'Hungary must lead drive to defuse East Europe's toxic time bombs'

Posted: 12 October 2010

As efforts continue to prevent a further spill from a toxic reservoir near the Danube, WWF has called on Hungary, as president-elect of the EU, to mount a major push to reduce the large stockpiles of poorly maintained mining wastes across eastern Europe. 

The call from WWF comes as emergency operations continue to head off an increasing risk of further large scale flows of toxic aluminium processing sludge from the broken reservoir above the town of Kolontàr. The initial breach of the reservoir walls killed at least seven, inundated six villages and sent a caustic alkaline plume towards the Danube.

Toxic sludge, Hungary
Kolontar, Hungary, inundated by the tide of toxic sludge now heading down tributaries of the Danube. Photo credit: WWF Hungary

WWF has issued a photograph showing that the reservoir wall was clearly degraded and leaking more than three months before the disaster. Work has nearly finished on a secondary dyke, 1500 m long, 30 m wide and 8 m high through and alongside Kolontàr, to reduce damage from any further spills.

“The human and ecological disaster at Kolontàr – the greatest chemical disaster in Hungary’s history – has made clear the need to re-assess current regulation of such mine waste sites and begs the question how many other ticking time bombs there are in Central and Eastern Europe,” said Gabor Figeczky, interim CEO of WWF-Hungary.

Mining and mineral processing tailings dams – presumably including the Kolontàr reservoir – were listed as a priority concerns in a 2004 comprehensive study on mainly eastern European hazardous and toxic waste sites from the European Commission’s Joint Research Center.

Overall, however, environmetnal pressure groups say that information on sites,and on the risks they present, is extremely poor. WWF released a list of recent Danube releases of toxic wastes and some of the major hazard areas last week, "but it is by no means provides the kind of exhaustive analysis that is needed,” said Andreas Beckmann, Director of WWF’s Danube-Carpathian Programme.

Specifically, the agency WWF is calling on the European Commission and the Hungarian government to develop an Action Plan to carry out the EU Mining Waste Directive during Hungary’s upcoming Presidency of the European Union, which begins in January 2011.

Assessing the risks

“This directive is good in that it marks the transition from disaster driven policy on mining wastes to risk driven policy,” said Sergey Moroz, policy expert at the WWF-European Policy Office.

“The impetus for the EU’s 2006 Mining Waste Directive were major toxic spills at Baia Mare and Baia Borsa in Romania in 2000 and in Donana in southern Spain in 1998. But the new rules introduced by the directive in 2006 failed to treat the Kolantar reservoir’s wastes as posing risk to humans and environment.”

“Other provisions which may have made a difference to Kolantàr in 2010 - such as third party inspection, monitoring, and reviewing of permits - aren’t due to come substantially into effect until 2012.”

The Action Plan which Hungary will shortly be ideally placed to push should focus on sites in the new EU Member States in Central and Eastern Europe and include an assessment of risks in neighbouring countries with a potential impact on the European Union, including Croatia, Serbia, Ukraine and Moldova, Moroz said. 


Amanda Sauer of the Woirld Resources Institute writes:

This ongoing situation is the latest reminder of the environmental risks associated with the thousands of hardrock metals and minerals operations around the world.

The site in Hungary was listed as “risky” by an environmental non-governmental organization in 2006, yet this warning did not spur the type of response required by regulators and corporate executives to prevent the flood. Last summer the same type of disaster struck at a copper mine in southeastern China, where 2.4 million gallons of waste water laced with acidic copper spilled into the Ting River.

The impacts of mining and metals activities on water supplies can be catastrophic, yet as a recent paper from WRI concludes, companies may not be fully disclosing these risks....