European environmental groups had long fretted about an aging industrial sludge pond near Ajka, Hungary, containing caustic waste from the process that converts bauxite to aluminum. The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River included the pond on a 2006 watch list of sites “at risk” for accidents that could pollute the Danube ecosystem. WWF Hungary had pushed for the closure of the pond (large enough that it could easily be seen from space on Google Earth) and of two other bauxite sludge storage ponds in western Hungary.
But in the policy world, mining pollution is a perennial also-ran in the list of environmental concerns — distant from where most people live, and normally out-of-sight, out-of-mind. And even many of the people who lived close to the pond, in villages like Kolontar and Devecser, were not particularly bothered by its presence.
That all changed around lunchtime on Oct. 4, when a corner of the sludge reservoir gave way after weeks of heavy rains, letting loose a tidal wave of thick red sludge that oozed its way over garden fences, onto front porches and into middle-class living rooms in Kolontar and Devecser, where lunches sat waiting on tables. Ten people were killed by the muck — most from drowning — and more than 100 had chemical burns from the highly alkaline mud that were serious enough to require hospitalization.
I was one of the reporters dispatched to the site. For nearly a week, scenes of this jarring, red-coated vision of hell were splashed across the Internet and front pages and led the newscasts on television stations across the globe. Those images turned a formerly obscure industrial waste called “red mud” into a brief captivating symbol of environmental danger — even though, on the hierarchy of industrial wastes, “red mud” is not all that toxic.
But humans react much more to threats that look evil, like this waste from bauxite processing, than to more serious risks that our senses don’t see or don’t perceive as so jarring. It is harder to gin up outrage about invisible greenhouse gas emissions, or the relatively muted hues of cyanide containing waste from gold processing, or even coal mine tailings, which are monochromatic. It was far easier to be captivated by the vision of Kolantar’s neat stucco homes coated with red slime. The yuck factor was incredibly high.
“Reporters were asking me, ‘Has anything like this ever happened here?’” David Graham-Caso, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, recalled this week.
With all eyes focused on the towns, the Hungarian government reacted swiftly to the disaster.
“Well, yes, two years ago,” he said, referring to a massive coal ash sludge spill that occurred days before Christmas, 2008, in Kingston, Tenn. “In Tennessee, there were billions of gallons of toxic sludge washing up on peoples’ doorsteps.” It barely made the news. The problem: The lead villain was brown, the color mud was supposed to be, rather than blood red, whichwould have provided Roger Corman horror-film contrast.
Likewise, why did BP initially suppress the video it possessed of oil pouring from the broken wellhead a mile under the Gulf of Mexico this summer? Part of the reason may have been that the video allowed scientists to make estimates of the oil spill’s volume. But I’d guess an equal calculus was that allowing Americans to see the oil billowing uncontrollably out of the seabed just looked too frightening, even though by the time it was released — and went viral on You Tube — everyone had long known intellectually that it was happening.
For Kolontar and Devecser, the dramatic color of red mud probably had some benefit. With all eyes focused on these towns, the Hungarian government reacted swiftly to the disaster, deploying soldiers, firefighters, police, rescue workers, and scientists. They took samples of the mud to evaluate its chemical content, since sludge from bauxite processing can sometimes contain heavy metals and traces of radioactivity as well. (So far the levels have not been deemed dangerous.)
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They poured acid into the sludge-clogged local rivers — where all life perished immediately — to neutralize the alkaline spill and to prevent its caustic material from reaching the downstream Danube. With shovels and backhoes, teams of workers began removing the veil of sludge from Kolontar, hosing down homes, yards, streets — and even goo-covered animals. The prime minister initiated a criminal investigation, and police briefly imprisoned the reservoir’s owner, although he was later released for lack of evidence.
Despite initial alarm that this ugly stuff would create a broad environmental disaster — a Greenpeace spokesman early on called it “one of the top three environmental disasters in Europe in the last 20 or 30 years” — it did not. After the leading edge of the spill reached the Danube, it was so diluted that the pH remained fine for aquatic life — if not entirely normal. Even in the villages, levels of heavy metals in the sludge were safe, scientists said.
Don’t get me wrong. Life in these few villages will never be the same after this red-mud spill. Topsoil will have to be replaced because it is too alkaline to support life. Houses damaged by the power of the caustic flood will have to be demolished and rebuilt — if residents are willing to return to them after this nightmare.
Other less photogenic waste spills have killed more life or done more ecosystem damage.
Representatives of the aluminum company that owns the reservoir were almost comically tone deaf when they (initially) told sludge-ravaged residents that red mud was not that bad — as were industry groups that complained about the media calling the red mud “toxic.” Though most red mud does not qualify as a toxic waste under European Union regulations, its highly alkaline nature alone makes it a dangerous substance that must be stored and handled carefully.
But other less photogenic waste spills and environmental disasters have killed more life or done more extensive ecosystem damage without attracting nearly the attention.
The Tennessee coal ash spill two years ago released more than five times the volume of industrial waste. It blanketed 300 acres with up to six feet of muck, destroyed homes and train tracks, and left the Emory River with high levels of lead and thallium. Nobody died (the spill occurred in a sparsely-populated area in the middle of the night) but the company had to buy up 150 homes and has spent millions of dollars in an ongoing attempt to restore the area.
More environmental damage was done by a huge spill of cyanide-containing wastewater from a gold processing plant in Baia Mare, Romania in 2000. That environmental disaster, which received far less media attention than Hungary’s red-mud spill, left 2.5 million people temporarily without safe drinking water. The toxic waste — with cyanide levels 400 times the maximum normal amount — poured into local rivers, ultimately inflicting serious damage on more than 1,000 kilometers of waterway in the Danube ecosystem in four countries. It killed millions of fish and, by some accounts, “wiped out” all life adjacent to Hungary’s Tisza River, from fish-eating birds to foxes to hares.
About a week after the initial spill in Kolontar, the world got used to those red-tinted landscapes; we had learned a bit more about what to fear — and what not to fear — from red mud. Perhaps equally important, half a world away, the Chilean government was preparing to winch up 33 gold miners who had been trapped underground for more than two months. Who wanted to hear about a mining accident in Hungary when the Chilean miners were being miraculously and happily saved?
Late last week, 10 days after the spill, the Hungarian government allowed the aluminum plant to resume operation, and residents quietly returned to Kolontar, to rebuild lives, without any cameras watching.