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Hungary Toxic Sludge: Danube Threat

  • October 7th, 2010
  • Posted by 7thmin

hungary-mud_4-edienet.jpgCOMMENTARY: A flood of toxic sludge from a ruptured dam, at an alumina plant in South-west Hungary has brought death and destruction, with four dead and 120 hurt, and a pollution threat to the Danube River. What happened and how? Where is the waste material from? What happens now?

EMERGENCY DECLARED

hungary-mud_1-referlorg.jpgThe Hungarian government ordered the shut-down of operations at the MAL Zrt company’s processing plant, at Ajka, 120 km South-west of Budapest, (and ESE of Bratislava, the Danube River running between the two cities and North of the alumina site), after the industrial dam wall collapsed on Monday.

(See map, http://maps.google.com.au/maps?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&channel=s&q=Ajka%20map&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=wl)

A 1-2 metre wave of red sludge, approaching one-million m3 of it, caustic and exuding low-level radioactivity, coursed through seven villages over an area of 40 km2 within two days.

The government declared an emergency in three counties, and while the dam had collapsed after heavy and protracted rain, with storms still building up in the region, it said it had no indication of any “natural” cause for the disaster.

FEARS FOR THE DANUBE

hungary-mud-_2-worldbullrtinnet.jpgAs residents over a wide area scrambled to find safe ground, and emergency services deployed, the European Union led in sounding the alarm over fears that a heavy volume of chemical waste could find its way into the Danube river system.

budapest-river-journeyetc.jpg“It is important that we do …. everything possible that it would not endanger the Danube,” said the Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik, expressing concern that the pollution would spread further, across borders.

COMPANY IN THE SPOTLIGHT

hungary-al-coy.jpgThe company at Ajka, in Veszprem County of Hungary, is the Hungarian-owned  Magyar Alumíniumtermelő és Kereskedelmi Zrt., (Hungarian Aluminium Producing and Trading Company) – known as MAL Zrt.

hungary-al-coy-_2.jpgHungary has been mining bauxite, one of its principal natural resources, since the end of the second World War, a valuable industry which MAL Zrt. indicatgs in its publicity, has implicated many consumers; contributing to the manufacture of semi conductors, tiles, washing powders, artificial marble, dashboards, carpets and sanitary products.

Victims have begun talking about compensation, and, while principals of the company already on Wednesday publicly raised the possibility of a re-start to operation  on the weekend, they had also broadcast  a public apology:-

“MAL Hungharian Aluminium offers its honest condolences to the relatives of all of the victims who losttheir lives in  the catastrophe. At the same time the company testifies its deepest and commiserating sorry for thnose who suffered damage and injuries in any way”.

PROBLEMS WITH ALUMINIUM PROCESS

The Ajka accident has concentrated attention on, and within the mining and metals processing in dustry.

A commentator in the Canadian Mining Journal, for instance, writes this week:-
“The uncontrolled outpouring of tailings is a catastrophe never far from the minds of responsible mine operators. Even their best efforts are sometimes not enough. In Papua New Guinea, the dam at the Porgera gold mine failed sending cyanide-laden material into the local river. A similar occurrence befell the Los Frailes base metal mine in Span. The dam at the old Matachewan mine in Ontario overflowed 20 years ago.

“Such problems can occur anywhere. Maybe now is a good to for every mine manager to have a close look at tailings management …”

Another observer, Andrew Leonard at “How the World Works”:-

“Dissecting the situation, the management figures that it would not be able to detect the signs of the natural catastrophe or could be able to do anything to avert it.

“The last physical daily inspection and laboratory analyses of last the water sample from monitoring system did not show any sign of the disaster

“As disclaimers of corporate responsibility go, that’s pretty forthright …

“Local environmentalists are pinning the blame on the wave of privatisation that dismantled Hungary’s state-owned enterprises in the 1990s, claiming that MAL Zrt put profits ahead of safety. ..

“There’s no getting around the fact that processing bauxite ore into aluminum is a nasty, nasty business, and has been so since the 1880s, when the Austrian chemist Karl Bayer figured out an efficient way to do so.

