Will Hungary's flood of red sludge bolster environmentalists' warnings?

Officials in Hungary declared a state of emergency in several towns after red sludge from alumina refinery swept through several communities.

Bela Szandelszky/AP
A Hungarian woman cries in front of her ruined home in the town of Devecser, Hungary, Tuesday. Monday's flooding was caused by the rupture of a reservoir of toxic red sludge at an alumina plant in western Hungary and has affected seven towns near the Ajkai Timfoldgyar plant in the town of Ajka, 100 miles southwest of Budapest.

As Hungarian authorities take stock of the formidable task to clean up a toxic sludge spill that has killed at least four people, many environmentalist groups say the government should outlaw storing toxic red sludge from alumina processing in open reservoirs.

Those living near the Ajkai Aluminia Refinery, which is about 100 miles southwest of Budapest, say a wave of "red mud," which is a byproduct from turning bauxite into alumina, washed through their towns Monday afternoon after a dam that holds the sludge burst.

At least 100 people have been injured in the incident that has prompted officials to issue a state of emergency for the communities near the refinery. Several days of heavy rains caused the dam to break.

IN PICTURES: Hungary sludge flood

"The long-term consequences could be very bad," says Marton Vau of Greenpeace Hungary, noting that the sludge could leak into the drinking water supply, and, if allowed to dry, could become airborne and inhaled. The alkaline substance, which is already responsible for killing fish in local rivers, could also threaten the Danube River.

Environment Secretary of State Zoltan Illes called the situation an "environmental disaster," and said that he had earlier ordered the plant's owner, MAL Zrt, to repair the dam that gave way Monday.

Gergely Simon of the Clean Air Action Group (CAAG) says his group has been trying to raise awareness since 2003 about the potential dangers of storing the slurry that comes from processing alumina, the material in aluminum, in open reservoirs. Unfortunately, he says, such storage is commonplace across Hungary.

"The storage reservoirs are open so the water got in there and made what should have been a paste into a liquid," says Mr. Simon. "Locals were reporting that the winds were making huge waves [inside the reservoir]."

The reservoir is one of the three largest "red mud" reservoirs in the country, all of which are a concern to environmental groups, says Simon. The reservoirs hold as much as 30 million tons of the alumina byproduct.

While Mr. Vau says he's been satisfied with the government emergency response, "they made a huge mistake in legalizing this factory in the first place."

MAL Zrt, the owner of the plant, issued a statement Tuesday saying that, “The red sludge waste is not considered hazardous waste according to EU standards,” and that it conforms to all safety standards.

IN PICTURES: Hungary sludge flood

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