Hungary: Toxic sludge flood kills, causes chemical burns, wipes out entire towns

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32 Responses to “Hungary: Toxic sludge flood kills, causes chemical burns, wipes out entire towns”

  1. Mitch says:

    They should really be more careful with that stuff.

    This is why you shouldn’t throw your cans in the garbage. Extracting aluminum from ore is much messier than recycling it.

    • AirPillo says:

      And requires gigawatts of electricity, to boot. It’s a very intensive process.

      The part of this story that disturbs me is that the company responsible is claiming the chemical is not legally considered toxic waste.

      If I want to have some NaOH shipped to me so I can make soap here in the US, I have to pay a hazardous materials handling fee and above a certain quantity the truck delivering it has to be marked as hauling hazmat materials.

      Letting an entire small lake of 13 pH sludge sit around, however, is apparently not a stockpile of toxic waste?

  2. RedSun says:

    Reminds me of Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, as insensitive as that sounds.

    I don’t really know how to respond to this other than saying that I hope the situation can be resolved without razing towns, at the bare minimum.

  3. ocschwar says:

    So, does this sludge contain any contaminants besides OH- ? If it’s just really alkaline, then at least this isn’t permanent. Given enough rain, and CO2 being slurped from the air, the alkalinity should decline over time.

  4. Art says:

    Jesus, God, what a terrible tragedy! My prayers for all involved.

  5. etho says:

    This is pretty horrible.

    However, and I realize I am a terrible person, but I read this and almost immediately thought that it sounds like an attempt to cover up a zombie outbreak.

  6. racerx_is_alive says:

    The Boston Globe’s Big Picture has a good set of pictures about this tragedy that they put up on Wednesday. http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/10/a_flood_of_toxic_sludge.html

    This hasn’t been a great year for not polluting, between the Gulf, China’s oil spill, and the toxic sludge now in the Danube.

  7. pato pal ur says:

    Thankfully, it now looks as if the sludge won’t reach other countries or adversely affect the Danube.

    • Lobster says:

      Or at least that’s what the company is saying till we can prove otherwise. Never trust a “best case” from the people who are to blame.

      This was one of many sludge pools. Underfunded, derelict pools owned by companies that no longer exist.

  8. Brainspore says:

    Damn. Why can’t it ever be the non-toxic kind of sludge?

  9. Anonymous says:

    Here’s anon21 again.

    @Pato Pal – Padisák Judit is a biology professor. She’s an expert in the physiological effects of red mud. However it’s *not* red mud that the locals have come in contact with, but a greatly distilled solution of it.

    However, no one is questioning those physiological effects, or the contents of the red mud. The question is more complicated.

    The reason why the reports are so varying (beside the obvious propaganda hush-hush and downplaying) is because from a chemical point of view it’s far from obvious as to what would have happened to the contaminants. Under certain conditions, they could have been deposited at the bottom of the original lake. Under others they could indeed have been carried on with the water and spread over the area.

    The reason why I don’t like sensationalist reporting is that it causes more fear and panic. Both of which could hurt the rescue attempts and prevents people from learning the actual truth. We had a similar case with vaccination for the flue H1N1. Even though *all experts* (…and from both Fidesz and from MSZP!) *completely agreed* that it was a good measure! I fear the same may be played out now too.

    • pato pal ur says:

      The reason why I don’t like sensationalist reporting is that it causes more fear and panic. Both of which could hurt the rescue attempts and prevents people from learning the actual truth.

      The point is, what you might consider to be “sensationalist reporting,” someone like Dr. Padisák considers to be “the actual truth.” She’s a scientist and I trust her, while I’ve no idea who you are, so naturally I trust her opinion over yours, as should everyone else.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hello, this is a Hungarian.

    Once again sensationalist reporting rears it’s ugly head, here’s the breakdown:

    Toxicity:

    -The sludge was initially reported as not poisonous by the national laboratories in charge of assesing such catastrophes. Neither was the liquid it was suspended in in the strictest fashion…
    -…instead it’s alkaline (NaOH) and highly toxic.
    -The good news is that merely being diluted can greatly reduce its effects and once that happens it won’t be a lasting problem.
    -The bad news is that until this happens it will kill swaths in the biosphere, so chemical neutralization is strongly recommended to thwart its effect.

