MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Hungary's "worst ever" ecological disaster should concern us all

Published by MAC on 2010-10-10
Source: Daily Mail, AP, Deutsche Presse-Agentur

Seven villagers are known to have drowned in last week's "red mud" disaster at the Ajkai Timfokldgyar Zrt alumina refinery in Hungary; another resident is still missing. 

A hundred and fifty people have been treated in hospital. The country's prime minister has also expressed fears of another breach - as work teams rush to shore-up the 30-metre high dam walls.

Hungary's state secretary for the environment has described the event as "the worst chemical disaster in the country's history".

On Monday October 4th 2010, over a million cubic metres of wastes cascaded into the adjacent townships of Kolontar and Debencser, quickly swamping several other human settlements and farmland and cutting a 40 km2 swathe more than two metres thick.

It seems the tailings might have been prevented from entering the Danube river system en masse - but only just. Some were reported to have entered Europe's second largest waterway on October 7th.

According to Hungarian technical experts, the tailings consisted of 40-45% ferric oxides, up to 15% of aluminium oxide and 10-15% of silicon oxide. An analysis by Greenpeace also revealed a "surprisingly high" presence of arsenic and mercury.

But the main, immediately harmful, constituent of "red mud" is sodium hydroxide - commonly known as caustic soda. Almost certainly this is what caused the numerous burns reported to have afflicted many who were hospitalised; not to mention killing all fish in the Marcal River, next to the waste pond.

A disaster foretold?

Mine tailings dam "failures" occur with sickening regularity  and at a rate which hasn't diminished over the past two decades, averaging three major global incidents a year.

Every one of these disasters is unforgiveable - if only because mine owners ,and those supposed to set waste and emissionsl limits, are never the immediate victims.

But what happened in Hungary last week is marked by two anomalies.

First, the government isn't a laggard in implementing environmental reforms. On the contrary it has set high operational standards for metallic mines and, last December, banned the use of cyanide in all such mining. See: Hungarian victory against cynaide for gold mining

Nonetheless, the Ajkai plant - a legacy of the Soviet era when it met a significant amount of the USSR's alumina needs - had apparently been left off the regulatory map, even (or particularly?) when it was privatized in 1995.*

For some years, environmentalists had been calling for a thorough assessment of the dangers it posed.

Second, Hungary has - in a real sense - been here before, and well within living memory. Why did its administation not learn the lesson?

In 2000, toxic tailings from the Baie Mare gold mine in NW Romania - just over the Hungarian border -  burst their banks. The Hungarian government called it "the worst environmental disaster in central Europe in thirty years". See: Anger rises in the East

Six years later, the Blacksmith Institute also named Baie Mare as among the "Worst Places" on our planet. See: The world's worst places

At the time of this spill the Hungarian government specifically warned of dangers of contamination of the Danube river system,  putting the blame for the disaster firmly on its eastern neighbour.

Understandably the Hungarian government is now placing responsibility for this week's failure squarely on MAL, the company which operated the Ajkai plant. 

The company has retorted that the EU doesn't classify red mud as "hazardous" - a claim confirmed by an EU official, quoted by Al Jazeera on 7 October.

Quixotically, the official then went on to say: "That does not mean it is not toxic and does not mean it is not dangerous, because very clearly, it is both".

And so indeed it is!

A global scourge

According to a 2008 study by India's National Institute of Technology, some 70 million tonnes of red mud are dumped by global alumina refineries each year.

Just two months ago, an Indian government enquiry found that Vedanta's alumina refinery at Lanjigarh in Orissa had been operating illegally for the previous six years - in the process of which it had been creating major hazards from its red mud disposal.

Local people had already reported numerous instances of the caustic materials leaching into adjacent waters, and their suffering various illnesses and skin burns as a result. See: Indian government committee condemns Vedanta's proposed Nyamgiri mine

Citizens of Jamaica have had a more direct and longstanding experience of the consequences of bauxite mining and alumina refining than those in almost any other country.

