Not all hazards are natural: a red mudflow from an industrial reservoir devastated parts of Hungary recently, killing nine people
In October 2010, Hungary experienced an unusual kind of hazard. A bright red-coloured mudflow quickly overwhelmed several settlements and a large rural area of 40,000 km2.
The liquid industrial waste poured into local tributaries of the river Danube and only swift action by local authorities prevented a major ecological disaster from spreading across Europe.
The cause of the event was an escape of liquid industrial waste from a poorly-maintained storage reservoir that experienced dam failure. Geographers define an event like this as a human-induced (technological) hazard. This article explores the causes, consequences and response to the hazardous waste spill.
The causes and impacts of the red mudflow
Disaster event aftermath: the rescue and reconstruction response
Practice A2 / IB diploma question
Hungary recently experienced a human-induced (technological) hazard: an escape of hazardous material described as “red mud” and officially classified as “technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive material". With a high water content, one million cubic metres of the industrial waste quickly submerged neighbouring rural and urban areas after the collapse of a storage reservoir dam.
The disaster was triggered by the collapse of a reservoir wall following a period of heavy rainfall at the Ajkai Timföldgyár alumina plant in Hungary. The collapsed dam freed approximately one million cubic metres of liquid waste on 4th October 2010. A two metre-high mudflow rapidly submerged a 40 square kilometre area of land including the village of Kolontár and the town of Devecser.
Red mud is routinely stored in reservoirs as a by-product of local industry in Ajka. It is a waste product of the Bayer process which refines bauxite rocks into alumina, a form of aluminium oxide.
The process of the ‘red sludge’ formation:
The bauxite is dug out of the ground and washed with hot sodium hydroxide as part of the Bayer process, invented in the 19th century.
The residual red mud contains non-aluminium compounds present in the bauxite ore which are left as residues after its refining (including some heavy metals such as cadmium, cobalt and lead).
The characteristic red colour is due to the presence of iron compounds.
Rainwater collecting in the reservoirs of red mud increases the water content of the material: this meant that the flow rate of the mudslide was extremely fast, akin to debris-laden floodwater.
This red mud is officially classed as a technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive material. It is difficult and expensive to dispose of and thus is stored in large open-air ponds in Hungary; about 30 million tonnes of red mud is stored around the Ajkai Timföldgyár plant in a chain of reservoirs. (Guardian, 05 October 2010).
Storing such large amounts of dangerous mud close to populated settlements creates a human-induced (technological) hazard. This is a category of hazards that includes hazardous materials incidents and nuclear power plant failures. Little or no warning usually precedes technological hazard events because they are the unforeseen outcome of human systems that have been designed to be relatively risk-free.
Additional risks are attached to the escape of red mud beyond those associated with a natural mudflow:
In a thickened form, red mud is a highly alkaline (pH13) substance, which can have a caustic effect on the skin and may burn on prolonged contact.
The mud is slightly radioactive (but is not classified as toxic by EU standards).
Inhaling its dust could cause lung cancer but only after a very long period of exposure.
A problem caused by neglect?
Local environmentalists allege that the plant, which was originally state-owned during the Communist era but went into private ownership in 1995, was not properly modernised - because “the company put profits first.” The company responsible for the site, MAL (Magyar Alumínium Termelő), have countered the allegation. A spokesperson said: “(We) could not have noticed the signs of the natural catastrophe nor done anything to prevent it, even while carefully respecting technological procedures.” (Guardian, 05 October 2010).
It is worth noting that a similar environmental disaster occurred in 2000, when a Romanian reservoir filled with toxic waste burst (Guardian, 14 February 2000). On that occasion, 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide-contaminated waste water reached tributaries of the Tisza river, which flows through Hungary.
Seven towns, including Kolontár, Devecser and Somlovasarhely, were severely affected. A state of emergency was declared throughout the entire region, which lies 220 km south-west of Budapest.
About 7,000 people were directly affected by the spill.
Nine people died and 122 people were injured. The cause of death of the Kolontár victims was drowning rather than a chemical-related condition. Some injuries related to impacts: the flow was powerful enough to move cars and vans.
Other injuries included minor burns: although this type of mud is not poisonous, its pH level of 13 is high enough to cause chemical burns to humans. It was reported that 90 Devecser people were taken to hospital with chemical burns.
The chemicals killed unknown quantities of fish and other wildlife in the Marcal river, creating an “ecological catastrophe” (Guardian, 05 October 2010).
