Little action apparent on toxic tailings six months after Hungary red mud disaster

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Kolontár, Hungary: Six months after being deluged by a tide of toxic red sludge, towns downstream of the failed alumina tailings dam near Ajka, Hungary remain ruined and largely deserted, with residents and former residents still waiting for authorities to deliver on much of the promised assistance.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, residents of other towns threatened by tailings dams are noting that little has been done to reduce the risks hanging over their communities.

More than one million cubic metres of the toxic sludge burst from the Ajka tailings dam on 4 October 2010, inundating the towns of Kolontár, Devecser and Somlóvásárhely. Ten died and more than 100 were injured, with the mud covering hectares of farmland and forest and spilling into Danube tributaries, the Marcal and Torna rivers.

On a six month review, WWF-Hungary noted that around 300 buildings have been demolished and the impact on lives and livelihoods in the area remains severe. Streets are empty, and the red stain of the mud remains often all too visible.

"Many people came here and promised a lot of things, but we've seen nothing. The sludge destroyed our best fields, now we can't make a living", one local man told WWF Hungary. Clean up efforts continue in some areas, but seem to be themselves tailing off.

According to the mayor of Devecser, Tamas Toldi, the sludge and toxic soil are in the process of being cleared with about 5000 cubic metres are being transported back to one of the tailing pools each day. But as there are no funds left, there will be only partial replacement of the soil. A biomass plantation is now planned for these fields to make biogas and green electricity. Locals are starting to accept the idea, but are still looking for investors.

Wildlife and fishlife were totally devastated or displaced from the area, and six months later, the banks of the Marcal and Torna are still red. Currently, toxic soil is being removed from the banks of the rivers.

"Legislation was amended to add red sludge reservoirs to the category of buildings for which stricter requirements are necessary and to make mining inspectorates the responsible authority for the management of mining waste as opposed to local municipalities, which had no capacity or knowledge to complete this task. ," said Gábor Figeczky, CEO of WWF-Hungary. "But no other measures were taken to prevent other similar disasters from happening."

Threat posed by dozens if not hundreds of similar sites

"Six months after Hungary's worst environmental disaster, we still cannot be sure of the threat posed by dozens if not hundreds similar sites throughout the region," said Andreas Beckmann, Director of the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme.

"WWF calls on the European Commission and national governments to urgently undertake a comprehensive review of risky sites as well as of existing legislation and measures in order to ensure that such a disaster does not happen again", "There are close to 20 tailings dams in Bulgaria alone. Some of them have been decommissioned, but the heavy metals are still buried in the ground and pose a potential significant threat to human health and nature, particularly because many of them are situated next to rivers and the pollution can spread quickly." he added.

The biggest tailings dam in the Balkans is Medet. Situated above the town of Pirdop in central Bulgaria, it contains 200 million tones of heavy metals residues. The dam was built in the basin of Topolnitsa river, which flows into Maritsa, a major river in southern Bulgaria and northern Greece. "Out of the top 30 most polluted places in Bulgaria, we are ranked number seven", said Ivo Georgiev, mayor of the village of Dushanci, situated close to Medet.

"Underground waters from Medet seep through Zhekov vir dam, constructed right next to the tailings dam. Zhekov vir is situated above the village and the village lives with the threat of 50 million cubic metres of residue flooding its land."

Inadequate enforcement of inadequate recommendations

Experts identify inadequate enforcement of inadequate regulations as a key issue in a string of spills in the area, of which two most serious were the Hungary mud disaster and an earlier cyanide spill from a tailings dam in Romania. "Our society expects that the facilities still in use are being exploited correctly and safety procedures are being observed. In reality this is not the case", said Daniel Popov, a toxics expert from the CEE Bankwatch Network in Bulgaria.

"To begin with, none of the privatized old facilities in Bulgaria and almost none of the newly built ones, have been isolated with impermeable membranes made out of high density polyethylene to prevent hazardous wastes and their leachates going into the ground. This omission sets these facilities apart from the best practices in the mining industry today", Popov said.

"Many facilities allocate in their annual budgets funds for covering fines

"When systematic infringement occurs in theory the facility should be closed until the problem is solved. The fact that this is not happening, shows complete disregard for one of the basic principles of the European community's water management policy – "Polluters pay" - where the idea is that the fines are so big that the industry has an incentive to invest in better and cleaner technologies."

Greek MEP Michalis Tremopoulos, the only elected green MEP from the Balkans, has taken it upon himself to help solve environmental issues across the region.

He says that the situation in the Balkans is worsening instead of improving and that the standards for crisis management are quite low because of increased costs. He is in the process of collecting data about cases when toxic spills have occurred but the local population has not been made aware.

"We are encouraging environmental organizations from the Balkan countries to send us relevant information", he says.

In his opinion the European Commission has an important role to play to prevent toxic spills occurring in the region in the future.

"First of all the Commission must adopt the European Parliament resolution against the use of cyanide in mining activities. There have been amendments to the Seveso II Directive, which included mineral processing of ores, tailings ponds or dams, an amendment to the Hazardous Waste List to include certain mining wastes, a best available techniques reference document on waste rock and tailings, a legislative instrument on the management of mining waste. The last point resulted in the Mining Waste Directive (Directive 2006/21/EC on the Management of Waste from the Extractive Industries). This Directive covers only the most damaging waste and needs adequate implementation. This last "detail" needs further attention", he said.