The Caribbean nation hasn't suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hungary's, and it's pioneered the "dry stacking", and industrial application, of red mud. However, over the past year and a half, its aluminium industry has teetered on the brink of collapse. See: Jamaica's bauxite meltdown

Last week, a columnist for the Jamaica Observer contemplated the "huge ponds of red mud" still left behind on his island.

He asked: "Is any of that caustic sludge seeping through cracks in the limestone which underpins most of the island? Is any of it eating away the softer parts of the rock? Is any of it affecting the ground water?

 "And most important - is it possible for any of those ponds to breach their containment structures and unleash the sludge on vulnerable communities nearby?"

 In the light of what happened in western Hungary on Monday October 4 2010, the answer must be "Yes".


* From the website of MAL Magyar Aluminium: "The Company was established by Hungarian private individuals in 1995 when the privatization of the aluminium industry started. During the privatization the Company gradually acquired control over the companies that tied in closely with the aluminium sector (Bakony bauxite mine, Ajka alumina plant, Inota aluminium smelter) and transformed itself into a company limited by shares".

See also: BBC News report of accident -

Image gallery of disaster -

[Comment by Nostromo Research, 10 October 2010]


End of the Blue Danube? Ecological catastrophe looms as toxic sludge flows towards river

Daily Mail (UK)

6 October 2010

A state of emergency has been declared in the Hungarian region submerged by toxic sludge because the chemical flood is threatening water supplies by rushing towards the Danube River.

Source of toxic sludge spill in HungaryThe lethal tidal wave of poisonous red mud burst from a reservoir of toxic waste belonging to an alumina plant in the town of Ajka and flooded a 16-square mile area.

At least four people were killed, 120 were treated for serious chemical burns and six remain missing after the tsunami of poison surged through several towns around 100 miles southwest of Budapest.

A 12ft-high wave of the red sludge gushed through streets and houses of Kolontar and Debencser, the two towns worst affected, sweeping cars off roads and damaging bridges.

Around 35.3 million cubic feet (1 million cubic meters) had now poured from the reservoir at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in what Environmental Affairs State Secretary Zoltan Illes called an 'ecological catastrophe.'

Hundreds were evacuated in the aftermath of the disaster on Monday, but the incident now has the possibility of becoming a much wider ecological disaster affecting multiple countries if the chemical sludge poisons the Danube.

Emergency workers wearing masks and chemical protection gear rushed to pour 1,000 tons of plaster into the Marcal River in an attempt to bind the sludge and keep it from flowing on to the Danube some 45 miles away.

Extent of damage caused by toxic mud flow in HungaryThe 1,775-mile-long Danube passes through four countries from its origins in Germany to the Black Sea and is one of the continent's greatest treasuries of wildlife.

The material in the sludge, alumina, is a waste product of aluminum production that contains heavy metals and is toxic if ingested.

While it is not usually considered a hazardous substance, in this instance it has proved fatal.

Among the dead were two women, a young man and a three-year-old child, and people being treated for chemical burns described how the caustic material melted through their clothes.

Two of the 120 injured are in critical condition and their chances may worsen before they improve because chemical burns can take days to emerge.

Dr. Peter Jakabos of Gyor Hospital explained on Hungarian state TV that injured people need to seek treatment because seemingly superficial injuries can turn deadly as the chemicals slowly burn through to deeper tissue.

In the town of Devecser, the relatives of a man airlifted to hospital told how the flood of toxic sludge had 'burned him to the bone'.

'When I heard the rumble of the flood, all the time I had was to jump out the window and run to higher ground,' said housewife Tunde Erdelyi.

Extent of damage caused by toxic mud flow in HungaryHer husband escaped without serious injury but his uncle was flown by helicopter to Budapest after suffering horrific burns.

The red mud in Mrs Erdelyi's house was still five feet high and rescue workers had to use an axe to cut through her living room door to let it flow out. She found her car had been swept into the garden and her husband's van was straddling a fence.

