Hungary asks EU for help with toxic decontamination

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Four days after a reservoir of toxic sludge burst near an alumina plant in Hungary, the country's government on 8 October turned to the EU's Civil Protection Mechanism for help in dealing with decontamination and the mitigation of environmental damage.

The Hungarian government announced that it would not seek financial assistance, but it has identified an immediate need for 3-5 experts with strong field experience of handling toxic sludge.

The European Commission announced that since the disaster occurred, on 4 October, its Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC) has been in close contact with the Hungarian authorities to gather information on the incident and was prepared to react quickly should Hungary table a request for support.

The MIC has already communicated the request to the 31 countries that participate in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and expect offers to come in soon.

Kristalina Georgieva, the EU's crisis response commissioner, said that in an environmental catastrophe such as the Hungarian one, the effects do not stop at national borders and a European response is the most effective way of dealing with it.

"In this moment of need, I call all EU member states to respond with generosity to the request of Hungary," Georgieva stated.

Man-made disaster

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited the disaster area and admitted the catastrophe was "more than likely" caused by human failure.

"Two weeks ago there was some control procedure. The official report said that everything is OK and you can see how, what does it mean OK?" said Orbán, appearing on television with his boots covered in red mud.

Orbán also announced that some villagers would be evacuated and people would be moved to accommodation well away from the disaster area. He also said he had contacted wealthy Hungarians abroad to provide financial assistance.

More hazardous pools in Hungary

In the meantime, WWF International warned that Hungary has two other sludge ponds storing similarly toxic and highly alkaline red mud from bauxite processing. One is located at Almásfüzit?, on the river bank just 80km upstream from Budapest, and stores around 12 million tones of sludge in seven pools covering around 40 hectares (200 acres).

WWF Hungary's acting CEO Gábor Figeczky, who has visited the disaster area, slammed the Hungarian authorities for their handling of the situation.

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

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

"Unfortunately, the EU Mining Waste Directive – which WWF was substantially involved in developing – was significantly weakened as the result of industry lobbying," said Andreas Beckmann, head of WWF's Danube-Carpathian programme.

Other Danube countries also pose threat

In Serbia, numerous heavy industrial facilities are located close to the river, including the Pancevo complex of oil refineries, fertiliser and vinyl chloride manufacturing plants and associated storage facilities. 

Following NATO bombing in 1999, surveys on soil and water samples "showed the presence of notable quantities of mercury, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), ethylene dichloride (EDC), and other highly toxic substances, including dioxins," WWF recalls.

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

Close to 20 tailings dams, some of which have been decommissioned but still have heavy metals buried underground, litter Bulgaria.

Romania, the site of a massive cyanide-contaminated gold processing waste spill into Danube tributaries in 2000, is currently seeing protests over a government decision to approve a massive new mining project at Ro?ia Montan?.

(With additional reporting from EURACTIV Hungary.)

The government of Hungary declared a state of emergency in three counties in the west of the country on 5 October, in the wake of the flooding of thousands of cubic metres of sludge from a ruptured reservoir at an alumina plant.

The waste, produced during bauxite refining, poured through Kolontar and two other villages on Monday after bursting out of a containment reservoir at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt plant, owned by Hungarian company MAL Zrt.

According to the Hungarian authorities, four people died, five are missing and 123 have been hospitalised.

The European Civil Protection Mechanism facilitates cooperation in disaster response.

31 states participate in the Mechanism (the EU-27 plus Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway). They pool resources that can be made available to disaster-stricken countries all over the world.

When activated, the Mechanism ensures that assistance interventions inside and outside the European Union are coordinated. Such activities are managed by the European Commission. Since its creation in 2001, the Mechanism has been activated for over a hundred disasters.

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