    Greenpeace “claims”:

    -Recent measurements by Greenpeace claim the sludge to contain heavy metal contaminants as well. Given their tendency to exaggerate and attack industry with reckless abandon, I’m inclined to view their report (too) with a bit of a skepticism.
    -The MTA (Hungarian Scientific Academy) once again proclaimed that the slugde does not contain heavy metals or long lasting contaminants. Their claim is based on samples taken from the actual flooding while Greenpeace based their claim on the theoretic “worst possible” scenario of a catastrophe.
    -Regardless who you believe, EU officials are involved in an investigation of their own… so far their reports confirm the MTA’s claim that the slugde while definitely toxic, does not pose a long term danger.

    Injured and dead:

    -There are seven dead, 170 injured and one man is still missing.
    -The sludge reached the *villages* (not towns!) of Devecser, Kolontár, Somlóvásárhely, Somlójenő, Tüskevár, Apácatorna és Kisberzseny.
    -The villages Devecseren és Kolontáron were hardest hit.

    Measures taken:

    -Immediate evacuation was only necessary in these two towns.
    -This has been carried out withing 24 hours. All victims are sufficiently lodged for the time being.
    -The operator of the chemical plant has claimed responsibility and is already drawing up funds for the victims. This is in addition to nationally founded compensation.

    -The alkalinity of the sludge was chemically neutralized, and measurements confirmed that further effects to later waterways was averted.
    -The collection of the sludge is underway.

    Summary:

    -The cause of the catastrophe is still unclear. Whether it was gross neglect, bad design, engineering or the unforeseen extreme demand the later weather (recently the country had rains of unheard of severity) is yet to be determined.
    -Cleanup is well on way and while the long term effects are yet to be determined, western reporting can be said to be definitely grossly overstating.
    -Thankfully thanks to prompt and strong response the effects were localized.

    So there you have it. A very bad catastrophe, but not on the scale and not with the far reaching consequences the sensationalist media would have you believe. Bad. How bad? We’ll see. Let’s read that EU report when it comes out.

    PS.: If you think this is all government cover-up here’s some food for thought. Mal Inc. the company in question had strong ties to the not defeated previous socialist cabinet which the current conservatives could have hung out to dry (especially since claims of the previous cabinet’s corruption and incompetence are strong part of their communication)… they didn’t. I’m no fan of this cabinet and have strong reservations about them, but as far as I can tell, they’re playing this one honestly and doing their best.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The scary thing is we have places like that here in the U.S. that the government-industrial-military complex is keeping the secret from you. We use a lot of volatile chemicals and have people who are criminal enough to hide it and one day something like this is going to happen here.

  12. hexyking1 says:

    “The part of this story that disturbs me is that the company responsible is claiming the chemical is not legally considered toxic waste.”

    Then i advise them to have a nice bath in it!
    the bleach from the shop has around 12 pH. The water flooded here has 14 pH (actually not the mud is so toxic but the water above it)

    7 deads (incl. 1 and 3 year old childrens) one missing.

    A smaller river called Marcal is already completely destroyed.
    Nothing living survived the “non-toxic” water.
    Nothing will be grown in this land in the next 5-10 years.

    The owners of the aluminium company are in the top 10 richest men in Hungary.
    The dam always passed the security checks!

    Welcome to the east side of the European Union!

    http://www.google.com/images?um=1&hl=en&biw=684&bih=513&tbs=isch%3A1&sa=1&q=kolont%C3%A1r&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=

  13. stasike says:

    Here are some high resolution photos of villages, and, more importantly, of the reservoir that has burst. Look at the size of bulldozers at site. They look like tiny toys in a huge sandbox on a children playground.
    Just click on photo to get to the sideshow.
    Under each photo there is different sideshow.
    http://index.hu/belfold/2010/10/07/iszapomles_veszprem_megyeben_-_kepek/

    The mud was highly caustic – PH 12-13. So all people you see wading through the mud at the bottom slideshow ended up severely burned from waist down.
    Besides Iron Oxide, which is the main component, responsible for lovely red color it contains mercury, a little bit of lead, arsenic (the total amount of arsenic released, for example, was 50 metric tonnes), and other heavy metals.
    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_mud

  14. Osprey101 says:

    Wait’ll this happens to one of the open waste dams for tar sands in Canada. It’s just a matter of time.

