Past industrial spills and potential threats along the Danube

Posted on 07 October 2010    
Danube river at sunset, Bulgaria.
© WWF / Michel Gunther
As Hungary is racing to prevent the toxic sludge from causing more damage to the Danube, we look at past industrial spills and potential threats that could yet affect the river.


Hungary is currently experiencing an unprecedented ecological catastrophe. As Hungary is racing to prevent the toxic sludge from reaching the Danube, it has emerged that the Ajka tailings dam is not the only one in the country that is a cause for concern. Two more tailings dams are right on the bank of the Danube, one of them near Almásfüzitő, about 80 km upstream from Budapest.

This residue reservoir contains 12 million tonnes of red sludge. The sludge is a by-product of the refining of bauxite into aluminum. The sludge was produced between 1945 and 1995. To store this sludge seven pools have been created over 200 hectares. The biggest reservoir is still open.

According to an expert study highlighted by the Environment Culture Association of Esztergom (a local NGO), the reservoir contains a variety of waste products. The red sludge is mixed with different types of chemicals, industrial wastewater, communal waste, oil and others. The heavy metals contained in it are about 120,000 tonnes. The pools have not been covered by clay to block leaking of water. Thus, the pools are more or less in direct contact with the ground water table and indirectly with the Danube. An unusually high level of toxic metals as well as fluoride, were detected in the monitoring wells several times recently.

This area is earthquake-prone and it is a formal swamp. The cities of Komárom and Dunaalmás, which are situated about 10-15 km from these reservoirs, have suffered from earthquakes several times in the past. The biggest one was in the 18th century. The reservoirs are separated from the Danube by a 10 km long flood dike, which runs less than 50 meters from the right bank of the river.


There are two oil refineries situated very close to the Danube in Serbia. The oil refinery in the town of Pancevo is located 20km from Belgrade and only two km from the Danube. Installations at Pancevo include a fertiliser plant, a vinyl chloride manufacturing plant, and an oil refinery. The capacity of the refinery is 4.8 million tonnes annually.

In 1999 the refinery was bombed several times during NATO raids. At the time a WWF team found evidence that toxic pollutants released close to places hit by the NATO bombing were spreading into surrounding areas. Soil and water samples it took "showed the presence of notable quantities of mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), ethylene dichloride (EDC), and other highly toxic substances, including dioxins".

The Novi Sad refinery is also situated on the Danube, in the second biggest Serbian town of Novi Sad. The capacity of the refinery is 2.6 million tonnes annually.
There are also a number of other facilities in Serbia that pose a potential threat for the Danube - for oil transportation, refilling and storage.

All these facilities pose a serious threat to ecosystems along the Danube. The Serbian government has made some effort over the past couple of years to improve the safety of these facilities.

Oil spill in Prahovo, Eastern Serbia, 2006
The oil spill at Prahovo is believed to have come from a punctured fuel tank at the Port of Prahovo on the Danube. The oil slick, which was 50-100km long and 300m wide, made its way downstream to Bulgaria and Romania, polluting the banks of the river.

Luckily, there were no incidents in Vidin's thermal plant and the Nuclear Power Plant in Kozloduy, as no oil was allowed in the plants' circulation systems.
The oil spill was stopped at the 585th kilometer on the river, near the Bulgarian town of Nikopol. Over 100 metres of barrages were arranged there to stop the oil slick.


Bulgaria is one of several countries in the EU that have not yet produced the necessary classification system that is a requirement for all member states under the Mining Waste Directive from 2006. Currently all countries have until May 1st, 2012 to produce this classification. The lack of classification, makes difficult pointing out the real danger spots in the country. Once identified, category A facilities (most dangerous) will need to meet much stricter requirements. 

There are close to 20 tailings dams in Bulgaria. Some of them have been decommissioned, but the heavy metals are still buried in the ground and pose a potential significant threat to human health and nature, particularly because many of them are situated next to rivers and the pollution can spread quickly. One such tailings dam is situated close to the town of Chiprovtsi in north west Bulgaria, on the river Ogosta, one of the major Danube tributaries in Bulgaria. Chiprovtsi is about 60 km away from the Danube and the water from Ogosta takes about a day to reach it.


