Western Hungary still is digging out from under 24.7 million cubic feet of caustic red sludge--a toxic tide unleashed when a containment pond at an old aluminum factory gave way. The breach killed nine, injured 150, forced home evacuations and ruined property over a 15.6 square mile area.
Hardly had the mud subsided, though, when an environmental group fingered another 150 industrial sites in the Danube region, each a potential disaster in the making. Here in the U.S., what industrial dangers lie in wait? Experts suggested this list of the most unsavory possibilities to ABC News:
"Manure lagoon" may sound like the title of a Captain-and-Tennille hit single; but the phrase in fact describes impoundments of animal waste in liquid form on cattle, hog, dairy or chicken farms. These can contain millions or even tens of millions of gallons of excrement. Dams designed to contain the waste have on occasion failed.
One such incident took place in 1995 in North Carolina, spilling some 22 million gallons of hog feces into the local watershed. It made its way to the New River, killing fish by the thousands, before going on to pollute 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands. Even intact lagoons can taint ground water, since local regulations don't always require farmers to lay down an impervious barrier or lining between the swill and the earthen bottom of the lagoon.
Brent Newell, general counsel for California's Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, says manure lagoons are a problem getting only bigger, not smaller. "They should definitely be on the list of things to worry about," he says.
As agriculture becomes increasingly industrial, as farms and ranches grow in size, the number and size of lagoons is growing. The potential harm done by them, he says, is not limited to inundation and seepage. Every day a variety of gasses and particles escapes from them into the air.
One is toxic ammonia. Another is hydrogen sulfide, emitted by hog lagoons, "a brain toxin" that Newell says has poisoned people living near lagoons. Then, too, there's methane, which he calls "the 800-pound gorilla" for its contribution to promoting global warming.
There is concern about lagoons on hog farms in North Carolina and Iowa; as well as on dairies in California and Texas, says Newell, who adds that these pools are a nationwide problem.
"It's not like you go to sleep and die painlessly. It's a horrible death." Rick Hind, legislative director for Greenpeace, is talking about what happens when you inhale chlorine gas, used widely in water treatment and the plastics industry. "It reacts with any liquid to turn into hydrochloric acid. You die of pulmonary edema. Your lungs melt and you drown in the fluid of your lungs."
In one of the scariest incidents to date, a tankcar full of chlorine gas broke loose from a train in 2007 and went hurtling through downtown Las Vegas, Nevada, at 50 miles an hour. Says Hind, "The authorities had to scramble to open intersections and just hope it didn't flip over." It didn't.
Had the gas been released, however, an estimate done by the Homeland Security Council suggests 17,500 people might have died. In 2005 nine people did die when tank cars carrying chlorine derailed in Graniteville, South Carolina.
"Unstoppable," a Denzel Washington movie debuting Nov. 12, has the actor struggling to stop a runaway train with cars of toxic gas from bearing down on a major U.S. city.