Loopholes in EU legislation permitted inadequate storage at Hungarian site
Corners of the tailing dam collapsed on Monday, releasing approximately 1 million cubic meters of toxic red sludge and heavy metals that covered over 40 square kilometres, killing four people and injuring over 120.
The red sludge in reservoir number 10 of the Ajka facility was held back by a simple earthen barrier. Prolonged and heavy periods of rain – which are not uncommon in the region, and growing in frequency – can weaken such dam structures, leading to collapse. The area of Western Hungary has experienced double the average rainfall in the last two months.
Higher safety standards are needed for tailing dams like the one at Ajka, similar to those required for holding water. Any dangerous liquid waste requires structured dams, with density and internal support structures that can withstand pressure.
There are a string of disasters waiting to happen at sites across the Danube basin. On Thursday, WWF published a map of the region with facilities similar to the one at Ajka in Hungary.
“A spill from Hungary’s Almasfuzito residue reservoir, located directly on the Danube just 80 km upriver from Budapest, would seriously impact drinking water supplies and the fragile ecosystems of the middle Danube,” said Gabor Figeczky, interim CEO of WWF-Hungary. Since 1975, tailings storage facility failures have accounted for around three-quarters of all major mining-related environmental incidents worldwide.
More stringent safety provisions including for tailing ponds such as independent inspections, monitoring and corrective measures have been introduced by the EU Mining Waste Directive in 2006 following major toxic spills at Baia Mare in Romania in 2000 and at Donana in southern Spain in 1998. However, Member States have negotiated generous transition periods, with stricter standards applying from 2012 at the latest with no obligation to prevent pollution before that deadline.
In addition, the EU legislation does not properly prevent pollution from closed or abandoned waste facilites, of which there are many in Central and Eastern Europe and fails to establish an EU wide inventory of facilities opened after 2006.
There is also significant leeway for company operators to push regulators to not classify their sites as category “A” sites requiring stricter standards by arguing that the substances they are managing are not hazardous.
MAL, the company operating the Ajka facility, has claimed that the 1 million cubic meters of red sludge that has covered 40 square kilometeres and extinguished life in the Marcal River was not hazardous.
The alkaline red sludge, which has a pH higher than 11.5 is considered a hazardous waste according to the standards set by the Basel Convention. “Why isn’t the red sludge considered hazardous then when it is stored right above villages and living rivers?”, wondered Gabor Figeczky, interim CEO of WWF-Hungary.
Chemical analysis of probes taken at the site of the spill and released by Greenpeace today have revealed that the alkaline red sludge in fact also contained a cocktail of heavy metails, including arsenic, mercury and chromium, which accumulate in the food chain and can cause long-term effects for humans and wildlife, including cancer and birth defects.
To prevent further such human tragedies and natural catastrophes from occurring, WWF is calling on companies managing similar tailing dams to carefully check their sites and control structures and systems; national authorities to carefully assess risks, and implement the stricter standards advocated in the Mining Waste Directive before 2012 deadline; and the European Commission to look into strengthening the EU legislation and its enforcement, including the EU Mining Waste Directive.”
Gabor Figeczky, Interim CEO WWF-Hungary, +36 30 67 85 398
Andreas Beckmann, Director, WWF Danube-Carpathian programme, +43 676 84 27 28 216
Sergey Moroz, Policy Expert, +32 499 53 97 34