This opinion piece was written for Earthjustice and is reprinted here with permission.
Update: According to news reports, the red sludge tide now has reached the Danube River.
On Tuesday, about 185 million gallons of red sludge burst from a reservoir at an aluminum plant about 100 miles southwest of Budapest, Hungary. The sludge, a hazardous-waste byproduct of aluminum manufacturing killed at least four people and severely injured some 120 more. Several are missing.
One Hungarian official called this an “environmental disaster.” Yet, according to industry representatives in the U.S. and Europe, red sludge isn't toxic.
If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it's because on Dec. 22, 2008, more than 1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash sludge burst through the dam of a waste pond at the Tennesee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn. There has been fierce debate since then over the need to regulate coal ash — but the EPA has yet to decide whether to regulate it as toxic waste.
Not toxic? Isn't that the assurance given about red sludge?
Tell that to the people who were burned to the bone. And tell emergency workers wearing masks, rubber boots and chemical protection equipment: there’s no need to don all that gear! And furthermore, assure environmental experts fearful that the spill could kill the fish and ecosystems of the nearby Danube River — causing irreversible damage — no worries, this sludge can do no harm!
There are two very different stories unfolding in news reports. One from the people on the ground: residents who are nursing burns, mourning destroyed possessions and searching for loved ones; rescue workers who are doing their job while fearful of the health effects of dealing with the sludge; government officials bracing for the arduous aftermath of this debacle. The second comes from industry representatives who claim this toxic waste is nothing more than “clay-like” soil.
In one story scientists confirm the hazards of ingesting red sludge and yet a few sentences later, the plant’s owner is quoted saying that red sludge is not considered a hazardous waste with the following disclaimer tacked-on: “according to European Union standards.”
By any standard, no one would drink a cup of red sludge any more than they would sip from a glass of water tinged with coal ash. If you need to wear masks and gloves just to handle these materials, that’s a clear sign that impoundments existing near people are just not safe.
How many more of these environmental disasters will it take before we realize that hazardous waste is, uh, hazardous?