Environmental disaster in Hungary: Mitigating the toxic sludge




The latest environmental disaster is happening in Central Europe - edging around the Danube River Basin is a toxic waste spill from an industrial alumina plant reservoir located near the Hungarian town of Kolontar, in the vicinity of Lake Balaton, 160km southwest of Budapest.

Environmental disaster in Kolontar, Hungary

Source: BBC News - October 8, 2010

Environmental disaster in Kolontar
Environmental disaster in Kolontar
Environmental disaster in Kolontar
Environmental disaster in Kolontar
Environmental disaster in Kolontar
Environmental disaster in Kolontar
Environmental disaster in Kolontar
Environmental disaster in Kolontar
Initially reported as lethal, the spill, a by-product waste from industrial manufacturing in the form of red mud, seeped across soil and groundwater, posing a high risk of toxic contamination and extensive but likely only short-term environmental damage in the area. As the sludge oozed toward the river Danube, fear grew that it may spread the pollution faster carried by its stream, which is thought to be harmful to the delicate ecosystem and population health.

Hungarian authorities mobilized emergency units to dilute the chemicals of the spill which was too alkaline to be considered safe, evident from the damage to crops, houses, cars, roads, and even human skin. The corroding mud engulfed villages, causing regional evacuation and devastation, and possibly some long-term stains on the area - the future of its communities, agriculture, and tourism.

Following the cleanup of the infected topsoil, and restitution and repair of the infrastructure, the most crucial step is to ensure that the water system will not become contaminated, as the chemicals may appear harmless at first but become aggravated over time due to interaction with other minerals in the soil. The water network which services the surrounding croplands, drinking water, wastewater and sewage complex must be unsullied for the well-being of the population and the region as a whole.

All regional and global press outlets reported on substantial human injuries from burns and a number of deaths due to drowning or third-degree burns, as well as extensive damage to the infrastructure and soil, and some loss of fish in the imminent smaller waters. Environmental activists and advocacy groups were quick to compare the misfortune to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, however the extent of the risk abated as the emergency forces promptly took control of the situation.

Transboundary Environmental Monitoring agencies, including UNESCO, IUCN and WWF are on high alert, and urge that there may still be chronic effects of heavy metals on the region's delicate animal and plant habitats. WWF-Hungary criticized the regulatory bodies for failing to attend to the faulty and ailing industrial site in due course, pointing out that the whole accident could have been avoided.

Both residents and authorities are on guard for the possible second gash in the reservoir that would cause an adverse repeat of the accident, although reports in the Huffington Post anticipate it to be worse as the specialists predict that the contaminants left in the reservoir may be even more concentrated. Optimistically, the reservoir will not burst before the troops of engineers succeed in fortifying its panels.

A specialized NGO based in Vienna (Austria), the ICPDR (International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River) has been on emergency watch since the onset on October 5, 2010. It assured that the harm is not deep-rooted and emergency response teams were able to reduce the hazard by neutralizing the matter and, as reported by Reuters, devised low dams across the river to regulate the flow of the mud so that it is not spread further uncontrollably through the Hungarian river network.

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