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The Red Mud

October 8, 2010

Rheanna Sand

Science in Seconds Blog by Rheanna Sand

 

There is something seriously wrong in a world where a 6-foot wave of caustic, rust-laden sludge that devastates an entire village isn't considered "dangerous waste." Yet the families of four dead, and five more missing near Kolontar, Hungary, have to contend with that, and the claim that the disaster at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar alumina plant on Monday was unavoidable.

 

In the words of the company MAL, taken directly from the English version of their website:

"Dissecting the situation, the management figures that it would not be able to detect the signs of the natural catastrophe or could be able to do anything to avert it."

Which is odd, considering that the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, said the accident showed no signs of happening by natural causes, and may well be the result of human error.

Maybe we should go with industry on this one. I mean, a disaster THIS big could only be an act of God, right? Sort of like how "accidents happen" in the Gulf of Mexico? Besides, when has industry ever lied to cover up mistakes caused by ineffectual regulation?

And maybe we should also go with the European Waste Catalogue that red sludge isn't dangerous, because according to MAL, "the presence of its components is stable and bounded; they are not soluble by water." What this means is, when they are mining for bauxite, a major source of aluminum ore, the waste they produce is made up of the Earth. And the Earth isn't a hazardous substance, silly!

Okay, can you see the BS going on here? This poor regulation states that if sludge remains "stable," it's no worse than a chunk of rock. But sludge is not stable, at least, not when reservoirs are allowed to age without adequate maintenance.

The main components of the red sludge, iron oxide (rust), aluminum oxide (alumina), and silicon dioxide, range from irritating to severely harmful if breathed in or swallowed. The pH measured in some of the hardest-hit areas reached higher than 9, and possibly close to 13, the same as bleach or oven cleaner.

 

Every animal exposed to the toxic tide perished. Some victims of this catastrophe described having their clothes dissolved and their skin burned. The entire village has been deemed uninhabitable.

 

But don't worry, it's not dangerous. And there's nothing that could have been done.

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