In Kolontar, the town closest to the alumina plant, Erzsebet Veingartner was in her kitchen when the wave of red slurry struck.

'I looked outside and all I saw was the stream swelling like a huge wave,' said the 61-year-old widow.

'I lost all my chickens, my ducks, my Rottweiler, and my potato patch. My late husband's tools and machinery were in the shed and it's all gone.

'I have a winter's worth of firewood in the basement and it's all useless now.'

Firefighters and soldiers wearing masks, rubber boots and other protective gear waded through the stricken area today, flushing away the sludge with hoses and clearing up with dozens of bulldozers.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban acknowledged that authorities were caught off guard by the disaster because the alumina plant and reservoir had been inspected two weeks earlier and no irregularities had been found.

The red sludge is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum.

Representatives from industry organizations in the U.S. and London could not explain why the Hungarian victims were burned by the material, saying if it is properly treated it is not hazardous.

It is common to store treated sludge in ponds where the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind a dried red clay-like soil, the officials said.

However, Hungarian environmentalist Gergely Simon said the sludge involved in the disaster had been accumulating in the reservoir for decades and was extremely alkaline, with a pH value of about 13 - nearly equivalent to lye - and that is what caused the burns.

The Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company - known as MAL Rt. - that owns the plant said that according to European Union standards, the red sludge is not considered hazardous waste.

The company also denied that it should have taken more precautions to shore up the reservoir, a huge structure more than 1,000 feet long and 500 yards wide.

Clearly angered by the company's suggestions that the substance was not hazardous, Hungary's Interior Minister Sandor Pinter, said: 'They should take a swim in it and then they'll see.'

The spill has been described as the worst ecological disaster in Hungary's history.

That distinction was previously held by an accident ten years ago when huge amounts of cyanide poured from a gold mine reservoir in a Romanian town near the Hungarian border into the Danube and four smaller rivers, destroying plant and animal life.

The damage caused by the flood of red sludge is expected to take as long as a year to clean up and will require financial assistance from other countries.

Death toll rises to 3 in Hungary sludge flood

By Bela Szandelsky

The Associated Press

5 October 2010

DEVECSER, Hungary - A third person has died in flooding caused by the rupture of a red sludge reservoir at an alumina plant in western Hungary, rescue services said Tuesday. Six people were missing and 120 injured in what officials said was an ecological disaster.

The sludge, a waste product in aluminum production, contains heavy metals and is toxic if ingested. Many of the injured sustained burns as the sludge seeped through their clothes. Two of the injured were in life threatening condition.

The chemical burns caused by the sludge could take days to reveal themselves and what may seem like superficial injuries could later cause damage to deeper tissue, Peter Jakabos, a doctor on duty at a hospital in Gyor where several of the injured were taken, said on state television.

The government declared a state of emergency in three counties affected by the flooding. Several hundred tons of plaster were being poured into the Marcal river to bind the toxic sludge and prevent it from flowing on, the National Disaster Management Directorate said.

So far, about 35.3 million cubic feet (1 million cubic meters) of sludge has leaked from the reservoir and affected an estimated area of 15.4 square miles (40 square kilometers), Environmental Affairs State Secretary Zoltan Illes told state news wire MTI.

Illes said the incident was an "ecological catastrophe" and it was feared that the sludge could reach the Raba and Danube rivers.

Seven towns, including Kolontal, Devecser and Somlovasarhely, were affected near the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in the town of Ajka, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Budapest, the capital.

On Tuesday morning, the sludge in Tunde Erdelyi's house in Devecser was still five feet (1.5 meters) high and rescue workers used an ax to cut through her living room door to let the red liquid flow out.

"When I heard the rumble of the flood, all the time I had was to jump out the window and run to higher ground," said a tearful Erdelyi, still shocked by the events but grateful that she had been able to save a family rabbit and that her cat was found wet and shivering in the attic.

