radioactive gases. At the same time, toxic industrial chemicals dumped from
1920 to 1950 were found to be causing cancer and birth defects at the Love Canal
neighborhood in New York.
The most recent eco-disaster was this year's
Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico -- the worst oil spill in U.S.
history. Millions of barrels of crude oil poured into the ocean for almost
three months, poisoning birds and marine life along hundreds of miles of coastline.
Scientists believe it will take decades for the area to fully recover.
by Katherine Stevens for NewsHour Extra|
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