Caustic Sludge Burns Through Hungarian Towns En Route to the Danube

Health fears linger as red sludge proves to be more caustic than 9/11 dust.

Oct. 8, 2010— -- The caustic, red sludge that burst from a reservoir at an aluminum plant Monday has been found to be 1,000 times more caustic than the dust at ground zero on 9/11, an environmental health expert has said, amid growing concerns about the lingering effects of the toxic spill.

The flood of sludge burned more than 120 people and killed five as it left a reddened swath of devastation in western Hungary this week, according to environmental advocates on the scene.

After decimating the fish population of the Marcal River, the toxic slurry became more diluted as it reached the mighty Danube River. The torrent of alkaline mud that swamped homes, cars, roads and bridges, particularly in the town of Kolontar, contained byproducts from aluminum manufacturing, which uses caustic soda to turn bauxite, or aluminum ore, into lightweight metal.

The environmental group Greenpeace said Wednesday that the pH level of a mud sample it took from one of the affected towns was 13 -- a level more caustic than household bleach. However, by late Thursday, pH levels closer to the Danube had dropped "down to 9 ... but there are still dead fish floating around," Martin Hojsík, toxics water campaign coordinator for Greenpeace International, wrote in an e-mail.

Greenpeace sent sludge samples from Kolontar to two outside labs, and planned to release results with pH testing and evidence of heavy metal contamination Friday, Hojsík said.

In the absence of good, early information about toxic metals, scientists were could only comment on the extreme alkalinity of the sludge.

"A pH of 13 is about as caustic as it gets. This stuff will dissolve anything it touches," said Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, chairman of preventive medicine and dean for global health at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Acidity and alkalinity are measured on a scale from 1 to 14, with 7 considered neutral. A pH of 1 indicates extreme acidity, like pure sulfuric acid, and a pH of 13 or 14 indicates extreme alkalinity, he explained. "Liquids of extreme alkalinity burn whatever they touch. Like lye."

By way of comparison, Landrigan said that the dust produced by the collapse of the burning World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, "had a pH of 10 to 11 and wreaked havoc on workers' lungs." One of the first scientists to analyze the 9/11 dust, Paul J. Lioy, chairman of environmental medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, found that the dust got its high pH level from tiny particles of naturally caustic cement.

Landrigan said that the pH scale is logarithmic, "so every unit increase on the scale means a 10-fold increase in alkalinity. So this stuff is 1,000 times more caustic than the 9/11 dust."

Toxic Sludge Residues Could Linger, Experts Warn

Joel Schwartz, a professor of environmental epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the caustic elements of the mud won't be easily eliminated, "particularly when it dries on walls, etc. It can continue to be volatized and inhaled, injuring the lung even if there is no skin contact."

Schwartz also expressed concern about inhaling dust containing heavy metals left behind once the sludge dries out. Low levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium and other heavy metals "have been associated with a host of health issues, including cognitive decreases, blood pressure increases," he pointed out.

Officials Experiment With Chemicals to Neutralize Sludge

In a telephone interview late Thursday from Ajka, where the plant was located, Balazs Tomori, a Budapest-based campaigner for Greenpeace in central and Eastern Europe, described how Hungarian authorities tried to neutralize sludge in the Marcal River, about 40 to 60 miles from where the leak began.

"First, they wanted to add just water, then gypsum, then they went for chemical fertilizers, and in the end, they used acid."

The acid did help, he said. As the red sludge traveled down the Marcal River to the Raba River and into the Danube, he said, pH levels were falling. But because normal pH levels for water are 7 to 8, environmental officials remained worried that readings above 9 still posed dangers, especially to fish and wildlife.

The Danube, Europe's second-longest river after the Volga, flows through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Moldova before emptying into the Black Sea. It is a source of drinking water in Germany and in Romania, but it only rarely supplies drinking water to Hungary.

As of Thursday, Tomori said that more than 120 people had been treated in neighboring hospitals for burns. "This is the minimum number. It can be more by now." He also said a fifth victim had died.

Greenpeace campaigners on the scene told residents of Kolontar "how to decontaminate themselves, what kind of protection suit to put on, breathing mask, rubber boots. We also suggest gloves." He said they met a journalist whose shoes had been corroded away by the sludge "and had only the remaining rubber boots.