Baia Mare and Roşia Montană
For Danube communities, the spill in Hungary has reignited memories of the Baia Mare cyanide spill in Romania. In January 2000, a retaining wall failed at the Aurul gold processing plant, releasing a wave of cyanide and heavy metals that moved quickly from one river to the next through Romania, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria, killing fish and other wildlife and poisoning drinking water. The accident at Baia Mare brought home to Romanians the dangers of cyanide leaching of gold.

Currently, there is huge resistance in Romania over a proposed gold mine at Roşia Montană. The rich mineral resources of the Roşia Montană area have been exploited since Roman times. The state-run gold mine was forced to close in late 2006 in advance of Romania's accession to the EU but Gabriel Resources of Canada now want to replace it with a new mine. This has caused huge controversy in Romania related to the environmental impact that the production of gold using cyanide will have on the environment in the long run, but also because of the social aspect of the mine - the entire historic village of Roşia Montană will have to be moved.

The campaign against the cyanide mining at Roşia Montană was one of the largest campaigns over a non-political cause in the last 20 years in Romania. A plethora of organizations spoke out against the project. Nevertheless, in late 2009, the Romanian government announced it made starting the project a priority.

Alum Tulcea plant, Mineri village, Tulcea County

In early 2009 this aluminum producing plant was blamed for polluting with cloud of dust with a high concentration of soda caustic the nearby Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve. Although the plant stopped operating for two years, when it reopened last year it continued to pollute the village and the nature reserve, especially because of what had been dumped in the environment previously. The extraction process used large amounts of caustic soda. The red sludge that was produced contained a significant amount of heavy metals such as cadmium, nickel and lead.

For over three decades, red sludge was pumped into a landfill located near the village of Mineri and covered over 20 hectares. Often this has resulted in pollution and mortality among wild birds and fish.
It is expected that the plant will be decommissioned, but pollutants will remain a threat to the environment. The public Romanian company has been fined several times.

ArcelorMittal Galati
ArcelorMittal steel plant in Galati on the banks of the Danube is the largest steel plant in Romania. It's also the last remaining integrated steel plant in Romania. Galati metallurgical industry provides over 50% of the steel produced in Romania. In September 2009, the ArcelorMittal Galati plant was found illegally storing thousands of tonnes of waste.

The plant continues to store its waste in an old dump, which would have to be closed, because it does not meet basic environment standards. Currently the waste is about 1,000 tonnes per day. It’s being described as a mountain of garbage, which is over 40 years old and has "peaks" of over 100 meters high, covering one million square meters.

Facts about the Danube

  • The river originates in the Black Forest in Germany as the much smaller Brigach and Breg rivers which join at the German town Donaueschingen, after which it is known as the Danube and flows eastwards for a distance of some 2850 km, passing through four Central and Eastern European capitals, before emptying into the Black Sea via the Danube Delta in Romania and Ukraine.
  • The Danube River basin, the most international river basin in the world covering 19 countries, is currently home to 83 million people. 20,000 of them depend on the river and its surrounding ecosystems for their drinking water.
  • Wetlands are among the world’s most productive environments. Their biological riches are important not only for nature, but also for humans, providing a host of different services, including: flood and drought management through holding and slowly releasing water, water purification through filtration, production of natural resources (e.g. fish and reeds), recreation and many others.
  • The value of the various benefits from Danube floodplains is estimated to be at least €500 per hectare a year.
  • Water purification through nutrient retention of Danube floodplains is worth an estimated €369 million per year.
  • 100 fish species live in the Danube, while over 5,000 animal species live along the river.
  • The Lower Danube and Danube Delta are especially important as breeding and resting places for some 331 species of birds, including the rare Dalmatian pelican, the white-tailed eagle, as well as 90% of the world population of red-breasted geese.
  • Beluga sturgeon, which can grow to a length of 6 meters – the size of a large dolphin - are famous for their caviar. They spawn in the gravel banks of the Lower Danube and migrate downstream to spend the rest of the year in the Black Sea.
  • In Romania, at the Delta, dry and unproductive land on the major islands of Babina and Cernovca has been returned to the river. The islands have been turned into a mosaic of habitats that offer shelter and food for many species, including rare birds and valuable fish species. The economic benefits of the restoration works (3,680 ha), in terms of increased natural resources productivity (fish, reed, grasslands and tourism), is about €140,000 per year.

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