Ever since the wall burst on a reservoir of industrial waste at a Hungarian alumina plant last week–killing eight people and deluging the countryside with red muck–shocked environmental officials have been scrambling to determine how dangerous the sludge is. It’s common knowledge that the initial torrent was highly basic in pH, which caused hundreds of people to suffer from chemical burns. But once the material was neutralized, the thinking went, the danger should be past.
However, Greenpeace activists have been on the ground in Hungary over the past week, and the red mud they’ve collected and analyzed contained twice as much arsenic as expected, as well as surprisingly high levels of mercury and chromium.
The study has met with scepticism from Hungarian chemists, partly because bauxite, the ore from which most aluminium oxide (and ultimately aluminium) is derived, contains neither mercury nor much arsenic. However, Greenpeace says that the findings have been confirmed by an independent laboratory in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s own figures — based on samples taken by scientists last week at two sites in the area — are yet to be published. [Nature News]
The head of Greenpeace campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe, a chemist named Herwig Schuster, says there may be an obvious explanation for the arsenic and mecury’s presence: The alumina plant may have mixed its industrial wastes.
The rust-colored flood that has been spreading across Hungary all week after an alumina plant accident on Monday is far from contained, and five deaths have been attributed to the wave of toxic sludge so far. Responders there say, however, that at least the worst has been avoided.
The blue Danube turned red?
After the spill began spreading, the concern that jumped off the page when you looked at a map was that the stuff would reach rivers that feed the Danube. Europe’s second-longest river (after the Volga in Russia) weaves its way past Hungary through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and on into the Black Sea.
Indeed, parts of the spill reached the Danube on Wednesday, but Hungarian responders say today that pH of the main river is just over 8, down from about 9 when the material first arrived. Neutral pH is 7, but a range of about 6.5 to 8.5 is considered a safe zone for consumption.
It was a deadly accident and an ecological disaster. On Monday, a reservoir at a Hungarian aluminum refinery ruptured, sending a wave of toxic sludge across three counties (click image to see a map of the area).
The spill sent 185 million gallons–a mini-tsunami–of caustic red mud flooding over 16 square miles of the countryside, killing four and sending 120 more to the hospital with chemical burns from the mud, which is an industrial waste product.
The chemical burns could take days to reveal themselves and what may seem like superficial injuries could disguise damage to deeper tissue, Peter Jakabos, a doctor at a hospital in Gyor where several of the injured were taken, said on state television. [The Guardian]
The red flood also destroyed homes and businesses in seven villages in three different counties, and threatens to contaminate nearby rivers, including the mighty Danube. Scientists worry that the highly alkaline substance may kill many of the river’s plants and animals.
At 1,775 miles (2,850 kilometers) long, the Danube is Europe’s second largest river and holds one of the continent’s greatest treasuries of wildlife…. The river has already been the focus of a multibillion dollar post-communist cleanup, but high-risk industries such as Hungary’s Ajkai Timfoldgyar alumina plant, where the disaster occurred, are still producing waste near some of its tributaries. [AP]