Toxic Sludge from Factory in Hungary Floods Towns

Daily News Article   —   Posted on October 6, 2010

Note: This article is from the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

(by Matthew Day, Telegraph.co.uk) WARSAW – Hungary has declared a state of emergency after a flood of toxic sludge from an [aluminum] factory [reservoir burst its banks], killing at least three people, wounding 120 and threatening the country with “an ecological catastrophe”.

The wave of toxins flooded three villages about 100 miles southwest of Budapest after the walls of a residue reservoir at an aluminium plant in the town of Ajka ruptured, releasing an estimated 38.8 million cubic feet (the equivalent of 440 Olympic-size swimming pools) of red, poisonous sludge that affected some 15 square miles.

In some places the depth of the waste reached eight feet, and authorities have warned that with eight people in a serious condition, and six people missing the death toll is expected to rise.

Along with being poisonous if ingested, the chemical waste, which contains heavy metals such as lead, can burn on contact. Doctors have also warned that some burns could take days to reveal themselves and damage deeper tissue.

As firefighters and soldiers dressed in special protective clothing started the clean-up operation, fears were mounting in Hungary that the toxic waste had already reached local rivers, threatening to trigger a regional disaster if it polluted the River Danube.

“It’s an ecological catastrophe,” said Zoltan Illes, Hungary’s environment minister, during a visit to the affected area. “The waste must be collected and neutralized so as to prevent a full ecological catastrophe affecting the entire region.” In an effort to contain the sludge helicopters dropped plaster into a local river to neutralize the toxic chemicals.

“We have poured multiple tons of plaster into the River Marcal and hope to stem the toxic flow that way. The toxicity of the sludge moderates with every kilometre,” said Gyorgyi Tottos, a spokesman for Hungary’s National Disaster Unit.

Police have launched an investigation into the accident, but the Hungarian Aluminium Production and Trade Company, the owner of the Ajka plant, has said that under EU regulations the residue was not considered toxic.

The company added that it could have done little to prevent the leak.

“According to the current evaluation, company management could not have noticed the signs of the natural catastrophe nor done anything to prevent it even while carefully respecting technological procedures,” it said in a statement.

NOTE: The Telegraph’s headline for this article is “Hungary Threatened by ‘Ecological Catastrophe’ as Toxic Sludge Escapes Factory”

Information appearing on telegraph.co.uk is the copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited and must not be reproduced in any medium without licence. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from the Telegraph. Visit the website at telegraph.co.uk. 

Questions

STUDENTS:  For a better understanding of the disaster, before answering the questions, read the “Background” below and watch the videos under “Resources.”

1. Why has Hungary declared a state of emergency? Be specific.

2. What dangers does the sludge pose to humans?

3. What environmental damage could the toxic flood cause?

4. How is Hungary’s environmental agency attempting to stop the sludge from spreading?

5. Consider the following information and then answer the questions:

  • Police have launched an investigation into the leak.
  • MAL Rt., the Hungarian Aluminum Production and Trade Company that owns the Ajkai plant, has insisted the red sludge is not considered hazardous waste according to European Union standards. The company has also rejected criticism that it should have taken more precautions to shore up the reservoir, a huge structure more than 1,000 feet 500 yards wide.
  • Joe Hennon, a European spokesman, said the company has a license to operate and added “we have nothing to indicate there was anything wrong with it.”
  • Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban says authorities were caught off guard by the disaster since the plant and reservoir had been inspected only two weeks earlier and no irregularities had been found.

a) Do you think the company was negligent in its safety procedures for the sludge reservoir? Explain your answer.
b) How do you think company officials feel about the toxic sludge flood? Explain your answer.
b) Should the company be held liable for damages? Explain your answer.


Free Answers — Sign-up here to receive a daily email with answers.

Background

ON THE RED SLUDGE AND FLOOD:

  • Red sludge is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminum. It contains heavy metals and is toxic if ingested. Treated sludge is often stored in ponds where the water eventually evaporates, leaving behind a dried red clay-like soil.
  • It was still not known Wednesday why part of the reservoir failed, unleashing such an unstoppable torrent. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban says authorities were caught off guard by the disaster since the plant and reservoir had been inspected only two weeks earlier and no irregularities had been found.
  • Hungarian environmentalist Gergely Simon said the sludge had been accumulating in this reservoir for decades and was extremely alkaline, which caused it to burn the skin of dozens of residents.
  • Emergency workers, meanwhile, were pouring 1,000 tons of plaster into the Marcal River to try to bind the sludge and keep it from flowing into the Danube, 45 miles (72 kilometers) away.
  • At 1,775 miles (2,850 kilometers) long, the Danube is Europe’s second largest river and holds one of the continent’s greatest treasuries of wildlife. South of Hungary, the Danube flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea.
    (from news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101006/ap_on_he_me/eu_hungary_sludge_flood_28)

Resources

Read additional articles about the disaster in Hungary at cbc.ca/world/story/2010/10/06/hungary-sludge-flood.html,

Watch videos of the toxic sluge flood in Hungary below: