Toxic plume reaches Danube, raises questions about safety in multitude of other sites | WWF

Toxic plume reaches Danube, raises questions about safety in multitude of other sites

Posted on
07 October 2010
Kolontar, Hungary: As the mixture of red sludge and alkaline water from Monday’s breach of a waste dam at a Hungarian alumina plant reached the Danube this morning, the river’s second major similar disaster in just over a decade is shifting attention to a multitude of other sites storing bulk liquid wastes in close proximity.

Hungary alone has two other sludge ponds storing similarly toxic and highly alkaline red muds from bauxite processing – one, at Almásfüzitő right on the river bank just 80 km upstream from Budapest, stores around 12 million tones of sludge in seven pools covering around 200 hectares.

WWF-Hungary acting CEO Gábor Figeczky witnessed the anger of villagers in Kolontar yesterday as company representatives under police escort explained that water limits in the dam had not been exceeded before a corner wall breached Monday, unleashing a wall of water and sludge that inundated six villages, killed four, left six missing, injured around a hundred and left hundreds homeless.

“We still don’t know what caused this accident and what was in the waste,” said Figeczky. “And while we are assured the dam has stopped leaking, authorities have closed the airspace over the site to any but official and company flights.”

WWF’s Danube Carpathian programme produced a map and list this morning of toxic sites between Hungary and the Danube Delta, itself in the shadow of a steel plant’s mountains of abandoned drums with peaks reaching over 100 metres high and the Tulcea aluminum plant’s 20 hectare dump of red sludge leaking into the environment through wind and water.

“While the European Union can lay some claim to being relatively advanced in river and water policy, the fact that the company behind this spill is hiding in the fine print of EU definitions of hazard suggests we still have some way to go,” said Andreas Beckmann, head of WWF’s Danube-Carpathian program.

The EU Mining Waste Directive, which was introduced following major toxic spills at Baia Mare in Romania in 2000 and at Donana in southern Spain in 1998, was meant to prevent exactly this kind of disaster from happening.

"Unfortunately, the EU Mining Waste Directive – which WWF was substantially involved in developing – was significantly weakened as the result of industry lobbying,” said Beckmann.

"There are a string of disasters waiting to happen at sites across the Danube basin. A spill from Hungary’s Almasfuzito residue reservoir would seriously impact drinking water drinking water supplies and the fragile ecosystems of the middle Danube.

A spill from the facility in Tulcea in Romania, which has already experienced some leaks in the past, would have a devastating impact on the Danube Delta, an area of global importance for flora and fauna."

Acid dump tempers alkalinity, raises its own questions

According to information solicited yesterday and today by WWF-Hungary from the State Representative for Environment Protection, acid dumping in around five locations has reduced alkalinity of waters and sludge from a caustic 13 to around nine in nearby areas.

Plume alkalinity is reported to be under 10 in a side arm of the Danube, near the entry point at Győr, compared too a usual near neutral 7.5.

“There is a chance that at these levels the alkalinity won’t kill all fish, as happened in the Marcal River, the tributary bearing the first brunt of the outflow,” said Figeczky.

Meanwhile, groundwater readings around Kolontar, the worst hit community, are near normal – although the speed of percolation may mean the main impacts are yet to materialize.

“It is important to handle acids carefully during the neutralization because of the presence of the heavy metals,” said Figeczky. “As the alkalinity is reduced, the heavy metals are becoming more soluble and more likely to end up in groundwaters and river flows.”

On other hand as the sludge dries, its toxic contents become more likely to reemerge in airborne dust.

Risks multiply down Danube

Almásfüzitő’s reservioirs, built over earthquake prone swampland by the river, contain the red sludge byproducts of bauxite refining between 1945 and 1995 mixed with other chemicals, industrial wastewater, communal wastes and oil, according to local NGO’s affiliated into the Environmental Culture Association of Esztergom.

The heavy metals ingredient is estimated at about 120.000 tonnes, and the toxic materials are not only mixed with the red sludge but are also mixed into the reservoir dykes. The facility’s pools were inadequately or hardly sealed with clay, meaning there is the possibility of extensive flows between ground water and less directly, with the river – a possibility confirmed by multiple high readings for toxic metals and fluorides in monitoring wells recently.

In Serbia, numerous heavy industrial facilities are located close to the river, including the Pancevo complex of oil refineries, fertilizer and vinyl chloride manufacturing plant and associated storages. Surveys following NATO bombing in 1999 "showed the presence of notable quantities of mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), ethylene dichloride (EDC), and other highly toxic substances, including dioxins".

In 2006, a punctured fuel tank at the Serbian port city of Prahavo sent a slick 50-100 m long and 300 metres wide down the river as far as Romania.

Close to 20 tailings dams, some decommissioned but with heavy metals still buried underground, litter Bulgaria..

Romania, site of the massive cyanide contaminated gold processing waste spill into Danube tributaries in 2000, is currently witnessing large protests over a government decision to go ahead with a controversial new mining project at Roşia Montană.

The ArcelorMittal Galati plant was found in September 2009  to be illegally storing thousands of tonnes of waste, much of it in an old dump, described as „a 40 year old mountain of garbage covering one million square meters with "peaks" over 100 meters in height.”

Also notorious is the Alum Tulcea alumium producing plant with its 20 hectare landfill of red sludge linked to caustic dust clouds and numerous leaks into waterways that have killed fish and birds in the heritage listed delta.

Alexa Antal, WWF-Hungary, +36 306552407,

Olga Apostolova, WWF Danube Carpathian program, +359 885 727 862, for latest news and media resources

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