The red sludge that engulfed towns and villages after a reservoir burst at MAL’s aluminium plant in Ajka, western Hungary, is steadily being cleared away but its toxic legacy remains. Nine people died and 150 were injured in Hungary’s worst environmental disaster on 4 October. The toxic effluent spread over 40 sq km, polluting local rivers and poisoning arable farmland. Thanks to a massive effort by the government to divert, dilute and neutralise the sludge, the Danube escaped relatively unharmed.
Disaster was averted this time but the catastrophe at Ajka has highlighted how vulnerable the Danube basin is – it’s dotted with potential environmental disasters. The International Commission to Protect the Danube River identifies 97 contaminated sites, with 32 in Hungary. Many of the storage sites and factories date back to the Communist era, when standards were much laxer than today.
At Almasfuzito, 80km northwest of Budapest, red sludge is stored in 200 hectares of reservoirs in a zone at risk of seismic activity. Unlike MAL’s reservoirs at Ajka, these pools are covered but they are unlined, says the World Wildlife Fund’s Hungarian office. The sludge is polluting the local groundwater and leaching into the Danube. The walls of the reservoir even serve as flood dykes for the Danube. An earth tremor here or a breach in the walls could cause a catastrophe, poisoning Budapest’s water supply.
MAL says that it observed all necessary regulations and the reservoir passed its inspections. Zoltan Iles, Hungary’s environment minister, argues that European Union accession can actually mean a lowering of environmental protection standards. Before Hungary joined the EU in 2004 the red sludge was classified as hazardous waste but the former Socialist government downgraded it to non-hazardous, he told Monocle. “This is not only a play on words, but if something is considered as non-hazardous the disposal and insurance requirements are quite different. They can tell the insurance companies that it is non-hazardous.”
EU officials say that Brussels’s regulations are extremely rigorous, that red sludge is regarded as hazardous and that member states can also impose their own regulations to be even stricter if they so wish. “You cannot imply that EU regulations are lax,” says Joe Hennon, a spokesman. “There are very strict controls on this waste, how it is treated so it is not dangerous and how it is stored. There must also be clean-up plans in case of contamination.”
The EU has sent a team of detoxification experts to the stricken area and asked Hungary for a copy of the permit it granted to MAL. It will be checking the government’s oversight of the plant and if there are grounds for concern it may open an investigation. Next January Hungary takes the presidency of the European Union. Aptly enough, its theme will be water safety and quality. One of the government’s first proposals, says Iles, will be to reclassify red sludge as hazardous.