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Toll rises as toxic sludge spill reaches Danube

The red toxic sludge that has been flowing in Hungary for five days has reached the Danube, raising fears of a cross-border European ecological disaster.

A tide of red industrial waste began flowing into the Danube River in Hungary on Thursday, with eye-witnesses reporting dead fish washing ashore in Europe’s second-largest river. Since the beginning of the week, the unprecedented industrial accident has killed five people in Hungary – including a 14-month-old-girl and wounded 120 others. Dozens have also complained of burns.

European waste regulations

The media continue to cite the presence of lead in the red mud, but Magyar Aluminium (MAL),
the company responsible for the plant that is at the origin of the disaster, insists it contains no harmful heavy metal. In an announcement on its website, MAL insists that “it is important to know that it is not a dangerous waste according to the European Waste Catalogue and Hazardous Waste List." The mix, the company says, consists of different proportions iron-oxide (which gives it its red colour), aluminum-oxide, silicon-dioxide, calcium-oxide, titanium-dioxide and sodium-oxide. The components “are not soluble by water,” MAL adds on its website.
“There is a chemical toxicity, related to the composition of the sludge, and a physical toxicity related to its pH balance,” contends Eric Thybaud, an environmental toxicologist at the French National Institute of Industrial Environment and Risks (INERIS). “Even if it is not classified as hazardous substances, the fact remains that its toxicity may be high.” After MAL’s waste containers burst on Monday, authorities measured a pH level of 13.8 on a scale of 14.

The toxicity drops in the Danube
On Friday, red mud, which has already polluted the Marcal and Raab rivers, flowed into the Danube, resulting in an immediate drop in its alkaline content. “On reaching the river Raab, the pH was measured at 9.4, which means it had lost some of its toxicity,” says Thybaud, the French toxicologist. According to Reuters news agency, the pH at the Danube was 8.4.
Crews were pouring hundreds of tonnes of plaster and acetic acid into the rivers to neutralise the alkalinity of the waste, causing patches of greyish foam to float to the surface.

Ecosystems destroyed

But despite assurances of the waste’s pH levels, the toxic mud is causing irreparable damage to the ecosystems in its path, according to Tibor Dobson, the region’s head of anti-disaster services.  Dobson says the entire ecosystem of the river Marcal has been affected.
According to experts, the red mud will also make much of the soil infertile after being contaminated with heavy metals.

 Assigning responsibility forthe disaster

A criminal investigation was opened in Hungary to determine those responsible for the disaster. The MAL factory is the principle suspect after Hungary’s State Secretary for Enrivonment Zoltan Illes declared the failed containers stored up to thee to four times the amount of waste usually allowed.

MAL immediately denied responsibility, saying that the tanks had been inspected just three days before the disaster by authorities, who reported no over-stocking. The director of Greenpeace-Hungary, Zsolt Szegfalvi, said: “The factory’s responsibility is clear.  It is obvious that they stored too much mud in the tanks.”

The Danube flows through 10 European countries and six are downstream from Hungary, including Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova.
Early estimates put the damage caused by the industrial slime at between five and 10 million euros.  Clean-up efforts could take up to twenty years.


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