Topsoil throughout the region was left in a highly contaminated state.
Contaminated water reached the Danube River on 7 October, threatening to become a transboundary pollution event given that it could potentially cross state borders (the Danube is Europe's second longest river, with a course that is almost 3,000 km long (South of Hungary, it flows through Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Moldova before reaching the Black Sea).
1) Immediate rescue efforts
The Hungarian government was quick to respond to the crisis, both on the ground and legally. 4,000 emergency crew, military and volunteers worked to build emergency dykes around the reservoir, completing repairs within days. Simultaneously, the government nationalised MAL, taking over management of the reservoir and factory site while also freezing the company’s assets - to ensure that the damages would be paid for!
Damage limitation efforts included:
Teams in protective clothing hosed down streets to disperse the red mud.
Locals were told to wear face masks after warnings that the air contained potentially hazardous dust.
Checks were made to see if local drinking water had become contaminated (it was found to be safe by the World Health Organisation).
Steps were also taken to reduce the vulnerability of local people and ecosystems to any hazard extensification (spreading) or intensification (risk of further mudflows):
Given fears of a more serious dam failure and the release of even more red mud, Devecser’s 5,400 residents were told to pack a bag and to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice should the remainder of the reservoir threaten to give way (luckily it did not).
The potential for a wider ecological catastrophe was avoided after emergency crews dumped gypsum plaster and acid into primary and secondary tributaries of the Danube in order to bind and neutralise the sludge (the gypsum plaster helped to thicken and slow the flow; the acid countered the red mud’s alkalinity).
(2) Longer-term reconstruction
The Hungarian government has estimated that the clean-up operation will take at least one year and costs will run into tens of millions of dollars. In addition to damaged homes and settlements, rural areas have been badly affected too. The extent of the damage to animal and plant life will take a long time to assess and repair. Hungary's environment minister has declared that the top layer of soil needs to be removed from throughout the entire contaminated area. This will be costly and will create major logistical problems (where can replacement soil be found and where will the contaminated soil be dumped?)
Complex legal challenges lie ahead too, if the costs of repairing the damage are to be recouped from MAL, the company that owned the reservoir. Under recently introduced European Union rules, “the local environment now has to be restored to its former condition, no matter what the cost. If restoration is not possible, the company responsible must pay compensatory damages” (Financial Times, 11 October 2010).
The 2004 Environmental Liability Directive (ELD) is increasingly being applied across the EU. One key feature of this legislation is that it gives powers to green pressure groups to demand that governments will hold polluters to account. However, it is difficult to make a quantitative assessment of the actual monetary value of losses caused by a high ecological impact event such as the Ajka mudflow. “It is likely to take a number of years before detailed and reliable data emerge” one expert told newspapers, while an insurance expert worried: “If you make extinct some obscure species of butterfly that only exists in a particular place, how are you going to say what that is worth?” (Financial Times, 11 October 2010).
The Hungarian government has no doubt who is to blame though: the managing director of MAL has been arrested and charged with "criminal negligence leading to a public catastrophe”.
Examine the characteristics and impacts of a human-induced (technological) hazard you have studied. (10 marks)
(Tip: An examination of “characteristics” could include taking a look at the chemical make-up of the red mud as well as its fluidity / viscosity.
The volume of material released, the speed of onset, the duration of the event and the spatial extent of the affected area are also worth noting.
Finally, you might consider the predictability and frequency of this type of hazard event as characteristics worth noting.
In the second half of your answer, you need to address the impacts of the event. These should be carefully structured in a thematic way for high marks to be attained – perhaps distinguishing between impacts on people, places and ecosystems. An alternative approach might be to consider impacts in rural and urban areas. There are even legal impacts to consider – such as the Hungarian government’s decision to nationalise the company responsible for the disaster.)
Hungary toxic sludge spill an 'ecological catastrophe' says government. Guardian 05 October 2010
Cyanide spill floods into Danube. Guardian 14 February 2000
Budapest takes over sludge group. Financial Times 11 October 2010
Environment: Hungarian spill puts financial provisions under the spotlight. Financial Times 08 October 2010
Briefing paper on technological hazards
Greenpeace International – Flickr set: Toxic sludge in Hungary photo stream
Images of the mudflow. BBC
The Big picture Images: A flood of toxic sludge
Film clip of the mudflow (05 October 2010)
CNN film of the toxic sludge embedded - embedded video
The Bayer process. Wikipedia
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