Hungary toxic sludge spill triggers ecological disaster

Hungary toxic sluge warning sign

A flood of toxic sludge bigger than the gulf oil spill contaminated several towns in western Hungary after a reservoir dam broke at an aluminum plant. Image: public domain/Wikipedia

A spill of toxic sludge in Hungary larger than the 2010 gulf oil spill inundated several towns Monday, killing at least four people and injuring more than 120. At an aluminum plant in western Hungary, a reservoir holding the toxic sludge burst, flooding an area of 16 square miles. Hungary’s toxic sludge contains chemicals that burned people through their clothes and is threatening to enter the Danube River, where it could cause an ecological disaster in half a dozen countries downstream.

Toxic flood greater than gulf oil spill

Hungary’s toxic sludge spill has been estimated at about 1 million cubic meters, or 264.2 million gallons. According to the Flow Rate Technical Group, the 2010 gulf oil spill was about 205.8 million gallons. The Guardian reports that when a reservoir berm at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt alumina plant broke, a flood of red sludge swept cars off roads and damaged bridges and homes. About 7,000 people have been victimized by the disaster. Doctors told the Guardian that chemical burns caused by the sludge may take days to emerge, and injuries that look superficial could damage deeper tissue over time.

Hungary’s toxic sludge threatens Danube

Hungary’s toxic sludge is a byproduct of refining bauxite into alumina, the base for manufacturing aluminum. Hungarian environmentalist Gergely Simon told the Associated Press that the red sludge accumulated in the reservoir for decades. It’s extremely high alkalinity burned the skin of dozens of victims. Meanwhile, emergency crews were pouring thousands of tons of plaster into the nearby Marcal River. The hope is to congeal the toxic red sludge to keep it from reaching the Danube River 45 miles downstream. South of Hungary, the Danube, rich with wildlife, flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova and to the Black Sea.

Callous response from aluminum plant

The Hungarian Environment Ministry ordered the the Ajkai alumina plant to suspend operations. The plant’s owner said “the red sludge waste is not considered hazardous,” in a statement Tuesday. Reuters reports that the plant wants to restart production this weekend. The New York Times reports that Hungarian environmental experts said that the spill could kill fish and vegetation and cause long-term damage to ecosystems. It will cost a fortune to replace the agricultural soil trapped under the sludge.

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