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Hungarian red sludge spill – three weeks later

October 26, 2010

Toxic spill near Ajka, Hungary: a NASA satellite image shows the spill clearly visible from space (Image: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/)

This week’s post is written by Dr. Szabolcs Lengyel, Assistant Professor of Ecology at University of Debrecen, Hungary and a member of the BioFresh project.  Dr. Lengyel offers a Hungarian perspective on the toxic waste spill from an aluminium factory near Ajka, Hungary on 4th October which killed seven people and severely affected surrounding ecosystems.

Three weeks have passed since the worst environmental catastrophe to affect Hungary and the first sizeable spill of red caustic sludge anywhere in the world. By now, the waves of the spill have faded and toxic concentrations have diluted. Life is starting to make a comeback in the villages and landscapes affected by the spill. However, three weeks after the spill, questions remain over its causes, responsibilities and impacts

Nobody is sure exactly what caused the spill.  Careless dam construction, sliding layers of soil, irresponsible use of the reservoir by the company, insufficient environmental inspections or a combination of these have all been cited. Nobody talks about why the solution to get rid of almost one million m3 of red sludge is to simply let it flow down into the catchment of the largest river in Europe.

We must question how appropriate the environmental inspection and disaster prevention activities of the relevant authorities had been before the catastrophe?

It is now uncertain what happens when heavy metals from the spill – bound in complexes at highly alkali pH – go into solution at lower pH.   And what will happen when the sludge dries and its heavy metal and arsenic-rich dust is dispersed by the wind?

Few media reports mention freshwater life. The highly alkali (pH = 13.8) red sludge covered more than 1000 hectares of land and killed all life in the Torna-patak and Marcal rivers, seriously damaging all living populations downstream on Rába. pH on river Danube decreased below 9 only after day 4, and fish dwelling on the river-bottom have suffered greatly.

An absurd result is that sturgeon, a Natura 2000 species dwelling on the bottom of Danube, have been found killed by the spill in numbers exceeding even the lowest estimates of their population size. Dead sturgeon were found on river sections where their presence had been previously unknown.

I believe the only positive development of the spill is to draw attention to the importance of such environmental ‘time-bombs’ hidden in the backyard of former communist countries.   It is crucial that better environmental inspection standards are implemented by authorities to prevent similar disasters in the future.

Dr. Szabolcs Lengyel

Szabolcs is currently studying the impact of habitat restoration and management on biodiversity of semi-natural landscape mosaics, and the theory and practice of biodiversity monitoring.  His publications can be found here

More information:

  • BBC photos and news report of the aftermath of the spill
  • Yale environment blog on the media representations of the spill
  • WWF Hungary report on the impacts of the spill and implications for the future
  • International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River latest update
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