    • blisssx says:

      The oil sands in Alberta isn’t even comparable to this. Environmentalists and Hollywood directors to point to the oil sands as being an ecological disaster, when there are toxic reservoirs like this every where and much worse pollution to be concerned about.

      In a matter of time, the tailing ponds will be reclaimed and be wetlands and forest. Can’t say the same for a toxic slough of caustic chemicals and heavy metals. http://www.ntm.nickles.com/issues/story.aspx?aid=1000334165

  15. pato pal ur says:

    @Anon21 is wrong, folks. I’m afraid the toxic sludge is as bad as the media’s portrayal of it, even without the danger of a new break in the reservoir wall. In this article (in Hungarian) in the Veszprém County newspaper website, a biology professor at the local university named Dr. Padisák outlines a horrible scenario. I’ll translate the third paragraph for the benefit of non-Hungarian speakers:

    According to the expert, in addition to the pollution of the ground and groundwater, the biggest problem will be air pollution, which we can count on occurring in the near future. If the sludge dries out, becomes dust, and gets into the atmosphere, it can poison the air in a several kilometer-long path. According to some, this is able to cause malignant lung tumors, yet this view is not completely supported by university professor Judit Padisák. She however emphasized that this is radioactive, heavy metal-containing material, which can easily cause chronic respiratory disease.

    Dunno, I kind of believe an expert a little more than some anonymous poster who doesn’t even provide any links to his claims.

  16. jtegnell says:

    Anon 21:

    “-Recent measurements by Greenpeace claim the sludge to contain heavy metal contaminants as well. Given their tendency to exaggerate and attack industry with reckless abandon, I’m inclined to view their report (too) with a bit of a skepticism.”

    Stasike 24:

    “Besides Iron Oxide, which is the main component, responsible for lovely red color it contains mercury, a little bit of lead, arsenic (the total amount of arsenic released, for example, was 50 metric tonnes), and other heavy metals.
    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_mud

    So which is it?

    • stasike says:

      Reply:
      Anon 21 is better informed than me. He is from Hungaria.

      Red mud DOES contain heavy metals. It does contain arsenic and other heavy metals. The 50 metric tonnes estimate does, indeed, come from a lab measurements done for Greenpeace. I am pretty sure that the amount will wary greatly depending on what laboratory does the tests, how you compute the amount, and where and when you take samples.
      50t of arsenic isn’t *that* much, considering it is spread on 40 square kilometers, in about 700 000 cubic meters of red mud.
      Just have a look at the image gallery from my previous post. Have a look at the scale of the red mud pond.

      I can imagine that the mud was categorized as non-toxic. It is, however, highly caustic and contains heavy metals and is more radioactive than other things (but still well inside safety levels.) Still, I heard that soldiers and/or other officials were measuring radioactivity levels at the site with Geiger counters.

      Having said that, I wouldn’t eat anything that grew in the area for the next 30 years, and after that only after extensive laboratory tests. I wouldn’t want to raise my kids in the neighborhood. At the moment everything there is wet. I do not want to be around (and I do not live very far [shudder]) when this fine dust dries and the wind picks it up.

      The first wave of mud was highly caustic. PH 12-13.
      However, it quickly got more diluted, and is being diluted now. NaOH that makes it caustic is reacting with CO2 from the atmosphere and forms compounds that are far less reactive.

      • andygates says:

        He may even be from Hungary, that still doesn’t mean that the poster knows squat about industrial processes.

        • stasike says:

          Hungaria is how we call Hungary here. It refers to the old kingdom of hungary. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungaria
          I did not want to use term Magyar, because few people would understand.
          Poster Anonymous 21 brought an interesting insight to the political situation.

          There is fresh news. It looks like another part of the dam wall might collapse, releasing *another* half a million cubic meters of sludge.

  17. Grumblefish says:

    Non-toxic kind of sludge? What, as in the Boston Molasses Disaster?

  18. thequickbrownfox says:

    I remind you that the “aluminium industry” is now either controlled by, or competing with, the Russian super-thug Roman Abramovich.

  19. Cowicide says:

    Tomorrow People

    How long can you last?

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