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The latest toxic spill is bringing back memories of the Baia Mare disaster which killed fish in rivers across eastern Europe (Image: WWF-Canon / Nigel Dickinson)

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Hungary toxic spill 'could be worse' than Baia Mare cyanide disaster

Tom Levitt

6th October, 2010

Greenpeace says responsibility of aluminum company is 'quite clear' as campaigners urge stricter controls on other hazardous waste sites around the Danube region

A toxic spill of mining waste from an industrial plant in Hungary is the worst of its kind in the country's history and may end up matching the Baia Mare cyanide spill in Romania in 2000.

An estimated 1 million cubic metres of red-coloured sludge, a mixture of water and mining waste including toxic heavy metals like lead, cadmium, arsenic and chromium, spilled from the Ajkai Alumunia refinery about 160KM south-west of Budapest after a dam broke.

The sludge, known as red mud, is a byproduct of the refining of bauxite into alumina, the basic material for manufacturing aluminium.

The spill, with a pH level of up to 13, has already spread into rivers with fears that heavy rains will see it reach the Danube River, sparking bad memories of the Baia Mare disaster in Romania when cyanide polluted water was discharged from a gold mine reservoir poisoning water and wildlife through neighbouring Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria.

'I hope the incident will not have the same degree of far reaching consequences as the Baia Mare spill,' said WWF regional director Andreas Beckmann. 'But unfortunately we are in the midst of the rainy season and it has rained especially hard in Hungary. This means that the sludge will spread faster and further and it is likely inevitable that some sludge will escape into the Danube.

'It’s hard for us to know how this will affect the environment. Heavy metals are known for their longevity, they don’t disappear overnight,' he added.

As officials admit the spill could take more than a year to clean up, campaigners said the owners of the plant have a clear responsibility for the spill with accusations that too much waste was being stored at the site. Greenpeace called for an 'urgent strengthen' of controls to prevent similar threats across the country.

WWF said Hungary had two similar refineries with an estiamted 50 million cubic metres of toxic mud in 'highly senstive' areas close to rivers like the Danube and major drinking water reservoires.

'This is a good occasion to remind ourselves that such depots – some currently in use, some abandoned – are common place in the Danube region. Some contain heavy metals, some radioactive elements. None of these are safe and the current incident has shown us this,' said Beckmann.

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