Toxic red sludge reaches the Danube, countries downstream test for damaging pollutants

By George Jahn, AP
Thursday, October 7, 2010

Mighty Danube neutralizes toxic red sludge

KOLONTAR, Hungary — The mighty River Danube was apparently absorbing the toxic red sludge with little immediate harm, officials reported Friday — even though the amount of caustic slurry spewed over western Hungary was nearly as great as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Revising even higher earlier estimates, government officials said the reservoir break Monday dumped 600,000 to 700,000 cubic meters (158 million to 184 million gallons) of sludge onto three villages — just barely less in a few hours than the 200 million gallons the blown-out BP oil well gushed into the Gulf over the course of several months starting in April.

“The consequences do not seem to be that dramatic,” said Philip Weller, who heads the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube said by telephone from Vienna, when asked about harm to the waterways ecosystem up to now.

The risk of pervasive and lasting environmental harm remained nonetheless, with laboratory analyses organized by Greenpeace showing high concentrations of toxic substances in samples taken from the sludge.

Greenpeace told reporters in Vienna that the samples taken a day after the spill showed “surprisingly high” levels — 110 milligrams of arsenic and 1.3 milligrams of mercury per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of dry matter.

The results, which also show 660 milligrams of chrome per kilogram, are based on analyses carried out in laboratories in Vienna and in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

Very roughly speaking, that translates into 50 tons of arsenic, 300 tons of chrome and 500 kilograms, or a half ton, of mercury set free by the spill, Greenpeace officials told reporters in Vienna on Thursday.

Greenpeace officials said the detected arsenic concentration is twice the amount normally found in so-called red mud. Analysis of water in a canal near the spill also found arsenic levels 25 times the limit for drinking water.

Hungary’s state secretary for the environment, Zoltan Illes, said the henna-colored sludge covering a 16-square-mile (41-square-kilometer) swathe of countryside has “a high content of heavy metals,” some of which can cause cancer. He warned of possible environmental hazards, particularly to groundwater systems.

With rain giving way to dry, warmer weather over the past two days, the caustic mud is increasingly turning to airborne dust, which can cause respiratory problems, Illes said.

“Wind can blow … that heavy metal contamination through the respiratory system,” he said.

Government emergency services officials on Friday urged residents near the toxic flood area to wear face masks.

The warnings conflicted with the view of the prestigious Hungarian Academy of Sciences which said that while the material remained hazardous, its heavy metal concentrations were not considered dangerous for the environment.

“The academy can say whatever it wants,” fumed Barbara Szalai Szita, who lives in Devecser, one of the hardest-hit villages. “All I know is that if I spend 30 minutes outside I get a foul taste in my mouth and my tongue feels strange.”

Officials with Hungary’s national disaster relief service, meanwhile, told The Associated Press that a fifth person — an 81-year-old man — died Friday morning from unspecified injuries sustained in the flooding

The red sludge entered the Danube on Thursday and was moving downstream Friday toward Hungary’s immediate neighbors, Croatia, Serbia and Romania, amid fears that it will kill off the river’s fish and plant life. Monitors were taking samples every few hours Friday to measure damage from the spill but there were no reports of major harm to the waterway’s ecosystem.

While Hungarian creeks and rivers near the collapsed reservoir have been devastated by the red sludge, the Danube, Europe’s second largest river, appeared to be absorbing the blow due to its huge volume of water.

The pH level of the water where the slurry entered the Danube was 9 — well below the 13.5 measured in local waterways hit Monday by the toxic torrent, Hungarian rescue agency spokesman Tibor Dobson told the state MTI news agency on Friday.

Dobson added that such amounts posed no damage to the environment.

A neutral pH level for water is 7, with normal readings ranging from 6.5 to 8.5. Each pH number is 10 times the previous level, so a pH of 13 is 1,000 times more alkaline than a pH of 10.

Emergency crews, meanwhile, drained a second industrial reservoir at Hungary’s red sludge site Friday to prevent a new disaster.

Dobson told MTI that 100,000 cubic meters (3.5 million cubic feet) of fluid from a storage pond close to the burst reservoir was being gradually released into a local river already declared dead in the wake of Monday’s environmental catastrophe. Gypsum was being dropped into the Marcal River from helicopters to neutralize the alkaline effect of the fluid, he said.

At monitoring stations in Croatia, Serbia and Romania, officials were taking river samples every few hours.

An environmental group that monitors threats to the Danube said the breached reservoir was on a 2006 watch list of some 100 industrial sites at risk for accidents that could contaminate the 1,775-mile (2,856-kilometer)-long Danube. The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River coordinates conservation efforts in the 10 nations bordering the waterway and its tributaries.

The long-term effects on the agricultural region will be devastating. Some 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of topsoil will have to be dug up and replaced because the highly alkaline sludge had killed off all the nutrients and organisms needed to keep the soil healthy, according to Illes, the environment minister.

It is still not known what caused a section of the reservoir to collapse, unleashing a torrent of sludge. Three people are still missing. More than 150 were treated for burns and other injuries, and 10 were still in serious condition.

Crews looking for the missing drained a pond swollen by the muck Friday but no bodies were found.


Associated Press writers George Jahn, Veronika Oleksyn in Vienna and Alison Mutler in Bucharest contributed to this report.

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