Hungary has requested help from the EU in the wake of the accident at a MAL Rt-owned aluminium plant that saw thousands of cubic meters of ‘red sludge’ burst from a reservoir.
The accident occurred on Monday 4 October, when a reservoir containing industrial waste water burst in the town of Ajka, flooding surrounding towns and villages, including Kolontár and Devecser.
According to the Hungarian authorities, four people died, five are missing and 123 have been hospitalised as a result of the accident.
Hungary has now activated the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, having identified an immediate need for between three and five experts with on site experience in handling toxic sludge, decontamination and mitigation of environmental damage.
27 EU states, plus Croatia, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway, participate in the European Civil Protection Mechanism, which facilitates cooperation to disaster response inside and outside the EU.
‘It is particularly disappointing that the collapse of a red mud reservoir of this sort has taken place in a European country fully four years after the EU enacted its directive on the management of waste from the extractive industries, which was supposed to put a stop to these sorts of incidents,’ said Prof Paul L Younger, director of the Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability at Newcastle University. ‘Similar spills in Spain [in 1998] and Romania  spurred development of the directive, but if it was working effectively the Hungarian red mud outburst would never have happened.’
According to Dr Martin Preston, a marine chemist at Liverpool University, red mud is a byproduct of the Bayer process, in which aluminium oxide is extracted from bauxite ore using high temperatures and sodium hydroxide.
Between one and two tonnes of red mud are produced per tonne of aluminium and it consists largely of the non-alkali soluble components of bauxite, with iron oxides being among the most important.
‘Normal practice is to try and reduce its high pH and then allow it to dry out in lagoons,’ said Dr Preston. ‘It is then covered in soil and the land remediated.’