Around a million tons of toxic alumina refinery waste — red sludge — broke through a dam this week in Hungary and flooded a large area. Several people died in the flood, and hundreds were injured by the flood and the caustic waste. And the impacts have just begun.
The government is struggling to prevent the superalkaline sludge with its silt, heavy metals, and possible radioactive contamination from reaching and devastating the Danube. Fish habitat is already reported to be destroyed and soils thoroughly contaminated. Photos of the flood aftermath are incredible. The lives and livelihoods of those that have survived will be affected for years.
How can this be happening a whole 10 years after the Baia Mare disaster in neighboring Romania? This is Europe after all, and that was supposed to have been a wake-up call of its own. When the dam failed at that gold mine in 2000, toxic cyanide-laced tailings spewed downstream all the way to the Danube and killed around 1200 tons of fish. Before that was the massive Los Frailes/Azlancollar disaster in Spain in 1998. This latest tragedy, which will probably take years and millions of Euros to attempt to clean up, is the latest and probably one of the greatest of the long history of massive spills of mining and mineral waste. Read about some of those in this scientific report and check out a chronology of major waste dam failures.
Clearly the minerals mining and processing industry has not learned its lesson. Those responsible for these disasters need to be held accountable. And we need accountability from the industry overall. It is high time for a precautionary approach to the development of mineral mining and processing facilities, to the design of those facilities, and to the operation, maintenance, and closure of those facilities. Like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, these disasters are a clear indication that industry claims of safety and responsibility do not hold up. When mining projects like the planned Rosia Montana gold mine in Romania seem too risky for communities and the environment, they are indeed too risky.