“The ‘Bayer process’ involves bathing bauxite in a solution of sodium hydroxide at a temperature of 175 degrees Celsius, which converts the alumina into aluminium hydroxide and some leftovers — that good old ‘red mud’ which, Wikipedia dryly informs us, ‘resents a disposal problem’.

“(Bayer, incidentally, was the son of Friedrich Bayer, founder of Germany’s Bayer Chemical, the inventor of both aspirin and heroin.)

“Bad weather, corporate irresponsibility, the toxic waste inseparable from a key industrial process … the only thing that separates Hungary’s mess from the larger challenges that humanity’s activities pose to ourselves and the planet is the striking colour.”

SURVIVAL

Surviving a possible ecological disaster is possible but requires a large-scale deployment of resources.

Early guesses atg the cost of the clean-up for the chemical flood this week have started at $US50-million (A$50.86, xe,com 7.10.10).

How much of this, and how many assaults can a resource like the Danube River survive without some kind of terminal deterioration?

The environment in  Hungary received a dangerous jolt in 2000 when 100 tonnes of cyanide was spilt into river systems, including Hungary’s, Tisza River, after the breach of a dam, at a gold mine near Oradea in Romania.

The Australian-owned mine had been using cyanide for separating gold and silver from other ores; pollution from its dam killed fish and other aquatic life in rivers hundreds of kilometers long – including the Danube in Serbia.

Reference

BNO News, Budapest, “Hungary orders company to shut down …”, 6.10.10. http://wireupdate.com/wires/10957/hungary-orders-company-to-shut-down-after-toxic-sludge-ecological-disaster-feared/, (7.10.10).

Rob Edwards, “Toxic wave”,  New Scientist,  London, issue no. 2226, 19.2.00; see .”Hungary suffered large-scale pollution when a goldmine flooded”, 6.10.10. http://informsciencenetwork.com/sciences/hungary-suffered-largescale-pollution-goldmine-flooded-1711944a, (7.10.10).

Google Maps, Ajka. http://maps.google.com.au/maps?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&channel=s&q=Ajka%20map&um=1&ie=UTF-8&sa=N&tab=wl, (7.10.10).

Pablo Gorondi, AP, NY, “ Hungary orders company to shut down after toxic sludge, ecological disaster feared”, Atlanta Business News, 6.10.10. http://www.ajc.com/business/sludge-hit-hungarian-villagers-663207.html, (7.10.10),.

Andrew Leonard, (Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21),  “Hungary’s toxic sludge of aluminum doom”, How the World Works, 5.10.10.  http://www.salon.com/technology/how_the_world_works/2010/10/05/toxic_sludge_of_doom, (7.10.10).

Magyar Alumíniumtermelő és Kereskedelmi Zrt., (MAL Hungarian Aluminium Producing and Trading Company), (Home), Budapest. http://translate.google.com.au/translate?hl=en&sl=hu&u=http://www.mal.hu/&ei=IP6sTJ3eNsmXcanQ4N0N&sa=X&oi=translate&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CCIQ7gEwAQ&prev=/search%3Fq%3DMAL%2BZrt%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dfirefox-a%26sa%3DG%26rls%3Dorg.mozilla:en-US:official%26channel%3Ds%26prmd%3Dn, (7.10.10).

Marilyn Scales, “Perspective: A cautionary tailings tale”, Canadian Mining Journal, 16.10.10. http://www.canadianminingjournal.com/issues/story.aspx?aid=1000388039, (7.10.10).
Wikipedia, SF, “Ajka alumina plant accident”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajka_alumina_plant_accident, (7.10.10).

Xinhua (English News), Beijing, “Hungarian PM blames human error for red mud disaster”, 6.10.10.  http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/world/2010-10/06/c_13543859.htm, (7.10.10).

Pictures

Danube at Budapest – journeyetc; toxix flood – rferl, worldbullrtin, edie; company processing – MAL Zrt.

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