Robert Kis, Erdelyi's husband, said his uncle had been taken to Budapest, the capital, by helicopter after the sludge "burned him to the bone."

The flood overturned Erdelyi's car and pushed it some 30 yards to the back of the garden while her husband's van was lifted on to a fence.

"We still have some copper in the garage that we could sell to make a living for a while," Kis said as he attempted to appraise the damage to his house and belongings.

The disaster agency said 390 residents had to be temporarily relocated and 110 were rescued from the flooded towns, where firefighters and soldiers were carrying out cleanup tasks.

Associated Press writer Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed to this report.

2 dead, 2 missing in Hungary after flood of toxic waste

By Robert Hodgson

Deutsche Presse-Agentur (in Ottawa Citizen)

4 October 2010

BUDAPEST, Hungary - At least two people were dead and two missing on Monday after hundreds of tons of red sludge flooded from an aluminum factory and washed through villages in central Hungary, emergency services reported.

Some 700,000 cubic metres of rust-colored slurry, containing poisonous heavy metals that can cause burns on contact with skin, flooded out of the waste storage when the dam of an effluent reservoir burst.

At least 60 people required hospital treatment for burns after coming into contact with the toxic fluid, and two of them remained in critical condition, the Hungarian National Disaster Directorate reported.

Others escaped injury by climbing onto walls and rooftops to escape the mud slick that was over two meters deep in places.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban sent Interior Minister Sandor Pinter to personally oversee the disaster management work, and the Hungarian parliament observed a minute's silence for the victims.

Hundreds of emergency service workers, scientists and military personnel were working into the night to try to contain the toxic waste and assess the damage.

Fifty homes in the village of Kolontar, just 500 metres from the huge reservoir, were rendered uninhabitable when the foul mud washed through the village in the early afternoon, local mayor Karoly Tily told reporters.

Kolontar was the worst hit settlement, but the slurry oozed downstream wreaking havoc in another six villages around the well-known Somlo wine-making region.

In late afternoon 40 people had to be evacuated as the slurry poured into the village of Somlovasarhely, about 10 kilometers from the reservoir, the local mayor told reporters.

Officials have begun an immediate investigation into the firm that ran the aluminum plant, MAL Magyar Aluminum, in a bid to establish the causes of the disaster, the interior minister said.

"Documents have been seized which could prove whether the slurry reservoir damn was professionally built and used. All documents are available to establish responsibility, if any is responsible," Pinter was quoted as saying by the state news agency MTI.

Police said they were treating the death of one Kolontar man as the victim of suspected criminal negligence.

Much to learn from that Hungarian red mud spill

By Keeble McFarlane

Jamaican Observer

9 October 2010

Some 45 years ago a fellow I know who worked at the alumina plant near Ewarton showed me an unsightly red ring around his leg just above the ankle. He explained that while walking along a pathway on the compound, he missed his footing and stepped into a gutter which carried runoff from one of the buildings. The strong caustic fluid rose above his boot and burned his skin. Fortunately, he was able to rush to a standpipe, get the boot off and rinse away the offending fluid, and the burn healed quickly. It was a salutary lesson in the risks associated with such work.

Sodium hydroxide - commonly called caustic soda - is the main chemical used in the process to extract aluminum oxide from the ore we know as bauxite. The oxide is also known as alumina and is used for a variety of purposes. When blown out of a gun with high-pressure air, the fine crystalline particles strip rust, paint, dirt or other contamination from whatever surface it is directed at.

When zapped by a strong electric current in a smelter, the oxygen is stripped away and only pure aluminium is left behind. Bauxite contains anywhere from 50 to 70 per cent alumina, which still leaves a considerable amount of residue after processing. The residue is usually red because it contains a fair amount of iron oxide, but is also quite alkaline and thus harmful to many forms of life and has to be stored indefinitely in large reservoirs adjacent to the factory. In some cases, tailings contain other metals which may also be extracted to feed the insatiable maw of our industrial world.

