UN human rights official to probe Hungarian chemical spill

Two years after toxic sludge from an aluminium plant burst through a dam in western Hungary, a top United Nations representative is due to visit the area to investigate the human rights and environmental impact of the deadly incident.

A containment wall at the industrial site collapsed on the afternoon of 4 October 2010, sending blood-red waste tainted with arsenic flowing into the surrounding town of Ajka and several neighbouring villages.

Some 10 people died of contamination and at least 150 others were treated for exposure to the toxic muck. The spill also contaminated nearby streams and rivers.

UN Special Rapporteur Calin Georgescu will arrive in the area on the second anniversary of the disaster to investigate the potential environmental impact of chemicals and other hazardous substances on waterways, workers and people living near industrial sites, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights announced.

“I will examine obstacles in the policy and legal framework relating to chemicals and waste management, and explore alternatives for the protection of people from the adverse impact of these hazardous substances,” Georgescu said in a statement.

It's the first time a UN human rights official specialising in environmental disasters has gone to Hungary.

The disaster prompted the Hungarian government to declare a state of emergency and to activate the EU’s civil protection mechanism, a mutual aid agreement with other European countries.

Some 1.1 million cubic metres of toxic sludge flowed into surrounding residential areas and waterways following the dam collapse at the MAL Aluminium Production and Trade Company in what Hungarian authorities have called the country’s worst chemical incident.

The company paid a €477 million fine for environmental damage last year. In September, the head of the plant and 14 employees went on trial on charges of criminal negligence in connection with the spill.

Spills on the magnitude of the one at the Ajka plant are relatively rare and industrial pollution in many European rivers has declined since the 1960s. Tougher treatment laws, international cooperation and EU policies like the 2000 Water Framework Directive and 2006 Groundwater Directive are credited with the improvements.

During his six-day visit, Georgescu will investigate the cleanup, reparation for victims as wells as efforts to eliminate threats to workers and residents living near heavily polluted operations, the UN statement said.

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