"Local people who are affected the most do not really want to move back, because it seems impossible to completely clean up this mess, and they have serious concerns about health. They are outraged against the company, because they had very, very unfortunate communication that this is not toxic."

He said that when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban visited Kolontar, he pronounced part of it uninhabitable, and said a protective barrier should be placed around it "to show the next generation, as a memento, this should not happen anymore."

Toxic Sludge: Could It Happen in the U.S.?

The United States doesn't have any bauxite deposits to mine, said Alan Septoff, research director for Earthworks, a nonprofit organization focused on dangers of mineral development. However, it has other mining industries that store industrial waste in sludge-filled pits, ponds and embankments, which during heavy rains or earthquakes, could leak and destroy lives and property in their paths.

One of the most widespread worries focuses on storage of toxic coal ash, a byproduct of coal-burning. This waste contains heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, which can slowly leach into local water supplies. Acute exposures have occurred when retaining walls surrounding coal ash ponds have failed:

On Dec. 28, 2008, an earthen retaining wall broke at the Tennessee Valley Authority's coal-fired Kingston Fossil Plant near Harriman, Tenn., releasing more than 1 billion tons of toxic sludge into two watersheds. The 300-acre flow of wet coal ash inundated homes and farmland, spreading heavy metals into the areas. Cleanup continues today and water monitoring is ongoing. As in western Hungary, environmentalists also worry about what happens to the metals and other contaminants left behind in the dusty residues after the water evaporates.

On Feb. 26, 1972, a rain-drenched impoundment dam in Logan County, W.Va., belonging to the Pittston Coal Company, unleashed a 10- to 20-foot-high wave of blackened water onto the communities of Buffalo Creek Hollow. The 132 million gallons washed out two other impoundment dams in the disaster that claimed 118 lives, left seven missing and injured 1,000 more. It destroyed more than 500 homes and left 4,000 people homeless, according to the official report to West Virginia Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr.

Robert Gardner, a campaigner for Greenpeace, said in an interview Thursday that 137 coal ash sites in 34 states have been identified by three nonprofit environmental groups: Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, as releasing toxic metals and other contaminants into ground water or surface water. These sites, in rural and urban areas alike, often feature tall coal-ash piles surrounded by protective berms, or coal ash ponds, which could give out.

Gardner cited the ash treatment dam at the Cane Run generating facility in Louisville, Ky., very close to a street of working-class homes in that southern city. The federal Environmental Protection Agency considers the 79-acre Cane Run pond a "high-hazard" site, where a dam breach would cost lives. He said that the dam owner has proposed a 16-story ash impoundment expansion for 5.7 million cubic yards of coal waste.

Preventing a Toxic Sludge Catastrophe

The EPA in late August held the first in a series of regional hearings about a pending rule to regulate the handling of coal ash waste from power plants; the next is scheduled for Oct. 27 in Knoxville, Tenn.

But coal isn't the only mining industry whose waste products pose potential hazards.

Outside Salt Lake City, the Bingham Canyon mine operated by Kennecott Utah Copper is America's biggest open pit mine, as well as the largest man-made excavation on earth, so large that it's visible from space. The mine, which contains copper, molybdenum, and precious metals, is 2.5 miles across, rimmed by huge piles of waste, situated in a seismically active area.

Much of the waste has been moved into a nearby mine tailings pond, which is 220 feet high, covers about 14 square miles and holds 2 billion tons of mine tailings -- the leftovers from extracting valuable metals from ore.

If the area suffered a catastrophic earthquake of at least magnitude 7.25, which is possible near the Wasatch Fault, there could be danger for the people of Magna, and there certainly could have been in the 1980s, according to a series of investigative stories in the Salt Lake Tribune. The newspaper reported in 2008 on a Kennecott coverup of the hazards of an older waste lagoon in the 1980s, alleging that the company and the state engineer's office at that time withheld information from the public about the instability of the mine sludge should a large earthquake occur. The stories also detailed the company's secret purchase of homes that would be in the path of the sludge.

After the stories ran, Kennecott Utah Copper contacted local residents to tell them the company, which was under new leadership, had taken steps in the 1990s to safeguard the area, including moving the sludge to a new area and erecting a protective berm to shield a nearby neighborhood from a slide.