Those giant ponds of red mud you can see from the Mount Rosser road, near Mandeville and close by Nain in St Elizabeth, comprise a similar caustic mixture.

I recall when, many years ago, a donkey strayed into the Ewarton pond and was dissolved within days. If left alone, the water eventually evaporates and leaves behind a dried, clay-like residue. But as people in St Catherine, Manchester and St Elizabeth can attest, "eventually" is a long, long time.

At the start of this week a dyke containing a large pond of red mud from an alumina plant in Hungary broke open and flooded a considerable stretch of countryside. Although the toll of dead and injured has been relatively small, the damage to property is huge - wiping out at least seven towns and villages - and emergency officials estimate it will take at least a year and many millions of euros to clean up.

The breach released an avalanche of sludge estimated at some 700,000 cubic metres. It surged out so quickly that people barely had time to escape. The mud buried cars, houses, livestock and everything else in its path, and left about 40 square kilometers of land buried under two and a half metres of caustic red glop. On Thursday, Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited the area and declared that there was no point in clearing rubble from most of the village of Kolontár because it is impossible to live there again. Although he had difficulty finding words to discuss the disaster, there was one bright aspect: "Had this happened at night, everybody would be dead." But Orban believes human error is more than a likely cause: "The wall did not disintegrate in a minute. This should have been detected. "

The disaster has directly affected some 7000 people and officials have declared a state of emergency in the county of Veszprem, where the spill occurred, and in two other counties in western Hungary. Hundreds of people have already been relocated from the area, where everything not buried is stained bright red.

In addition to covering a large tract of land, the sludge flowed into streams and rivers which drain into the storied river of central Europe, the Danube. Soon after the breach, emergency crews rushed to fight the spill. They dumped hundreds of tons of calcium sulphate (plaster) and acetic acid (vinegar) to absorb and help neutralise the alkalinity. Officials reported that fish were dying in several rivers. As the end of the week approached, a plume of the caustic sludge reached the Danube at the city of Gyo"r in northwestern Hungary.

Technicians measured the alkalinity there at pH 8.4 (pH 7 is neutral - neither acidic nor alkaline) and a news agency correspondent reported seeing white froth on the river and many dead fish washed ashore. Before emptying itself into the Black Sea, the Danube has to pass through or beside half a dozen more countries - Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. One favourable aspect is the river's volume and powerful flow, which will help dilute and dissipate the poisonous plume. You can be sure, though, that the environmental folks downstream will be monitoring the situation closely.

The alumina plant is owned by MAL Rt, the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company, which was founded in 1995 out of a group of state-owned enterprises after the fall of communism in 1989.

It operates three alumina production facilities, including the one at Ajka where the tailings reservoir ruptured shortly after midday on Monday. Apart from alumina, it also extracts from bauxite synthetic zeolites and the rare element gallium. Zeolites are used in making detergents and water softeners, to soak up contaminants and as catalysts. The company is one of the world's few primary producers of gallium, which is in great demand in the manufacture of semi-conductors and other critical components of communications devices and computers.

Most of MAL's business is with western Europe but it also owns or has shares in alumina companies in Bosnia, Slovenia and Romania. The company insists that according to European Union safety standards, the red mud is not considered toxic waste. Tell that to the fish in those rivers which feed into the Danube.

The folks who run Jamaica's alumina operations should be studying this disaster carefully. In the more than six decades since bauxite mining began, there have been no major disasters of the Hungarian type. That does not mean there have been no ill effects. The companies are supposed to restore mined-out land to at least the form in which they found it, but that doesn't always happen.

What is more worrying is the unknown side-effects of What is more worrying is the unknown side-effects of those huge ponds of red mud. Is any of that caustic sludge seeping through cracks in the limestone which underpins most of the island? Is any of it eating away the softer parts of the rock? Is any of it affecting the ground water? And most important - is it possible for any of those ponds to breach their containment structures and unleash the sludge on vulnerable communities nearby?

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